Don't Let An
Addiction To Food Ruin Your Diet
Thousands of people who are overweight eat too much because
they are addicted to food - not just any food but specific types. Food can be as
addictive as drugs, and your irresistible urge to eat could be the craving which
is wrecking your diet. If you are hooked on food, then until you break that
addiction your slimming efforts will be doomed to failure. There are two main
types of food addiction - psychological and physiological. I'll deal with the
psychological form first because it's the simplest.
To a very large extent our eating habits are created by
circumstances. If, when you were small, your parents rewarded your good
behaviour and good deeds by giving you food, then you will have grown up to
associate particular types of food with praise and with feeling happy. Millions
of people love eating sweet things because these are the types of food that
parents most commonly give as a reward.
When a mother gives her child
sweets because he has been `good' or allows him to have his pudding only when he
has eaten up all his vegetables, she is training him to associate food with
behaviour and to learn bad eating habits that will probably last him a lifetime.
Similarly, parents may instil a hatred of certain foods by forcing children to
eat them. For example, if your parents made you eat cabbage even though you
didn't like it and didn't want to eat it, you will almost certainly still hate
cabbage and associate it with unpleasantness, unhappiness and general
(Incidentally, if your parents had given you green vegetables as
a reward and made you eat sweets as a punishment, you would now very probably
love spinach and cabbage and hate eating anything sweet!)
This type of
food addiction is produced by a process known as conditioning and it can be very
difficult to break. It is, indeed, this sort of bad eating habit that is the
cause of a great deal of obesity these days. We all have an appetite control
centre in our brains and if, from childhood, we are allowed to eat what we want,
when we want, and in the quantities we want, then by and large we do not put on
excess weight. Experiments done with children have shown that the appetite
control centre is quite capable of deciding for us what foods we should eat and
when we should eat them. Unfortunately, the parental conditioning that most of
us go through destroys that natural ability and leads us to confusion and
Parental conditioning isn't the only active force, of course.
We are also subjected to many other pressures. Women, in particular, are
constantly under pressure to achieve the right shape and the right size. For
most of the twentieth century the `ideal' female shape as advocated by fashion
designers and trumpeted by the fashion press has been slender and boyish. This
type of coercion, when accompanied by other social and parental influences, can
eventually result in the development of conditions such as anorexia nervosa and
bulimia nervosa. These are not addictions but disorders linked to our general
attitude towards food.
One of the foods most commonly used for comfort
eating is chocolate. Advertisers have for years taught us to associate chocolate
with childhood and with happy times. So it is perhaps not surprising that
addiction to chocolate is one of the commonest of all food addictions. But
chocolate addiction is not just psychological - there is also a strong chemical
or physiological element to this type of addiction.
Over the last few years I've had countless letters from
chocolate addicts. Inevitably, perhaps, they have all had a weight problem -
chocolate is, after all, extremely fattening.
As I've already explained,
many people get hooked on chocolate because it is the food which we most
commonly learn to associate with feeling `happy' and `contented'. Look at
chocolate advertisements and you'll see that they invariably support that
association. The words `chocolate' and `love' are never all that far apart. So
when we're feeling lonely, sad or bored we often buy chocolates to cheer
ourselves up. Subconsciously we think we're buying love, affection and approval.
But that's only the psychological aspect of chocolate addiction. There is also a
chemical element to the addictive process.
This was first explained a few
years ago by three experts working at New York's State Psychiatric Institute.
They had discovered a natural substance in the brain called phenylethylamine,
which is rather similar to the amphetamines. It is this chemical which in
normal, healthy humans is responsible for the highs and lows of being in love.
We feel good when we are in love because the amount of phenylethylamine in our
brains is unusually high. The pleasure we experience is rather similar to that
felt by an amphetamine user. When a love affair comes to an end we suffer the
sort of low feeling that is common among amphetamine users when they stop taking
their drugs. People get hooked on chocolate because it can even out the ups and
downs of everyday life - and because it is readily available at a relatively low
Scientists used to think that chocolate was unique in being a food
that can cause a genuine type of physical addiction. Today, however, scientists
recognize that it is perfectly possible to get addicted to many other types of
food. The ones which most commonly cause problems include corn, wheat, milk,
eggs and potatoes, and the addiction these substances produce is similar in
quality to the type of addiction produced by alcohol.
people who get hooked on particular types of food almost invariably end up with
a weight problem. The strange thing is that, if you're suffering from this type
of food addiction, it is almost certainly because you are allergic to the food
that you're hooked on! If you feel that there are one or two particular foods
which you can't do without, there is a very good chance that you passion for
them is hiding a powerful allergy reaction.
Scientists now know that it
is possible to be allergic to a particular type of food in exactly the same way
that a hayfever sufferer may be affected by pollen or a penicillin-sensitive
patient may be allergic to that drug. The normal symptoms associated with a food
allergy include lethargy, depression, exhaustion and irritability, but they can
usually be hidden or suppressed by eating the food that causes the allergy! If
that sounds difficult to believe, just remember that a patient can be protected
against the symptoms of hayfever by giving him or her a series of injections
which contain active ingredients from the pollen to which he or she is
Eating the food to which you're allergic disguises the symptoms
very effectively, and the patient simply feels that he or she has a weak will
and a strong craving for a particular type of food. Obviously, the richer in
calories a food is, the more likely it is to produce a weight problem. If you're
a wheat addict and you eat two extra slices of bread a day, in a year you'll put
on an extra stone in weight!
Researchers in America have shown that
people get hooked on food in much the same way that alcoholics get hooked on
alcohol. Indeed, when a number of American alcoholics were studied it was found
that they were allergic to corn, malt, wheat, rye, grapes and potatoes. It seems
possible, therefore, that many alcoholics drink too much because they are
allergic to the basic foods from which their favourite beverage is made.
How can you tell if you are a food addict?
Answer all these questions as carefully and as honestly as you can. If
you answer `Yes' to three or more questions, the chances are high that you are
suffering from a food addiction. Your problem may have a psychological or a
1 Do you enjoy food very much?
2 Do you ever get
cravings for particular types of food?
3 Do you frequently think - or even
dream - about food?
4 Do you have any allergies - e.g. hayfever, eczema or
5 Are there any foods which you eat most of these days?
Do you ever feel happier, more content or physically more at ease after
7 Do you get edgy or irritable if you go without food for long
8 Do you ever need to get up at night and nibble?
9 Have you ever
suffered from a food allergy in the past?
10 Do you ever suffer from a
headache if you miss your favourite food for a few hours?
How to deal with a food addiction
are a food addict, you need to deal with your problem now - otherwise your
attempts to diet will never prove successful. Here's how you can `kick' your
1 First you must identify the food to which you are
addicted. It may already be obvious. If not, every food that you eat at least
once every three days must fall under suspicion. Remove foods from your diet -
one at a time - for seven days at a time. Then reintroduce each food one by one.
If you are allergic to a food you will feel irritable when you go without it -
and you will develop unpleasant symptoms (for example a headache) within a few
hours of eating it again. I suggest you get your doctor's help before doing
2 Once you have identified the food to which you are addicted, you
may find it easier to cut down your consumption of it in easy stages. So, if you
think you are a chocolate addict, cut down your consumption slowly over a period
of one or two weeks - just as you would cut down on cigarettes if you were
trying to stop smoking. If you're feeling braver, then you may be able to go
`cold turkey' and cut out chocolate completely overnight. But be warned! You may
suffer unpleasant side-effects for a few days.
Vernon Coleman's book
Food for Thought is packed with advice about healthy eating and dieting
and is available from the bookshop on this website.
Vernon Coleman 2007