Are Your Food Cravings Controlled, or Are You Addicted?

Are you having a love affair with your refrigerator? If so, are you a “foodie,” simply a selective connoisseur, or are you a junkie, who can’t get enough fast food and high carbohydrate, high sodium treats? If the latter describes you, it may be time to confess. Perhaps your passion is really an obsession.

It doesn’t matter if you are overweight or not. In fact, it doesn’t matter if you are technically considered obese. Standards can sometimes lie, and your eating habits may cause you to be at risk of cardiac disease and/or diabetes.

The Body Mass Index (BMI) is calculated by dividing body weight in kilograms by height in meters squared. The World Health Organization (WHO) has set a BMI of 25 or more to indicate individuals who are overweight and more than thirty as obese. However, a 1996 study published in Obesity Research indicated that, although Caucasians with a 30 BMI have 25% body fat, Asians have a higher fat percentage. Thus, some people with a BMI as low as 20% can be considered obese when judged by percentage body fat. �¹

Some of the reasons for the escalating percentage of fat in Asians lie in the consumption of more high-fat, high-sodium and low-fiber foods. Asian cultures are more likely to consider food a reward, and a large body can be seen as an indicator of prosperity. They are also genetically more likely to store fat, especially around the waist.

An example of what body genetics can do when they run amuck can be witnessed on the small island of Kosrae, located in the Pacific Ocean between Hawaii and the Philippines. Kosrae was a poor island, cut off from the modern world. For centuries, the only visitors were whalers and missionaries. Its inhabitants often faced famine conditions, and their bodies adapted. Then, suddenly, they were introduced to foods that are known addiction triggers.

Americans began to come there, using the island for military activities, and brought the worst of a 1950s diet: Spam, turkey tail and white rice. Rates of obesity soared. In 1994, 22.2% of those between the ages of 45 and 64 had type 2 diabetes. Researchers have studied these people, but the only conclusive evidence they have reached is that the BMI is not an optimal indicator for diabetes or obesity.

So, what causes a food addiction that leads to decreased health status, and how can you stop or prevent it?

Food addiction is characterized by a loss of control. Due to desire for a particular food or type of food, and increased, or decreased, habits of consumption, an addicted person can no longer stop his pattern. That is because the food addict is obsessed, either by his remembered sense of pleasure or comfort from food, or by his weight and body image.

Cravings occur when the food addict attempts to cut down or cut out consumption of food that triggers an obsessive reaction. The cravings can even cause symptoms of physical and emotional withdrawal: tremors, cramps, depression, self-hatred, and self-abuse. The addict becomes preoccupied with finding sources of food that can result in his feelings of pleasure and comfort.

This preoccupation can cause secondary results: bingeing, bulimia nervosa, or anorexia nervosa.�²

Contributory Causes of Eating Disorders
What can we do to stop these addictive orders from occurring? First, we must understand what causes them. Some studies are showing promise. In 2002, the U.S. Department of Energy’s Brookhaven National Laboratory found that not only the eating of certain foods can elicit pleasure or comfort, but the mere display of them to a food-deprived subject, where they are allowed to smell and taste, but not eat, can elicit the same response. Ã?³

The researchers used positron emission tomography (PET), a brain-scanning technique, to measure dopamine levels in ten food-deprived subjects. Each person in the study was given an injection a radioactive chemical “tag” that binds to dopamine receptors in the brain. The PET camera picks up the signal and measures the level of tracer. Since the tracer competes with dopamine for binding to the receptor, the amount of bound tracer can also determine the amount of dopamine. The greater the amount of bound tracer means less quantities of dopamine.

Study subjects’ brains were scanned four times over a two-day period, with and without food stimulation. Methylphenidate, the generic form of Ritalin, was also used because it is known to block the reabsorption of dopamine into nerve cells. The researchers wanted to see if it would increase dopamine levels.
Subjects were allowed to smell and view foods that were their favorites. They could also taste a small portion on a cotton swab. The researchers found that food stimulation with oral methylphenidate produced an increase in extracellular dopamine in the dorsal striatum. This shows, for the first time, that the dopamine system in the dorsal striatum plays a role in food motivation in the human brain and its feelings of pleasure and reward.

Other causes for eating disorders are:

� Environmental conditions-An individual from being able to distinguish between hunger, satisfaction and other feelings. These behaviors, while partially physical, are also partially learned at a very young age. Poor childrearing, for instance, can interfere with normal responses.4

� Hereditary conditions-Addictive problems are more common in families where others exhibit symptoms. Children of overweight parents are also more likely to become overweight as well and more often get eating disorders.

� Gender roles-Social attitudes play a role also. Women are more likely to be raised to worry about what society thinks and what others expect regarding body image. Women are also more likely to lack the ability to follow-through with voicing feelings and needs.

� Overeating and fasting-Both can stimulate the reward center of the brain.

� Abnormally low weight-Becoming too slim, whether intentional or not, may lead to a disorder.

� Low assertiveness and low self-esteem-Although a low feeling of self can cause food addiction, it can also result from it, causing a never-ending cycle.

Food Allergy and Intolerance

Some people may think they are food addicts, when in reality, they may either be allergic or intolerant to food, or they may be both allergic/intolerant and addicts. The truth lies in looking at the cause of weight gain and whether a person can stop overeating.

Common foods that may cause allergic reactions are shellfish such as shrimp, crayfish, lobster, and crab; peanuts; soybeans; tree nuts such as walnuts; corn; milk; wheat; fish; and eggs. In Asian countries, rice is often a prominent allergen.

A person who is severely allergic to a particular food is unlikely to become addicted to it because, in continuing to eat it, he may become too physically uncomfortable, become acutely ill or die.

True food allergies involve the body’s immune system response to the offending food(s). The immune system produces immunoglobulin E (IgE) antibodies to fight the allergen. This causes histamines and other chemicals to be released, and they cause the signs and symptoms of the reaction.

One potential fatal allergic reaction to foods may include anaphylaxis, characterized by a sudden drop in blood pressure. It must be treated quickly, and individuals who know they have a severe allergy are wise to carry anaphylaxis kits, as prescribed by their physicians, for self-treatment. Different reactions can occur depending on the individual. Any major organ can be involved. Cerebral allergies may have symptoms such as hyperactivity, depression, headaches or schizophrenia. A pancreatic malfunction may cause hypoglycemia. Allergic reactions manifesting themselves in the blood vessels may cause edema or vasculitis. 5

Other less reactions that could still become critical include: an initial itching of the mouth, vomiting, diarrhea, pain, hives, eczema, and asthma.

Water retention is probably the most common allergic reaction to food. If that food is eliminated from the diet, an allergic individual may lose a significant amount of weight due to rapid water loss, sometimes as much as five to ten pounds in one week. The body can also retain fat as a result of an allergy.

One Mill Valley, California physician, Dr. Michael Rosenbaum, saw one of his patients, who is allergic to dairy products, eliminate them from his diet and replace them with bread and beer. The patient was consuming even more calories, yet still lost ten pounds in one month without dieting. Dr. Rosenbaum believes that a food sensitivity exerts an effect on the limbic portion of the brain, in which the control centers for emotions, memory, body temperature, blood pressure, sleep, hunger and thirst lie.

Dr. William Philpott, a clinical ecologist from Oklahoma City believes that frequent contact with a food allergen can raise the brain opoid enkephalin, a naturally occurring narcotic in the brain that can become addictive.

If one has a food intolerance, the individual can more than likely eat small amounts of offending foods without reaction. Common causes of food intolerances are: 6 absence of an enzyme needed to properly digest the food (an example of this is lactose intolerance, where the person lack an adequate amount of the enzyme lactase. Lactose intolerance can cause bloating, cramping, gas, and diarrhea); irritable bowel syndrome, where certain foods may bring on cramping, constipation and diarrhea; food contaminated by a toxin and mimicking an allergic reaction, and recurring stress that can make an individual sick by the mere thought of certain foods.


Once any possibility of a sole food allergies or intolerances have been eliminated as offenders, and the individual is diagnosed as a food addict, treatment should be initiated. It can work, but the treatment must be tailored to meet the needs of the specific addict. Treatment usually follows the 12-step program used for treating other addictions such as alcoholism, combined with educational programs which explain the disease, abstinence, compliance, relapse prevention, etc; individual therapy with a psychotherapist; group therapy; and family therapy sessions to bring the unit together as a cohesive unit to combat the disease and make all parties realize about the disease and the best way to support the addict.

Through the use of combined treatment options, the addict, properly trained and supported, should be able to meet his goals of restoring healthy eating patterns and healthy body weight, identifying emotional issues and stressors that can trigger symptoms and relapse, developing coping strategies, and continued activity to support and achieve long-term recovery.

Food addiction is a very serious disease, and only with proper assessment and treatment, can an addict be restored to lead a healthy and happy life.



Also known as compulsive eating, bingeing is an eating disorder in which a person is unable to control the amount he eats. He usually eats faster than normal, and when he gains weight, he feels remorse and tried to lose the extra pounds, but usually ends up gaining back any weight loss plus adding on a few more he didn’t have. These habits often cause relationship and/or work problems and decrease self-esteem. If repeated dieting doesn’t work, the binge eater may stop trying and become depressed.

Bulimia Nervosa
This condition takes binge eating to a whole new level. The person suffering from the disorder will follow bingeing episodes by trying to purge the body of all he just ate. He does this by either self-induced vomiting, use of laxatives or diuretics, strict dieting or not eating at all, rigorous, over-the-top exercising, or misuse of insulin when he is a diabetic. The bulimic individual exhibits the same personality traits of the binge eater, but is usually more withdrawn from family and friends and more secretive about his disorder.

Anorexia Nervosa
The anorexic individual has at least a 15% below normal body weight, is intensively fearful of getting fat and sees himself as being overweight. Females are often experience the cessation of menstrual cycles. These individuals usually have relationship problems and can’t express feelings well. Restriction of food allows them to feel numb with regard to their own emotions and gives then a sense of control. Anorexics can also have purging behaviors like the bulimics.

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