Do Foods Have You in Their Power?

Most of us try to eat healthfully. Worrying about food is kind of an American craze, but having diabetes[1] can mean taking food obsession even farther. We have to eat the right things, or else! But some foods seem to have other plans for us. Some food is so attractive that many of us can’t resist. Is that true for you?

In my book Diabetes: Sugar-Coated Crisis[2], I wrote that white sugar is addictive in a similar way to cocaine. It makes you feel good for a short while. Then it drops you down lower than before, so you need another fix. I learned about this from a book called Potatoes Not Prozac[3]. Author Kathleen DesMaisons, PhD, reported how her alcoholic and drug-addicted patients recovered only after they stopped eating sugary foods.

I got a lot of criticism for this claim from people who believed you couldn’t say sugar was addictive, or even habit-forming. So I was happy to read the best-selling book The End of Overeating[4], by David A. Kessler, MD[5]. Kessler doesn’t use the term “addictive,” but he calls modern foods habit-forming in about a dozen different ways.

Food scientists use terms like “craveability” and “irresistibility” to describe their foods. Their marketers will frankly admit, “We’re trying to get you hooked.” They do this by making food a source of pleasure for your senses: sight, touch (“mouthfeel”), smell, even sound (sizzles and pops.) All this anticipated pleasure excites you and motivates you to buy that food. And that’s before you even get to taste it.

Reading about these foods is the fun part of Kessler’s book — kind of like watching Diners, Drive-ins and Dives[6] on the Food Network. Everything is breaded, fried, sweetened, oiled, fried again, and then has sauce poured over it. I learned some surprising things, for example, about “breaded French fries.” Who would have thought of those?

After you swallow, the sugars and fats raise your endorphin[7] and serotonin[8] levels. They make you feel good, especially if you were feeling tired, stressed, sad, or angry before you ate. They give you a psychological reward along with the good taste.

Kessler says that the first five or ten times you eat a food like that, you are motivated by the reward. After that, it becomes a habit. You see, smell, or feel a cue in the environment, or you have a bad experience, feeling, or thought, and your “eat that food” habit is triggered. You don’t even have to think about it; your body knows how to do it. When a food choice becomes a habit, it’s not a choice anymore. It’s automatic, and it’s hard to break.

Is This Addiction?
Does this kind of habit formation constitute an addiction? According to Wikipedia[9], “In medical terminology, an addiction is…characterized by one of the following: the continued use of a substance despite its detrimental effects, impaired control over the use of a drug…and preoccupation with a drug…i.e. craving the drug.” Substitute “food” for “drug,” and these words describe many people’s relationship to food. We’re in a constant fight for control.

Addiction can also bring “tolerance” of a drug, meaning you need more of it to get the same effect. Addiction also may include physical dependence, meaning you go into some kind of withdrawal if you don’t take the drug regularly. Do these things happen with foods? I think sometimes they do, although Wikipedia says they are not “defining characteristics of addiction.” Certainly, if you go too long without food, you will get some nasty withdrawal symptoms!

Kessler’s book seems to focus on the “obsession” part. If you can’t stop thinking about food, if you worry about it all the time or think about the next meal while you’re eating the current one, you have the habit.

The last section of his book talks about changing these habits. I’m not sure this section is very helpful, but I’ll discuss it next week.

I think the concept of food affecting us emotionally and creating dependence (“habit” or “addiction”) is important. I would think that having such habits interferes with diabetes management. Have you experienced anything like that? Are there particular foods or restaurants that trigger you? And if it happens, how do those experiences affect your self-management? How do they make you feel? What do they do to your blood glucose?

  1. diabetes:
  2. Diabetes: Sugar-Coated Crisis:
  3. Potatoes Not Prozac:
  4. The End of Overeating:
  5. David A. Kessler, MD:
  6. Diners, Drive-ins and Dives:
  7. endorphin:
  8. serotonin:
  9. Wikipedia:

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