Can’t Get Enough
People often say that they’re addicted to a snack or a beverage. But how much of it is genuine addiction to chocolate, caffeine, sugar, or salty foods and how much of it is affected by external factors like a person’s mood? Is it genuine addiction or is it simply poor impulse control? What can a person do to control it?
In recent years, the idea that people can become addicted to specific types of food has gained more traction within the scientific community. It hasn’t been completely settled, but it’s being discussed as a legitimate issue more than ever. “There’s debate as to whether foods can be classified as addictive,” said Molly Kimball, registered dietitian at Ochsner’s Elmwood Fitness Center.
However, Kimball says that in her experience, she has seen people display signs of addiction towards certain foods. While one person can consume a small fun-size pack of M&Ms and be fine, other people will feel the need to eat pack after pack after pack. While gorging on chocolates would make many people sick, for a small subset of people, it can make them euphoric. She says the foods most likely to cause addictive cravings are foods like carbs with fat and salt (examples would be cookie dough or french fries), which can light up the pleasure centers of the brain that are also triggered by certain drugs.
Julie Fortenberry, a registered dietitian and owner of The Natural Weigh, says many of her clients have an emotional connection to carb-heavy foods like breads, potatoes, and pastas. These foods are staples of many childhoods and, as a result, people often turn to them as comfort foods. “When you can’t have them, you feel like you want them,” Fortenberry said.
Caffeine is something that is known to have addictive properties. A home brewed cup of coffee averages around 100 mg of caffeine. A glass of diet coke will have between 30-75. It is recommended that people don’t consumer more than 200-300 mg a day. If people start pushing that limit, they can develop a tolerance to the caffeine and need more of it to get the jolt they’re looking for.
How do you know you’re addicted to something? This can be a tricky area. “People may not realize they’re addicted to something until they try to get off it,” Fortenberry said. She says even dropping from four cups of coffee a day to two can have cause withdrawal effects in some people. If you’re unsure whether or not you’re addicted to a food or beverage, try to go three days without it and see if your body has withdrawal symptoms.
The Mental Aspect
Like all addictions, there is a psychological component to food addiction. People can turn to food as a stress reliever or as a means to reduce emotional pain. Some people might overdo it with a certain food or beverage when they’re under stress. They may feel they “need” something after a stressful day at work or as a way to cope with problems in their personal lives.
Kelley Hunter Ellis, LCSW, says that awareness is the first and often most important step in changing behaviors. If you feel like you might be addicted to do something, it’s a good idea to start keeping a food journal. Take note of what you’re eating, how much you’re eating, and when you’re eating it. Seeing what you eat in the context of your day can make you understand if you’re turning to food as a coping mechanism. Were you feeling lonely, angry, depressed, or stressed while eating a certain food? Also, people sometimes feel they’re addicted to a food if they’re not eating a healthy diet. If you’re eating nothing but junk, you likely won’t feel full or satisfied and will try to eat more junk as a way to compensate for that.
Ellis advises her patients to think about things they could do as an alternative to consuming the food or beverage they’re addicted to. Instead of sitting down in front of the TV and snacking away, consider going for a walk. Join a recreational sports league or take part in other activities as a way to relieve stress instead of eating or drinking. That said, human psychology is complex. Just as people are different, the intensity of people’s need for certain foods can vary. What works for one person might not work for someone else. If these simple solutions don’t work, then seek the help of a trained mental health professional.
People should pay close attention to how they feel. How do they feel before indulging in a food or drink? How do they feel while consuming it? How do they feel an hour later? How does it affect their quality of life? Sometimes, when people really think about it, they realize that they don’t even get any enjoyment from bingeing on a certain type of food.
If that’s the case, quitting cold turkey and avoiding that item forever is a real possibility. But for many people, they at least get a small amount of enjoyment from their favorite guilty pleasures. In most of these cases, it’s okay to treat yourself once in a while. “For most people, moderation is a better path,” Ellis said.
As mentioned above, your dependence on certain foods can sometimes (not always, but sometimes) be a sign that you are not following a proper diet. Kimball says most people do not drink enough water during the day. One of the first signs of even mild dehydration is fatigue. Upon feeling fatigued, many people will resort to caffeine in the form of coffee, soda, or energy drinks. If you’re feeling like you are addicted to caffeine, it might simply mean that you’re not drinking enough water during the day and are resorting on caffeine to boost your energy. Try drinking more water and it might help. That said, Kimball emphasized that it’s not necessarily a bad thing for a person to have a cup of coffee in the morning or a glass of soda during the day.
On a similar note, carbs aren’t entirely bad, but many people consume a disproportionate amount of carbs in their daily diets. People consume more carbs in lieu of protein and fiber. Protein and fiber will help keep you feeling fuller for longer. Some people can feel they’re addicted to things like cookies or salty foods because they’re consuming carbs and empty calories. They don’t feel full after eating them, so they eat more to satisfy themselves. You don’t need to ditch carbs entirely from your diet, but make sure you’re getting a good share of protein and fiber, too. This is especially true at breakfast, when people often overdo carbs. Try stirring protein powder into oatmeal or including eggs or egg whites in your breakfast.
Lastly, it’s best not to think of yourself as powerless to your food or beverage cravings. “Think that you are in control of food, not that food is in control of you,” Fortenberry said.