I sometimes hear phrases like:
- I only eat when I’m hungry.
- I don’t think of eating for fun.
- I don’t eat when I’m depressed.
- I don’t think of food until I am really hungry.
When I hear people say these things, I can’t help but feel envious. I wish that I only ate when I was hungry. I wish I could stop eating when I am no longer hungry. In my free time between patients, it’s not uncommon for me to search for new delicious recipes to try.
Actually, I can think of food all day long.
I love food. But am I addicted?
Research has shown us that there are certain criteria and symptoms that are associated with food addiction. I identify with the following three symptoms:
- Loss of control over consumption.
- Continued consumption or use despite negative consequences.
- Inability to reduce consumption despite the desire to do so. 🙋
Based on the criteria, I’m pretty sure that technically, I am addicted to food.
However, the reality is that I don’t get addicted to the healthier food options. In all my years of practicing medicine, I have never heard myself say, “I have an addictive pattern of eating broccoli and brussel sprouts.”
I have noticed that it is relatively easy for me to pick up 1-2 strawberries at an event, but I need more effort to only pick up 1-2 strawberries covered in chocolate at the same event. Similarly, I am not addicted to fresh grapes in their natural state, but I do know that wine can become addictive. Perhaps if we look at the type of food that is addictive, I can better understand my relationship with food.
My understanding based on science
In a study by the Public Library of Science (PLOS) One, researchers proposed that highly processed foods share properties with commonly abused drugs. Specifically, highly addictive foods and addictive drugs both usually come in concentrated doses and are rapidly absorbed by our bodies. The scientists suggested that highly processed foods have these properties because the added fats and refined carbohydrates they contain are rapidly absorbed into the system causing what is called high glycemic load.
The glycemic load (GL) of food is a number that estimates how much the food will raise a person’s blood glucose level after eating it. One unit of glycemic load approximates the effect of eating one gram of glucose.
Studies have associated processed foods with a higher GL and have found that they come with an increased risk of developing diabetes, heart disease, and some cancers. Data also suggests that eating foods with a low GL, like whole foods and less processed foods, helps control blood sugar and insulin levels.
Through reading such research, I have come to understand that processed foods are foods that are modified to increase the density of refined carbohydrates and fats they contain. This means that processed foods inherently have increased density which will translate into a concentrated dose in my system. Such processing will also cause my blood sugar levels to spike due to the rapid rate of absorption. Both mechanisms (concentrated dose and rapid rate of absorption) have been implicated in other addictive disorders, including substance abuse.
Armed with this knowledge, I have started to understand why certain processed foods have so much power over me. They come in high doses and my body absorbs them quickly.
Take milk chocolate bars as an example. They contain high levels of sugar in the form of glucose (meaning they are highly concentrated) which results in sugar being quickly absorbed or expedited into my bloodstream when I eat them. On the other hand, food in its natural state, like a fresh watermelon, contains sugar but is not stripped of its fiber, protein, and water content. Those are the contents that slow the rate of absorption in my system. The addictive potential of food is higher when it’s processed. 😬
I remember during the brutal heat of summer days in Baghdad, my mother always asked my father to get us watermelon. We loved watermelon but it had nothing to do with sugar or food addiction. It had everything to do with needing the refreshing hydrating effect watermelon had on her and my eight brothers and sisters! I love both chocolate bars and watermelon, but I’m not worried about a watermelon addiction!
The trick is to learn more about the food I want to eat
If I feel like I fit the criteria of being “addicted to food”, I am not thinking of it as an addiction.
Instead, I just need to learn more about the addictive qualities in processed food. I realized that the more I learn about processed foods, their addictive properties, and the mechanisms they share with substances of abuse, the more it helps me to change the relationship I have with food, leading to better decisions about what I eat.
I have found that knowledge is power, especially when it comes to the food I eat.
As I study processed foods and their ability to be more appealing than the whole fruits and vegetables in my shopping cart, I have learned to see them differently. The more I learn about the actual food and its impact on my health, the more it influences and changes my “connection” with food.
When I think about food not in terms of its taste or my desire for it, but in terms of its nutritional value, I start to become more aware of how to make better food choices. It’s one thing if I crave a cookie. But, it is another story if I crave one cookie and end up eating the whole bag without realizing the impact it will have on my health.
Let me be clear, it’s not about not eating something. I am not a fan of restriction. I don’t like to tell myself that I “can’t” eat certain types of foods. But the more I know about the lack of nutritional value in processed foods like cookies, candy, chocolate, and donuts, I find that I don’t gravitate toward them as much. And when I understand the science behind how these processed treats share traits of addictive drugs, I look at them differently.
When it comes to food specifically, I know that I can eat anything every once in a while, like have a piece of my boy’s birthday cake, or drink a glass of wine on a when the Steelers win.
I don’t want to lose awareness of how processed food is made and the link between processed food and substance addiction. I remind myself all the time that most fast food is highly processed food. When I remind myself of this, I won’t go through the drive through as much regardless of how convenient it is.
Science may suggest that I am “addicted to food” and that may be true. However, when I better understand the mechanisms and the connection between processed food addiction and other addictive disorders, my eyes are open and I am more aware about the food choices I make for myself and for my family.
I am not addicted to broccoli and brussel sprouts, and that’s not a bad thing.