Is eating unhealthy an addiction?
Despite our best intentions, it is very hard to eat healthy nowadays. Let’s be honest, the unhealthy choice is, more often than not, the more enjoyable one. Given the option of a nice big bowl of spaghetti and meatballs drenched in a sauce that is often loaded with sugar and eaten with a side of garlic bread and a glass or two of wine; or the healthy option which would be tucking into a grilled chicken breast with a green vegetable salad and a glass of water: Well, we all know which meal the majority of the population would want to pick.
The same is true of snacking. What do we usually reach for to quell the afternoon hunger pangs? A chocolate bar or a bag of crisps or a muffin? Or the healthy option which could include a handful of almonds or some carrot sticks or a hardboiled egg?
Traditionally, the advice has been to be disciplined – after all, food is primarily for nutrition, and not every meal has to be a decadent and enjoyable experience. However, the reality is that it is just not that easy. There’s a reason we reach for these foods, and it is mainly down to the pleasure centres in our brains.
These are not foods, these are drugs
Much like addictive drugs, certain foods trigger the release of the feel-good chemical dopamine. Over time, this chemical release creates a reward pathway, which equates eating these foods with feeling good. The comparison with drug addiction may seem excessive, but we assure you it is not. Food addiction is very real, and those dopamine-releasing foods go to work on your brain much like cigarettes, alcohol or cocaine would.
While studies out of the US have suggested 5%-10% of the population has food addiction, that is all very dependant on how you define “food addiction”. If you ask me, pretty much every human exposed to the Western diet full of grains and sugars and processed foods will quickly become addicted to this type of eating, because every snack and meal gives us that familiar “lift” that comes with spiking our blood sugars and getting that dopamine release.
Needless to say, food addiction is usually closely linked with obesity. Or another way to put it: Because we cannot stop eating these bad foods, we have naturally become an obese society. And it is important to note that not only are small amounts of these foods bad for us, but it is very hard to eat small amounts of them. That’s because these foods have the effect of getting us to eat far beyond the point of being satiated.
Many experts would go so far as to say that the food industry has gone out of its way to engineer these foods to get us to want to eat more and more – and more – of them. Chemical flavour enhancers and ridiculous amounts of added sugar have a very predictable result, and we – and our poor children – are, dare we say it, powerless. Specifically, what we are powerless to is something referred to by the industry as the “bliss point” (aka, addiction point).
The result? Obesity rates have doubled over the past decades and continue to rise. In the UAE, 66% of men and 60% of women are overweight – more than double the global average. Sadly, as the “rewards” of eating poorly are often hard-wired into our brains, almost all of us stick to poor dietary patterns despite the obvious negative consequences – which include putting us at a much higher risk for developing non-communicable disease (NCDs) including heart disease, diabetes, and cancer.
And to harp on this point just a bit, many physicians believe that more than 50% of the global population now have “insulin resistance” caused by poor eating habits, and that this is the underlying cause of most chronic disease.
The one-day health eating challenge
Can we get out of this pattern? It is hard. Different techniques work for different people, but to make a significant change will essentially come down to being highly disciplined. First off, know what is bad. For me and my clients, that is anything outside of the Paleo way of eating.
Now the “Paleo Diet” is just a term for what I consider healthy eating. Let’s put it in its absolute simplest terms: Paleo foods are natural foods. Meat and fish, vegetables, fruits, nuts, seeds, eggs, healthy oils, and water.
Getting people to eat like this all the time – which means giving up all those dopamine-releasing comfort foods – is something we have to work towards. One particular tactic I like to start people off with is single days of 100% healthy eating.
The benefits of just one day of healthy eating can be felt almost instantly, and it is this which then becomes the driver to turn perfect eating days into a more consistent way of healthy eating over the long term as you strive to find a balance that works for you.
Hippocrates, the father of modern medicine, said, “When a patient is sick, treat with diet first – if that doesn’t work then use medications.” Today, if can be assumed that Hippocrates would say something along the lines of: “When a patient is sick, he or she likely became that way because of the Western diet. To treat the symptoms, use medicines. To cure, use Paleo.”
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Graham Simpson, MD is Chief Medical Officer and Founder of Intelligent Health, a preventive medical centre located in Jumeirah, Dubai. He graduated from the University of the Witwatersrand Medical School in Johannesburg, South Africa, and is board certified in Internal Medicine and Emergency Medicine. As a founding member of the American Holistic Medical Association (AHMA) Dr Simpson is also a licensed homeopath.