America’s obesity epidemic usually is blamed on poor dietary decisions, but a growing body of evidence suggests that the root cause is our addiction to processed foods—hot dogs, soda, sugary breakfast cereals, potato chips, etc.—and that affects how we should go about trying to lose weight. Some people have a hard time believing that we can become addicted to food, but consider the facts…
Brain scans of obese people indulging in processed foods reveal the same neural activity seen in drug, alcohol and other addicts—deactivation of brain regions related to inhibition and reasoning, coupled with hyperactivity of rewards pathways. Overeaters’ relationship with processed foods mirrors the American Psychological Association’s 11 symptoms of substance dependance listed in the fifth edition of the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders. Experiments have shown that sugar—a primary ingredient in many processed foods—has an effect on rodent brains similar to that of morphine.
While the research is less extensive, experiments suggest that other common processed-food ingredients might have a similar effect, including gluten and flour products, excessive amounts of salt, nonsugar sweeteners and trans fats.
Convinced yet? Here’s a six-step plan to help you determine if you or someone you love might be addicted to processed food and what to do about it…
- Determine if your eating habits fit the symptoms of addiction. The following statements are based on the American Psychological Association’s symptoms of addiction. If even just two or three apply to you, you might be addicted to processed foods…and the more that apply, the more serious that addiction.
I regularly eat more than intended. Maybe you think, I’ll have one and then eat the bag of chips…or I’m not stopping for fast food, then you stop anyway.
I have tried to cut back without success. You diet but regain the weight.
I have spent a lot of time getting food, eating and recovering from eating. Food has an outsized place in your schedule.
I experience cravings or urges to eat processed food. It’s normal to feel a bit hungry as dinner nears if you missed lunch…but yearning for processed foods throughout the day isn’t normal.
My eating makes it hard to fulfill my roles at home, work, school, etc. Indulging in a vice even though it’s making it difficult to complete your obligations is a sign of addiction.
I have relationship problems because of my eating. Has someone you care about begged you to eat less?
I have given up important work or social activities to eat. You could have gone with your grandkids for a hike in the woods but decided to stay home to feast on leftovers in the fridge.
I eat even when it’s hazardous or dangerous to do so. This might include eating while driving in traffic, for example.
I eat in spite of knowing that it’s causing me health problems. These might be physical health problems or psychological problems such as depression.
I eat to feel better—but I need to eat more to achieve the feeling I want.
I eat for reasons other than hunger, such as boredom, fatigue, loneliness, anger or depression.
- Learn to identify addictive foods. When people are watching what they eat, they tend to scan ingredients lists and track calories. Problem: There are far too many troublesome ingredients with long chemical names to remember and avoid them all.
What to do: Rather than worry about each ingredient and calorie, group foods into addictive and nonaddictive, and then avoid the former.
How to determine which foods are addictive: If a food looks like it did immediately after being removed from nature, it’s probably unprocessed and nonaddictive. But if it looks like it’s been created in a factory or lab, it’s probably processed and addictive. That means items from the produce, butcher and seafood sections of the supermarket usually are safe choices, while anything found in boxes or cans in other aisles usually isn’t. And yes—this includes packaged processed foods that are marketed as “diet foods.” They might have low calorie counts but almost inevitably contain addictive ingredients.
Surprising: Dairy products such as milk and cheese seem healthy and natural, but they contain casomorphine, a naturally occurring peptide that studies suggest is addictive. After all, milk is meant to help baby mammals rapidly pack on pounds—it’s not something nature intended adults to consume.
- Remove processed foods from your life. Some people can go cold turkey and eliminate processed foods overnight. But most people prefer slow, steady modifications.
What to do: Remove one processed food from your diet each day. Start by eliminating processed foods that you consume only occasionally and won’t miss much—starting small can create a sense of progress toward a larger goal without feeling overwhelming.
- Make it difficult to make eating mistakes. If you constantly convince yourself not to eat processed food, you’re likely to fail. Instead, arrange your life so temptations are less common, particularly during the first few months. What to do…
Restrict availability. Processed foods should not be where you can easily reach them. Completely remove them from your home and workplace if that’s possible—and when you remove an item from your diet, also remove it from your kitchen. Unfortunately, this isn’t always an option—you might share your living space or workspace with someone who doesn’t want to do without these foods. If so, at least keep these items out of your reach and out of sight. Examples: Perhaps the people who share your living space would be willing to store their processed foods in a separate closet or locked box in the kitchen…or perhaps your coworkers could exclude you from group e-mails announcing when snacks are available in the break room.
Avoid activities and places linked in your mind to processed-food consumption. If you always eat a hot dog when you visit a local park, avoid that park…if you shovel unhealthy food into your mouth when you sit in front of the TV, take up a hobby that keeps your hands busy.
- Cultivate negative mental responses to processed food. When tempted to eat processed food, don’t tell yourself that you can’t have a food you want. Instead, tell yourself why you don’t want it. Examples: Think, I don’t want that—it makes me feel unhealthy or I don’t want that—it’s ruining my life. These negative mental responses might not feel accurate at first, but they will gain power as your rational frontal lobe begins to regain control from your brain’s rewards pathways.
6. Spend time with people who eat unprocessed foods. Humans are likely to behave the way we see the people around us behaving—our brains contain cells called mirror neurons that respond to the actions we see performed by others as though these were our own actions. Result: It is much harder to overcome food addiction when we spend time around people who eat unhealthy processed foods and easier when we spend time with people who eat right. Seek out healthy eating support groups in your area or online.