I’ve called this post ‘Why you are addicted to food’ because a very high percentage of my clients and readership tell me they are.
Stress, Anxiety, Overwork, Exhaustion, Loss of Reward, Perfectionism and People-Pleasing combine to provide fertile ground for the development of addiction.
Food addiction is widespread because:
- we must eat to live;
- food is plentiful, cheap and easy to access (aren’t we lucky?);
- modern processed food is designed to be highly addictive;
- food addiction is comparatively socially acceptable;
- there are cultural and social pressures to eat more;
- processed foods push your hunger hormones out of whack;
- hunger invites anxiety;
- most addictive foods give satiety and an insulin spike, which soothe stress and anxiety;
- avoiding food addiction requires conscious effort and discipline
Unless you have very intentional food protocols, chances are you’re addicted to some food/s. If you have stress, double that.
What is addiction?
When I was looking at definitions of addiction, I came across a large number of very subjective views, so I have chosen good old Wikipedia.
Addiction is a brain disorder characterized by compulsive engagement in rewarding stimuli despite adverse consequence The two properties that characterize all addictive stimuli are that they are reinforcing (i.e., they increase the likelihood that a person will seek repeated exposure to them) and intrinsically rewarding (i.e., they are perceived as being inherently positive, desirable, and pleasurable).
We do something repeatedly and compulsively because it gives us a perceived benefit, even though there are nett negative consequences for us.
My current view is this:
The perceived benefit of many addictions isn’t CREATING a good feeling, it’s AVOIDING a bad one.
Addiction escalates through diminishing returns and by reinforcing avoidance of that negative emotion.
I’ve been interested in the mechanics of addiction for a long time. I myself have demonstrated highly addictive tendencies and although I have given up the more obvious addictions – obvious in the sense that they are less socially acceptable – I am left with food urges that still require vigilance. In my case: sugar, starch and chocolate assert the strongest pull, but I do notice the tug of coffee, cheese, salt, some fatty food and (the chemicals in) protein bars and processed food. Of course, processed food is designed to be addictive.
These days I live on a largely refined sugar- and gluten-free diet, based around vegetables, protein and good fats, with minimal processed food.
Burnout. Long-term stress.
I had a long list of physical symptoms such as cramps, aches, pains, insomnia, brain-fog, poor memory, low mood, exhaustion, lack of physical energy, constant hunger, tension, infections, frequent injuries, poor immunity, muscle weakness and tremors.
Diagnosed with myotonic dystrophy, a very serious muscle-wasting disease, I started my gut health journey. This diagnosis was later overturned, but symptoms of nutritional deficiency remained. I was literally starving my body of the nutrients – vitamins, minerals – it needed to function. I had leaky gut, allowing systemic inflammation and disease to develop. It had reached my brain, affecting my cognitive function, memory and mood. It took me years of testing, research and dietary experimentation to understand, but it seems that my gut microbiome was severely depleted of ‘good’ bacteria. Malabsorption deprived my body’s systems of required micro-nutrients. For example, magnesium, vital to over 300 processes in the body.
I had created this scenario myself, with long-term stress.
Beware the flogged adrenal system.
Stress, adrenaline and digestion
If you’re running on adrenaline more often than not, your digestion will struggle over time, because it’s not designed to operate under stress. If you have frequent diarrhoea, this may be a clue. With adrenal over-use, tissue repair, sleep and digestion are compromised and the immune and other self-regulation systems can’t perform well. Even if your stress merely triggers snacking, this has a negative effect on your digestion, as it reduces its rest cycle.
Stress and exhaustion snowball, tempting us to eat addictive foods like sugar and starch, which deliver quick sugar energy and have a sedative effect that reduces stress and anxiety.
What can go wrong
So, if you experience chronic stress to the point of burnout and add food addiction, you invite:
- A compromised digestive system that barely functions, even when your adrenals are turned off (parasympathetic nervous system)
- Chronic inflammation which is a factor in many diseases such as Alzheimers, dementia, Type II diabetes, heart disease, cancer, asthma, autoimmune, coeliac, hepatitis, IBS, gout, arthritis and many more
- Insulin regulation issues or insulin resistance. Perhaps the most damaging aspect of this. If you consume excess sugar, starch and processed foods these will nudge you towards obesity and diabetes. Sugar and starch (which is just unrealised sugar) spike insulin, which triggers fat storage in your body
- Hormone and immune system dysregulation
- Circulatory problems
- Fatty liver disease
- Cognitive impairment – concentration, problem-solving & memory
- Mood disregulation
- Leaky gut – which allows toxins to cross the blood-brain barrier
Leaving aside the non-digestive effects of stress, if stress triggers food addiction, the result over time can be devastating. Please don’t assume that all your food is nutritious. Big Food (the food industry) fills us with chemicals of addiction in every processed food. And many other chemicals, e.g. guess what preservatives in food do in your gut? They prevent decomposition aka digestion.
The good news 🙂
It’s rarely too late to improve your digestion. Neuroplasticity, neurogenesis and epigenetics are your friends – you can alter your gene expression, diverting the course of illness; you can rewire your brain at any time until you die; you can replace lost brain cells. I mention all of these because part of recovery will be dealing with food addiction.
Scientists previously believed that some organs, e.g. the liver and brain, do not regenerate once damaged. Now we know this is not true – your body can bounce back. Although some diseases may not be curable, even Type II diabetes can be sent in to remission with diet, exercise and weight loss.
For anyone unconcerned about diabetes, read this:
I spent four weeks in a four-man ward in hospital last year after a road accident. The patients were mostly obese men suffering diabetic complications, often including heart disease. In the first three weeks, two patients had leg amputations. One was my age.
Here’s what you can do for your own health:
- Get professional nutrition advice and improve your diet, eating schedule and water consumption
- Cut back alcohol and coffee
- Learn to rest, relax and meditate
- Take regular exercise
- Introduce pre- and probiotic foods (ferments) to rebuild your gut microbiome
- Test your guts to find out what needs fixing
- Take pressure off your system by eating simple un-processed food and fasting longer overnight
- Get a coach, to help you build new habits
I’m begging you to look after your guts. The alternative is just not fun.
If you have unmanaged stress, I can help.
If you have unmanaged food addiction, I can help.
The emotions you’re avoiding with food are not going to harm you.