Don’t let food addiction hijack your best dietary intentions.
"Everything in moderation” is a time-tested idea that many people strive to apply to their lives. For those struggling with food addiction, however, it is a notion that could not be further from everyday reality. Also known as compulsive overeating, food addiction far exceeds the occasional midnight snack—it is a vicious cycle that involves consuming far beyond what the body needs, leading to weight gain, guilt and depression, then more eating to self-medicate.
Although some compulsive overeaters snack, or “graze,” throughout the day, bingeing—consuming thousands of calories in one sitting—is the most common form of the disorder. Whereas a bulimic person will purge after binge eating, a compulsive overeater will not, often resulting in obesity. This has serious ramifications on body image, so the food addict tends to become more and more withdrawn—perpetuating the harmful pattern.
Dr. Neal Barnard, founder of the Physicians Committee for Responsible Medicine in Washington, DC and adjunct associate professor at George Washington University School of Medicine, points to four culprits—“sugar, chocolate, cheese and meat”—asserting they are “probably the only addicting foods.”
As Barnard, author of books that include Breaking the Food Seduction (St. Martin’s Griffin) and Eat Right, Live Longer (Three Rivers Press), explains, “The problem with sugar is that it is almost always mixed with grease. Cookies get maybe half of their calories from sugar, but the other half comes from shortening or butter, so the problem with sugar in foods is that it’s a Trojan horse. The sugar attracts you, but lurking inside is all that fat.” Recent research at Princeton University found that rats fed a high-sugar diet felt withdrawal symptoms like those cut off from nicotine—a “sugar rush” may be aptly named.
Like sugar, chocolate tends to work as a delivery system for fat. Barnard notes that women are somewhat predisposed towards chocolate, while men often can’t resist meat.
While anyone who has ever craved a cookie or hamburger won’t be shocked by the addictive qualities of sugar, chocolate and meat, cheese might seem an unlikely candidate for addiction. “I’ve often found that people are surprisingly attached to cheese...more than milk, even more than ice cream,” Barnard says. “Cheese is very high in casein, an animal protein. And casein breaks down in the digestive tract to produce casomorphins. They are a very weak opiate, but the most potent of them has one-tenth the power of pure morphine.” They are produced in the body as casein breaks apart. So for those eating Gouda with their Chardonnay, it’s not just the wine that goes to the head.
Bad and Good Carbs
Barnard lets one usual suspect of food addiction off the hook—carbohydrates. There are carbohydrates, he observes, in beans, yams, strawberries and pears. “But you’ve never ever heard anybody say, ‘I’ve eaten six pears, and I can’t stop.’” Fresh fruits and vegetables contain natural sugars and fibers that take time to work through the body, so nutrients are properly absorbed, leaving a greater feeling of being satisfied, unlike the empty calories of junk food.
Although food addiction has gained ground in recent years as an accepted concept, some doctors and scientists dismiss the idea of labeling compulsive overeating an “addiction” like alcohol and drugs. But Barnard defends the terminology, saying people with unbridled cravings “miss [foods] very much when they are gone. They are clearly on a daily cycle.” This overeating routine often dictates every part of the day, hindering other aspects of life.
Barnard heartily endorses a vegan diet to fight compulsive overeating. He encourages plenty of rest and eating regularly “so that you don’t have hunger aggravating your cravings.” He emphasizes “a low-fat, plant-based diet” and recommends foods that don’t cause blood sugar to rise and fall dramatically: beans, rice, pasta, vegetables and fruits. Breakfast is key—people who arrive at work hungry see “that chocolate in the vending machine as a whole lot more attractive. So have your big bowl of oatmeal before you leave home.”
While some studies show that supplements—including chromium, a mineral found in many multivitamins—can help curb overactive appetites, Barnard doesn’t recommend taking supplements solely for food addiction. He does encourage them, however, “for dietary completeness. Principally vitamin B12, since there are not many vegan sources of [that] vitamin.” A good multivitamin can provide further nutritional support, Barnard adds, while whole-food concentrates can supply an abundance of healthful phytonutrients.
A vegan approach can inform day-to-day eating choices if they incorporate natural foods that lead to a full sensation, including leafy greens and fiber-rich nuts and grains. Another fine appetite suppressant: water. Staying hydrated increases the body’s metabolism, maintains healthy skin and creates a satisfying feeling of fullness, meaning fewer trips to raid the fridge.
As Barnard reassuringly notes, “It’s easier to pull away than people imagine.”