We’ve looked at the legal drugs caffeine, nicotine and alcohol; today we’ll look at highly processed ready-meals and snacks or ’junk food’. While junk foods are not classified as drugs, any food high in sugar or a sugar-fat combo exaggerates responses to stimuli to such an extent it can be very difficult to turn away from them.
Junk foods are not there for people’s convenience: these cheaply made foods are carefully made to make people want more by formulating the combinations of sugar, salt and fat to create ‘bliss points’ of taste and texture.
Eating junk food not only titillates the tastebuds, it affects the brain. The brain chemical dopamine plays a large part in cravings and addictions; in fact, it underlies our motivation for most of the things we do, including eating. As with drugs, we follow these steps:
- We eat a manufactured food that’s high in sugar and fat (such as a doughnut)
- The taste, mouth feel and blood sugar hit cause an exaggerated dopamine release
- Higher dopamine levels lead to the person wanting more of the same
- Eventually, merely the associated stimuli (such as the smell of a doughnut or the sight of the shop that sells them) will cause dopamine release, making the person cave in and buy ‘just one more’
- As with drugs, repeated consumption dulls the ‘Mmm, I’ve had enough response’ so the person is driven to eat more to get the same levels of pleasure
Junk foods not only trigger cravings, they also stimulate fat storage, which can culminate in obesity and several other health problems. However, compulsive eaters are not ‘lacking willpower’ or ‘lazy’.
Instead, they are a junk food manufacturer’s dream: being hypersensitive to food cues and deriving less-than-normal pleasure from eating real food makes them prime candidates for getting hooked onto the products.
As with drugs, you can’t just tell a person to give up the food(s) they are addicted to; first, they must recognise the problem and want to stop it.
Even then, while sugar cravings have a physiological side that can be broken within weeks, if a person doesn’t understand and address any cognitive and emotional motivations behind the food addiction, the problem won’t be solved.
Cutting out sugar and preparing and eating real food from fresh ingredients will help physiologically; hypnotherapy and similar can help find the causes of the addictive behaviours.
Jacqui wrote this 400-word article for the Jersey Evening Post, 30 September 2020.
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Jacqui Carrel helps people with addictions. You can book a free, no-obligation call to see if we can work together on your issue.