Food Addiction / Carb Cravings
Addiction to food and craving for sweets are common problems that may lead to poor nutrition and obesity. There are many reasons why people may want to eat more than others do, and end up less satisfied, even with more food intake. A lot of studies have been done both in animals and humans to explain why people have food addictions and carbohydrate (carb) cravings, but experts have different opinions on these, based on their own research and observations. Some believe that these are just habits or rituals some people develop in life, like those who want to have tea with biscuits at a certain time of the day, every day. Others say that some people learn early in childhood, to tame their emotions, especially anger or frustration, by taking a sweet snack. An external event that leads to depression may trigger some individuals to use food to comfort themselves, and the cycle of cravings never stops.
However, some research shows that food cravings may be a reflection of a chemical imbalance in the brain. Studies suggest that a decline in dopamine levels in the brain may trigger a strong need to eat. Dopamine is a neurotransmitter (a brain chemical that sends messages to the cells) that is associated with pleasure from getting a “reward,” in this case, eating certain foods. Just like morphine or other addictive drugs, eating some foods can give a certain “high,” which triggers the release of the feel-good chemical, dopamine. These sensations usually override the feelings of real fullness or satisfaction that one usually obtains from eating meals, so that he tends to eat more than what his body actually needs.
Others studies also suggest that another neurotransmitter, serotonin, may be involved. Low levels of serotonin in the brain are associated with depression, poor concentration, and a decline in mood. In some individuals, eating carbohydrates can improve these symptoms, and carb cravings have therefore been linked to the body’s response to low serotonin levels.
Symptoms of Food Addiction
People are often considered to be addicted to eating if they demonstrate these symptoms:
- They keep eating even when they are not hungry.
- They eat more than they plan to eat, especially with certain foods.
- They eat even it makes them feel ill.
- They are concerned about not being able to eat a certain type of food.
- They go out of their way to obtain a particular type of food.
- They would eat often and in large amounts, even if it means missing work or spending time with family or other leisure activities.
- They may avoid situations when a certain food is available, which may tempt them to overeat.
- They have problems at work or in school related to overeating.
- Cutting down on certain foods may lead to anxiety, agitation or other physical manifestations.
- Eating causes guilt, anxiety or depression.
- They need to eat more to increase pleasure or reduce negative feelings.
- Eating the way they usually do does not bring them the same pleasure anymore.
If you are experiencing these symptoms, you may need to evaluate yourself and seek help, because food addiction can lead to chronic diseases such as obesity, heart disease, stroke, and even cancer. It may also result in low self-esteem, self-loathing, and depression.
How to Manage Food Addiction
A person who is addicted to alcohol or drugs may be able to avoid, and ultimately stop taking them, then lead a new life. However, a person who is addicted to food may have more difficulty in managing his cravings because eating is part of his daily routine. To start on your road to recovery from food addiction, it may be helpful to seek help from a doctor, a psychologist, or a nutritionist who is experienced in dealing with this type of problem. Some of the ways you can stay away from compulsive eating include:
- Joining a support group such as Food Addicts in Recovery Anonymous.
- Instead of going to the refrigerator, take a 5-minute walk to boost your serotonin levels and elevate your mood.
- Use your creativity to celebrate happy occasions by doing activities that do not involve eating.
- Practice meditation and yoga to de-stress and take your mind off eating.
- At social gatherings, focus on talking to people and stay away from the table where food is served.
- Plan on what foods and how much you will eat, and stick to the plan.
- Stay away from eating processed, sugary, salty and fatty foods. Eat more nutrient-dense, fiber-rich foods such as fruits, vegetables and whole grains.
- Keep a daily food journal to increase your awareness of your eating habits.
- Complementary and alternative therapy such as aromatherapy, massage therapy, and acupuncture may also be useful in relieving stress and reducing carb cravings.
Withdrawal from food addiction does not produce symptoms that are as bad as those resulting from alcohol or drug addiction. However, people who are trying to overcome their poor eating habits may find themselves backsliding because of occasional bouts of depression or lack of energy. Experts believe that this is an expected event, but just like other types of addictions, they believe that it is better to make a clean break from the foods one craves than to just take them in smaller amounts.
This information should not take the place of medical advice. We encourage you to talk to your health care providers (doctor, registered dietitian, pharmacist, etc.) about your interest in, questions about, or use of dietary supplements and what may be best for your overall health.
WebMD. Food Addiction.
Rehabs.com. Understanding Nutrition in Addiction Recovery.
WebMD. Craving Carbs: Is It Depression?
WebMD. Break Your Food Addictions.