The junk food junkie. Who doesn’t know one? We all have heard people who laughingly refer to themselves as ”junk-food junkies” as they dip into a plate of brownies for the third time at a party. But for many it is no joke. To the serious food addict those brownies can be more irresistible than gold.
The food addict is awed by the person who pushes back his or her plate with a portion of cake remaining on it with a remark, ”It’s just too rich to finish!” Such a feat is beyond their comprehension. If a desired food item is in the house, whether it be fried cheese curls, chocolate kisses, or sugar-laden soda pop, the food addict knows exactly how much is left, where it is, and cannot stop thinking about it until it is gone – ”down the hatch,”that is.
Many food addicts have a Jekyll and Hyde relationship with food. They make many rules to avoid overeating the rich dainties they constantly crave; rules that they can not keep.
Not everyone who overeats is a food addict. Food addictions involve the compulsive use of food to improve mood and the loss of control over the amount consumed despite adverse effects. Food addicts are often obsessed with food, preoccupied with weight and appearance, and progressively lose interest in other activities because of their preoccupation with food.
Psychological and Behavioral Aspects of Food Addiction
The following illustration depicts a typical behavior associated with food addiction – that of setting rules about food and eating and then breaking those rules only to set a new ones, which are in turn, also broken.
Rule 1. Before you enter the store, you decide you definitely will not buy a bag of your favorite binge food.
Rule 2. In the store, you find yourself in front of your binge-food section. You decide to buy the bag. (Rule 1 broken.) But you compensate by making a new rule:” I’ll only eat three pieces.”
Rule 3. You tell yourself you will not open the bag and eat those three pieces until you get home. But you watch the clerk to see which sack he puts your special bag in. When you get into the car you rummage through the sack, find the bag, and hold it in your lap as you start the car. You open the bag. (Rule 3 broken.) As you drive out of the parking lot, you eat three pieces. You stop at the light.
Rule 4. You decide to eat just three more pieces. (Rule 2 broken again.) You eat four more pieces. (Rule 4 broken.)
Rules 5 through 11. You keep making new rules and breaking them until the bag is empty.
Food addicts are in a strange predicament. They generally are not seen as real addicts, and often they themselves don’t understand they have a real addiction that causes very real changes in the brain.
Food addicts can be isolated, driven, and controlled by their addiction as are drug abusers. Indeed, it is hard to imagine how anyone can develop an obsession over something as commonplace as a cinnamon swirl donut or a triple fudge sundae. People who relate normally to food often send subtle but demoralizing messages such as, ”Why can’t you eat just one of those – your sister does.” ”You would be so pretty if you would just lose weight.”The food addict is obsessively preoccupied with certain foods and often does not understand the problem as an addiction. Like a drug addict fixated on narcotics, the food addict’s hopes, dreams, and goals are often overruled by a relentless obsession to eat compulsively, secretly and excessively, often until it hurts.
While not all people who have emotional problems become addicts, addictions destroy normal brain functioning, and for that reason all addicts either have or develop emotional problems as a result of their addiction. Addictions occur more readily in individuals who have unmet needs for love, security, or happiness that they have not learned to deal with in a constructive ways. And once those addictions, emotional problems are on the way, because addictions are isolating, disabling, and destructive by their very nature.
Although separate disorders, overweight and food addictions are overlapping and related. All food addicts are not overweight, nor are all overweight people food addicts. But poor eating habits are hard to kick, even though they make you feel bad, drain energy, and cause weight gain. Many overweight people are enslaved by habits they know are harmful to their health, and many food addicts suffer from overweight or other eating disorders such as bulimia or compulsive overeating.
According to the World Health Organization (WHO), ‘‘Obesity is becoming one of the most important contributors to ill health.” In fact, it is the second leading cause of preventable death in the United States.
Unfortunately, these weighty problems are not confined to adults. It is estimated that 22 million of the world’s children under age 5 are overweight or obese. In Africa overweight and obesity coexist with malnutrition. In fact, there are regions where obesity afflicts more children than malnutrition does – up to four times as many.
In Britain, youth obesity rates have increased 70 percent in just 10 years. One third of Italian children are overweight as a result of a cultural shift away from the Mediterranean-type diet combined with a decline in physical activity. Obesity is associated with more than 30 serious medical conditions. New research shows that obese children rate their quality of life with scores as low as those reported by young cancer patients undergoing chemotherapy.
A study conducted by Dr. Jeffrey Schwimmer indicates that ”the likelihood of significant quality-of-life impairment was profound for obese children.”
Clearly, obesity is a complex, multi-factor chronic chronic disorder involving environmental, genetic, metabolic, behavioral, and psychological components. Many researchers, including John Hewitt of the Institute for Behavioral Genetics at the University of Colorado, believe there is a strong genetic link to childhood and adult obesity. But Dr. Hewitt also states that ”changes in energy expenditure have brought about a significant increase in the prevalence of obesity.”
Scientists believe that those with a genetic inclination to obesity have a constitution that is more susceptible to environmental triggers. Some of those triggers are easy access to calorie-dense food, and energy-saving technologies such as TV, Internet, remote-control gadgets that discourage movement, and the sedentary lifestyle they may promote.
Excessive intake of highly refined foods over-develops brain circuitry involved with the sensory processing of food, especially the mouth, lips, and tongue. This enhanced sensitivity tends to make the taste experience of eating these foods even more rewarding, and may be a factor in excess food consumption among the obese or binge eaters. Calorie-dense refined foods such as fries and fudge may be tasty, but they do not fill you up and keep i satisfied because of their low fiber content. Replacing junk foods with satisfying high-fiber plant foods can help tame over-stimulated palates, curb cravings, control weight, and train taste buds to enjoy the natural flavor of fresh fruits, vegetables, and whole grains.