How To Get A Grip On Food If You're An Overeater

Integrative Medicine Doctor By Sara Gottfried, M.D.
Integrative Medicine Doctor
Sara Gottfried, M.D., is three-time New York Times bestselling author and a graduate of Harvard Medical School and MIT.

Do you find it difficult to stop eating? Do you serve yourself a single square of chocolate, and ultimately devour the entire bar? Do you eat when you’re not hungry? Are you ashamed of the way that you eat, or do you eat in private?

It’s not your fault, and it’s NOT as simple as the suggestion I received from one of my doctors in my 30s: “Exercise more, eat less.” (Yeah, right!)

Fortunately, recent scientific findings are disrupting the way we understand and treat overeating, and finally offering real solutions.

Food addicts have a greater predisposition to find pleasure in eating certain kinds of foods, similar to drug addiction.

One of my most challenging clients, Phoebe, a 42-year-old freelance writer, struggles with binge eating. She joined my online detox earlier this year, and told me during our first call that she had researched everything about how to stop compulsive eating. But once she gets started with a binge, she can't figure out how to stop.

Like many people, Phoebe is a food addict, meaning she will continue to overeat and be obsessed with food despite negative consequences. Food addicts frequently find themselves in a frustrating pattern — chronically relapsing with alternating episodes of abstinence such as dieting or avoiding “bad” foods. Ultimately, they become stuck in an addictive overeating cycle. They are overweight or bulimic, or obese.

We used to think this was a problem of willpower, but now we know better. Recently, researchers from Yale and Harvard have shown that food addiction is a chemical dependency, no different than drug addiction. Whether it's genetically hard-wired or environmentally driven isn’t easily answered, but the most important point is to focus on arresting the addictive cycle, using what we know from treating drug addiction.

Even if you don’t feel like a full-fledged addict, keep in mind that you don’t have to be clinically addicted to food to over consume it. In fact, there are 50 shades of gray between "not caring about food" and "being addicted to it."

Is “Big Food” Out to Get You?

I believe corporate food production could be considered the “Big Tobacco” of the 21st Century. We are all the unwitting test subjects for their experiments in food addiction. (I consider “Big Food” to be the massive corporate players who manipulate food to make it highly addictive with a combination of sugar, fat, flour and salt. They include PepsiCo, Dole, Kraft, General Mills, and Nestle, and others.)

Modern foods are engineered to make us addicted to them, and to deliver as many combinations of sugar, flour, fat, and salt as cheaply as possible.

It’s tough for even the most disciplined eater to avoid the constant availability of snacks, huge portion sizes, fast food, and the enhanced taste experience of eating hyperpalatable foods. What's also discouraging is that with repeated binge eating, addictive feelings become more intense.

The Science Behind Cravings

Here’s the interesting part: the food you eat changes the structure and function of your brain, especially if you’re vulnerable, as I am. Research shows neurochemical similarities between substance dependence and binge eating of processed foods. Certain foods, such as sugar and fat, initiate addictive mechanisms in the human body similar to drugs like heroin or crack.

The commonalities between overeating and drug abuse feature shared neural and hormonal pathways, which helps explain why some people cannot stop eating, despite the obvious detriment to their health.

Addiction occurs when the brain’s reward system is overstimulated by hyperpalatable food. Like other pleasurable behaviors including sex and gambling, eating can trigger the release of the neurotransmitter dopamine. The chemical reward, in turn, increases the probability that the associated action will become habitual via positive reinforcement conditioning. If activated by overeating, neurochemical patterns can make feeding behavior hard to control. The modern food environment may raise dopamine just as high as drugs.

Solution: Food Rehab

My patient explained to me that she can feel a binge coming on. She tells me that she can feel her body craving “crap” food. Why? Because she fed it refined carbs and rosé all weekend, creating the perfect storm. Her hormones are in junkie mode and want their fix. Time to quiet the addictive metabolic cascade. Time for a good healthy dinner. Time for food rehab!

You can correct your food addiction through resetting your biochemistry. Armed with knowledge about your biochemistry and how the food industry is working against you can help you understand and smack down those addictive feelings and slay the hold they have on you.

It won’t be easy at first, and you must be diligent, but it gets easier as your brain transmitters and hormones reset. Addictions (including eating disorders) are multifactorial and need a multifactorial solution.

Nutritional therapy can be one of the most beneficial ways to win the war. We know that when you stop eating binge foods – particularly the processed foods that contain sugar, fat, and flour — you will dramatically reduce your cravings and addictive feelings.

The overwhelming desire for certain foods can be genetic, environmental, or most commonly, a combination of the two. If your environment is contributing to being a food addict, change it.

Understand that as a food addict, the food you reach for is designed to lead you astray. Break the cycle. Understand that your addictive feelings are biochemical and you need to give your body a fighting chance. Diet adjustments can make you more resilient in the face of food seduction. Strengthen that resilient muscle instead of relying on willpower. Your willpower doesn’t stand a chance against the addictive biochemistry of dopamine and its receptors.

You can do this, and I can help! I understand that food addiction is painful, very sticky and hard to stop, yet must be resolved before we can fine tune your other health goals. For more easy tips to balance hormones, and feel at home in your body again, get your FREE Hormone Survival Kit here.

Sara Gottfried, M.D.
Sara Gottfried, M.D.
Sara Gottfried, M.D. is three-time New York Times bestselling author of The Hormone Cure, The...
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Sara Gottfried, M.D.
Sara Gottfried, M.D.
Sara Gottfried, M.D. is three-time New York Times bestselling author...
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