What is a food addiction? Having heard several people explain their inability to lose weight due to this problem, I searched out the answers on (where else?) the Internet. It appears that there are “addictions” – and there are addictions. Apparently, being addicted to your grandmother’s strudel or your brother-in-law’s barbecue is one type of addiction to be put in the same category as your impulse to drive 40 miles to eat homemade ice cream or a fresh-from-the-sea lobster roll. But these are not real addictions because if they were, you would be driving to eat the ice cream daily, even when the temperature was colder than the treat.
Actual Food Addiction
Real food addictions, according to many so-called food addict experts, are more grim and relentless. If you are a food addict, you are unable to stop eating sweet, sometimes starchy, high-fat carbohydrates. Indeed, simply by consuming these foods, if you are susceptible, you will be thrown into the abyss of food addiction. If you have the misfortune or mindlessness to eat some refined carbohydrates, say some jelly beans or a piece of birthday cake, you will be assaulted by uncontrollable urges to continue to eat. You may find yourself eating the entire birthday cake or leaving the party to search out more carbohydrates. Eventually, unable to stuff any more food in your stomach, you will stop…but the longing and urge to continue to eat will remain. Not only will you experience a constant craving for more food, especially sugary snacks, you will, according to some food addiction websites, suffer from emotional, social and spiritual deterioration. (Curiously, television networks do not seem to realize the profound damage caused by eating excessive amounts of sugar, as evidenced by programs devoted to making incredibly decorated cakes, or people fighting over who makes the best cupcakes.)
The solution requires a life-long total abstinence from these addictive foods. Organizations like Food Addicts Anonymous exist to help people recover from their addiction.
Is it possible that for some, eating cookies or a slice of bread causes them to become food addicts? Maybe. But it is also possible that the reasons driving a compulsion to eat are more complex and have to do as much with psychological and physiological factors as swallowing a piece of bread. Binge eating disorder and bulimia, two eating disorders characterized by compulsive overeating, are associated with complex psychological problems, not a simple food addiction. Someone who weighs 750 pounds or more and cannot stop compulsive eating needs solutions to lose weight far more complex than eliminating flour and sugar. Self-described chocoholics (people addicted to chocolate) usually manage to eat normal amounts of ordinary non-chocolate foods most of the time.
Are there reasons people may find themselves with a compulsion to eat sugary carbohydrates other than the random digestion of a sugar cube?
Here are some situations that cause people to crave carbohydrates:
Antidepressants, Mood Stabilizers & Atypical Anti-psychotic Medication
People treated with antidepressants and related medications report intense cravings for carbohydrates, especially sweet ones. Why the medications cause these cravings is not understood. However, the cravings are recognized as a side effect of the medications, not a food addiction. When medications are stopped, the cravings disappear.
Women crave sugary carbohydrates toward the end of their menstrual cycle, right before menstruation begins, and for some it is all they want to eat. Their longing for these foods are so intense that a cartoonist named Boynton pictured a premenstrual woman saying ‘I could kill for chocolate.’ Is this an addiction? Doubtful, since women return to eating normally as soon as menstruation begins.
Seasonal Affective Disorder
A decrease in hours of daylight characteristic of late fall and winter is associated with a type of depression known as Seasonal Affective Disorder. A milder form is simply called the, ‘Winter Blues.’ Typically, the mood change is accompanied by an almost insatiable need to eat sweet carbohydrates; indeed, this is one of the ways this depression is diagnosed. But how can it be an addiction if it mysteriously disappears as soon as daylight increases, and is usually gone by late spring?
High-Protein, Low-Carb Diets
High-protein diets that forbid or limit carbohydrate consumption may cause a sugar addiction due to a decrease in brain serotonin levels. Serotonin, a neurotransmitter responsible for affective mood, appetite, and pain perception, is made only when the consumption of carbohydrates allows the brain to receive the tryptophan it needs to make new serotonin. Craving carbohydrates, like thirst when not enough water has been consumed, may be the signal sent to indicate that the brain needs to make serotonin.
Stress & Carb Cravings
Stress and carbohydrate consumption go together like peanut butter and chocolate. Studies in which people were given, covertly, carbohydrate or protein-containing beverages decreased their feelings of depression only after consuming the carbohydrates. This is probably due to an increase in serotonin production. People tend to self-medicate with carbohydrates to decrease the emotional discomfort of stress. If the stress doesn’t go away, neither does the carbohydrate consumption. Therefore a so-called food addiction may last as long as the stress. The best way to stop the overconsumption of carbohydrates, if indeed that is occurring, is to stop the stress.
Is that plausible, really?
Address The Stress Before Diagnosing Food Addiction
Our bodies and minds can certainly exist without the consumption of sugary carbohydrates. But let’s wait until there is evidence from a placebo-controlled, double-blind studies (neither the subject nor researcher know what is being consumed) that eating a graham cracker, a pancake with a drizzle of maple syrup or their equivalent in sugar grams is generating a food addiction. The situations that cause a craving for sweet carbohydrates such as depression or PMS are difficult enough without the additional burden of worrying that a few gumdrops are going to turn these eaters into addicts.