I am not sure if I am a food addict. If I set my mind to it, I am able to stop eating after a couple of cookies. I don’t usually obsess about food. But I do when I am on a diet. I end up feeling deprived. Then I crave food more than usual. I eventually end up ‘falling off the wagon’. Does this mean that I am a food addict? I need to loose weight – but how do I do this without feeling deprived?
Even if you are not a food addict, if you are on a diet that makes you feel hungry you are more prone to food cravings and relapses from your diet. To top it off, this is even worse if you are actually loosing weight. It is as if the body does not want you to loose weight, no matter how much you may need to.Resistance to weight loss occurs because a diet and weight loss both disturb the normal hormonal axis that regulates our food. Anyone on a diet, including the food addict, has to be conscious of this powerful hormonal system. To answer your question, you do NOT need to be a food addict to experience cravings and relapse. The food addict is actually dealing with a ‘double whammy’ of biological impulses. They must contend with their addiction to food AND to this biological eating / weight regulatory system. The phenomenon of food cravings rests on two biological processes, both of which can overpower willpower. Let me say first that will power has a limited shelf life. If you have been battling the desire to have food (or battling ANY impulse to do things like swearing, or rudebe haviours), eventually the battle to control your impulse caves. This is called ‘frontal lobe fatigue’. This typically happens at night, after a day of denying the many temptations that surround us. The best remedy for this is ‘out of sight, out of mind’. This is hard to do in a society that is constantly urging us to eat junk food.
Food cravings are biologically necessary for survival. Energy dense foods are pleasurable so that we will want to eat them. The pleasure of eating is a biological phenomena that is wired into us, and operates on at least two systems in the brain: the hormonal insulin/leptin pathway and the neurochemical reward pathway. Both operate in the primitive ‘unconscious’ part of our brain that governs our impulsive behaviour. Will power doesn’t stand a chance when both systems are fully aroused. I will discuss the hormonal pathway in this answer, since this affects everyone, whether or not they are a food addict. For more information on the reward pathway, see my website: additionsunplugged.com. The hormonal pathway is based on the insulin, leptin and gherlin pathways. Insulin is an important hormone that is necessary to transport glucose to the muscles and brain. When we eat foods, particularly sugars and refined flour, our insulin spikes as it attempts to transport the glucose. Once the glucose has been cleared, insulin drops. It is dangerous for the body to have too much sugar coursing through the bloodstream, hence more insulin is created to accommodate the excess.
Typically, the spike of insulin does its job too well and has clears the glucose too quickly. For many, this results in a deficit of sugar. We experience the hypoglycemic’crash’ of feeling foggy headed as our brain needs more glucose. We get cravings for sugar. As soon as we eat something sweet, we calm down. However, within an hour, we are back to craving sweets again.
Insulin is known as the ‘hunger hormone’. When you are on a diet, the blood glucose is low. Insulin will rise, intentionally making you hungry so that you will seek out food. The brain is expecting you to eat so produces a surge of insulin to deal with the food sure to follow the hunger. If you are on a diet in which you find yourself frequently hungry, your insulin levels are higher than they should be, and your desire for energy dense foods will increase. You may find that the small portion you have allotted yourself is not enough.
People who have abnormally high levels of insulin because of eating too much sugar or because of constant dieting, can actually become insulin resistant ie diabetic. Their insulin is unable to transport glucose to the brain, so that despite the abundance of glucose in the bloodstream, the vital organs are not able to use it. Sugar cravings increase as the brain is clamoring for glucose. The result: stronger cravings than ever, which can lead to bingeing as well as mood instability and fatigue. The likelihood of becoming insulin resistant or diabetic increases with obesity.
Another important hormone that regulates our eating behavior is gherlin. This hormone is released when the stomach is empty and prompts hunger. This works together with insulin to force you to seek out food, at any cost.
Perhaps an even more important hormone is leptin. This is our satiation hormone that is released by the fat cells. After about a half hour of eating, this hormone tells us that we are full. It is for this reason that a person is encouraged to eat slowly. Fat cells release this hormone so that a person will not eat more than their body and its energy stores (our fat) require. The more weight you carry, the more leptin you have. Leptin acts to dampen the rewarding impact of foods, so that we when we eat, the pleasure of eating diminishes the fuller we get.
Studies have shown that when a person looses weight, they become leptin deficient – hence the rewarding value of food remains high. If a person is loosing weight, the person seems to need more food to feel satisfied; it is as if the body will not let you feel satisfied until you are back to the ‘set point’ that you had before you started your diet.
One would think that an obese person would want to eat less, since people with more abundant fat cells also have higher levels of leptin. Leptin is stored in the fat cells after all. However, there is research indicating that the more obese a person becomes, in addition to becoming insulin resistant, they also become leptin resistant. Thus, they do not feel satisfied with their food intake, despite being physically full.
The best way that you can make this powerful hormonal system work for you, rather than against you, is to follow a food plan that:
- does not lead to excessive hunger
- to ingest foods that do not over-stimulate insulin like sugars
- to avoid foods that are highly rewarding i.e. like junk food. Even if you are not a food addict, you are not immune to the rewards of food, especially if you are hungry.
Relapses from diets can be prevented if you take special care, since you are tinkering with a primal system that is biologically wired to make you want to eat energy dense foods. And it is a system that is resistant to maintaining long standing weight loss.
All of this can occur to a non food addict. If you are a food addict, you must contend with these powerful hormonal urges as well as your addiction to food.
Small wonder that is so hard to stop eating junk foods – food addict or not. Our will power has emerged from more recent evolutionary forces that are no match for our older primal appetite.