Put away those chips and dip and sit down. Think hard and answer these questions as honestly as you can. Do you ever:
• Secretly binge on chocolate or other “sinful” treats?
• Feel guilty or overwhelmed by remorse after eating?
• Find yourself preoccupied with the thought of food?
• Have cravings all the time and eventually give in to them even when you’re not hungry?
It’s only normal for most of us to experience all these every once in a while, but doing so on a regular basis may be a sign you are addicted to food. While food addiction may not seem as powerful or dangerous as drug or alcohol addiction, it’s not entirely risk-free. It can also lead to health problems and other issues such as overweight, obesity and its complications.
For entrepreneur Carrie (not her real name), 32, food—sweets in particular—are what she calls her guilty pleasures. “I can eat cakes, pastries, chocolate bars for several days a week.” A typical day for Carrie starts with a couple of donuts bought from her neighborhood convenience store for breakfast, followed by three to four pieces of puto from the office food cart for a morning snack. She never skips dessert, she says, and has to have a big slice of cake after lunch. Afternoon merienda involves one or two Snickers or Nestlé Crunch bars, or another big slice of cake. Another chocolate bar serves as her appetizer for dinner. She says she has fruit for dessert after dinner, but indulges in “maybe a couple of brownies or a cream puff before I go to bed.”
Her sweet tooth has taken its toll on Carrie—the previously 134-lb., 5’4” single girl has ballooned to 201 lbs. The extra weight she’s put on through the years has worsened her asthma, sapped her energy levels and may have given her other weight-related complications that she has yet to face head on. “I get dizzy spells that I deal with by just eating,” she says. “My aunt says I should get myself checked for diabetes or some other condition. I know I should, but I’m afraid.” Carrie says she’s thought about doing something about her eating habits but finds that it’s not easy to do so. “I can’t help it. Masarap kasing kumain eh.”
ROOTED IN EMOTIONS
Experts say food addiction may not be about food at all. An addiction to food characterizes compulsive eating, which is, like other eating disorders, rooted in emotions. While its exact causes have yet to be identified, experts say emotionally-driven eating could be due to low self-esteem, feelings of inadequacy, shame, guilt and depression. Food becomes the refuge and eating, the coping mechanism.
Carrie describes herself as always feeling “on the edge, and quite uneasy,” although she can’t pinpoint why. “I give in to my cravings because, somehow, these foods calm me down.”
IT COULD BE BIOLOGICAL
Once overeating has become pathological such that it results in extreme weight problems or obesity, part of the underlying cause could also be biological in nature. Researchers from the US-based National Institute of Drug Abuse (NIDA) revealed that dopamine levels in the brain may influence addictive behavior. One study describes dopamine as “a neurotransmitter that acts in the brain and helps regulate feelings of pleasure and modulates the rewarding properties of food.” It suggests that the problem of food addiction or compulsive overeating could be, in part, involuntary.
Last June, NIDA researchers presented a study of cocaine users who experienced a surge in dopamine levels—which produced euphoria—after taking the drug. Repeated use of the drug, however, eventually reduced dopamine levels, which made the brain less likely to respond as before to actions that normally produced pleasurable feelings. The brain now required larger doses of the drug in order to feel rewarded.
Scientists also cite the effects of anti-psychotic drugs and metamphetamines on appetite—anti-psychotics block dopamine receptors resulting in increased appetites in its users, who eventually gained weight; on the other hand, metamphetamines increased dopamine levels in the brain which subsequently decreased appetite. These two drugs, however, are not practical treatments for those with food addictions or who are obese.
But this biological cause doesn’t mean there’s nothing you can do to curb the compulsion to overeat. You are not destined to lose control over your emotions and your appetite.
What the researchers found is that exercise is still an effective means of increasing dopamine levels which could suppress appetite. NIDA researcher Dr. Gene-Jack Wang, reported that “the most appropriate practical application of this finding is to urge overweight individuals to exercise. In lab animals, exercise has been shown to increase dopamine release and increases the number of dopamine receptors, which help quell the urge to pathologically overeat.”
Carrie knows what she needs to do and says she plans to make changes soon. “It’s a form of self-destruction, obviously,” she admits. “I know, I have to find out what’s really bothering me and do something about it. I’m not getting any younger. There’s still a lot more to experience in the world, and I want to be around, and healthy enough to be able to do that.”
1. You put food in your mouth without realizing it.
2. You experience intense cravings so much so that you’d risk being late for a meeting, missing a flight, going to the store in your pajamas or dragging your child out into the rain just to buy another chocolate bar or pint of ice cream from the nearest store.
3. You feel powerless, and cannot control your eating. You have a constant struggle with food and, to prevent yourself from overeating, you cut certain foods out of your life.
4. You eat when you’re bored, or feeling down; and you keep eating even if you are not hungry, or are already full. Most food addicts continue to eat even if their stomachs hurt.
5. You eat little in public, but binge in secret (in the car, in your room, in front of the fridge in a dark kitchen). If you don’t get to eat, you experience withdrawal symptoms such as irritability.
6. You feel guilty after eating. While that’s quite normal for most people after eating too many sweets, carbs, chicharon or any other food that you know is not good for you, those who suffer from food addiction are consumed by remorse.
7. You feel hurt or angry if someone close to you jokes about how much food you’re eating.
HOW TO DEAL WITH FOOD ADDICTION
1. Keep yourself busy. Having too much time on your hands can lead to mindless eating.
2. Keep healthy snacks within reach. Munching on nuts, hummus, vegetable sticks, fruit, even dry high-fiber cereal can make you feel fuller faster, and provide more nutrients such as protein and fiber.
3. Use smaller plates. This age-old tip still works—you can fill up your plate and still get smaller portions.
4. Avoid starving yourself. If you’re too hungry, you may not be able to make sound food choices and, thus stuff yourself with whatever is available. Food is your ally, not your enemy. You just have to learn to choose well.
5. Exercise. If hitting the gym isn’t your thing, find other activities you might enjoy. Sometimes a daily 30-minute brisk walk will do. Studies show that exercise can increase levels of appetite-suppressing dopamine in the brain.
6. Seek help. A therapist may be able to help you cope with overeating or deal with the emotional causes of your addiction. If you feel apprehensive about going into therapy alone, bring along someone you trust.