Lately I have been reading a lot about food and brain chemistry, and about how food – especially certain types of food – can cause responses similar to addictive substances and activities. The details explored by the research open a window into our basic primitive human side, deep in our evolutionary roots, and the question remains – How much control do we really have?
Is eating really addictive? It depends on whose definition you consider. It appears that eating certainly shares some of the brain responses of universally recognized addictions like drugs, alcohol, and sex, but it probably has a milder effect in most people. I believe that with conscious effort, we can exert some influence on our behavior. That is what a real choice is all about.
Still, I see a lot of suffering related to overeating and loss of control with food, and that – to me, anyway – is the most important factor. Perception is reality, and if lack of control with food causes you to feel miserable, what you call it is not important. It deserves attention, and I believe it can get better – maybe not all better, but much better.
Hope is visible in the research, if you look for it. According to a recent study on mice, availability of a food followed by removal of it for a while caused binge eating. When I read that study, I thought – Of course! It’s just like going on a restrictive diet and then bingeing on your forbidden foods. While the removal of them is voluntary (the self-imposed restrictive diet), when they are available again (usually again by choice, or possibly by accident), the bingeing phase begins. The mice didn’t choose it. In a very real way, you could say that people do – by choosing to unrealistically restrict quantities or types of food. Unlike mice, we control our own access to food.
The hopeful part of this study is in understanding that the self-inflicted scarcity of a restrictive diet can create addictive feelings for certain foods, or for food in general. This is not the only way that addictive feelings arise from eating, but it is a very common one in our diet-crazy, quick results society.
The obvious solution would be not to create the black and white feeling of good and bad foods in the first place! Take the judgment out of it. I believe there is only a supportive or unsupportive choice at any given time for any given person. That choice is very personal and will change with the situation. A truly genuine choice takes place in the gray area of real life – YOUR real life.
The chemical side of food may have something to do with out of control feelings too. There are questions about whether the taste or the caloric content of food plays with our neurotransmitters to create the pleasing feelings that certain foods produce. It probably makes very little practical difference, since the two factors most likely interact to cause cravings. It seems that our outdated biology reacts like the 4th of July when we interact with our highly stimulating food environment – full of processed fats, salt, and sugar.
Our bodies functioned well to keep us from starving long ago – thousands of years before the first McDonald’s. Triggers to keep eating made sense then. Starvation was a real danger. Nowadays, however, wanting to eat more for the fun of it is far more likely.
Still, there is hope in coping with the chemical side of our food, just as we can refuse to follow the latest crazy dieting fad. Being aware of the effect that excess sugars, fats, and salt can have on will-power, we can watch the way our bodies respond and choose to develop personal strategies that work most of the time. Yes, we still do have free will! It may not seem like it sometimes, when the leftover Halloween candy is calling from the drawer, but by accepting our human limitations – forget perfection! – we can make better choices with time.