Don't Let An Addiction To Food Ruin Your Diet

Vernon Coleman

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.

1. Psychological food addiction
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 misery.

(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 distress.

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.

2. Physiological food 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 price.

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.

Not surprisingly, 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 allergic!

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 physiological basis.

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 drug allergies?
5 Are there any foods which you eat most of these days?
6 Do you ever feel happier, more content or physically more at ease after eating?
7 Do you get edgy or irritable if you go without food for long periods?
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
If you 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 food addiction:

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 this.

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.

Copyright Vernon Coleman 2007