Is Food Addiction A Real Thing?

Do you constantly dream of chocolate?
Get cravings for something sweet have you up at night raiding the fridge?With bad break ups – go right for the rocky road double chocolate chip ice cream?
Can’t say no to cheese? Or bread? Or pasta?

You’re not alone.

Most people struggle to eat healthy on a consistent basis and it isn’t because there is a lack of trying.  It’s much more than pure willpower.  

It’s a brain game.

Food addiction is definitely a real thing, with real changes in the brain. Unlike other addictions (drugs, gambling, etc.) food is something we MUST engage in on a regular basis.

So, even if you identify the problem, the trigger will always be there.  And like other addictions, it is severely misunderstood.

When you boil it down, there are a few key things every food addict needs to know about themselves, their environment, and what changes happen in the brain that continue to support the addictive behaviour.

First and foremost – wherever you are now – whether it be excess weight, or you have metabolic challenges like Diabetes, Metabolic Syndrome, or you love someone who is eating themselves sick  – know it is absolutely changeable.  

Sometimes we are quick to judge (especially ourselves) on how weak, stupid, and incapable we are.  

This could not be further from the truth.  You just haven’t had the opportunity or the right tools to heal.

In this article I want to go over some of the neurological changes we see in the brain that undermine your willpower, where this comes from, and tools you can start using immediately to heal.  

Addiction, by definition, is any behaviour that renders a negative outcome.  

Whether it is alcohol, food, gambling, technology, the addict will continue to engage in it, despite the negative consequences it renders.

The food addict is doing the same thing as the drug user.  They are both trying to stimulate the same chemicals in the brain that make them feel good.

From a behavioural perspective there are similarities that all addicts share:

  1. They have a compulsion to get something right away
  2. They will lie and overtime, undermine relationships that matter to them.

All addictive behaviour seeks to activate the pleasure pathways in the brain to release dopamine, serotonin, and adrenaline and oxytocin.  They feel, at least temporarily when engaging in these behaviours, that they are happy.

Someone who is addicted to food will, on a daily basis, seek food out as a way to soothe themselves, to calm down, or to help them feel temporarily happy.

Most often the type of food sought out is carbohydrates. More specifically, simple carbohydrates that are easily made into sugar by the body.  Sugars are a quick and easy source of energy, and offer an easy pathway to releasing serotonin and dopamine.

When we really get down to it, all addictive behaviours are a way of comfort ourselves.  They can help bring you down from anxiety, or bring you up from insecurities.

They are, in effect, an attempt to fill in the gap and replace our neurological need to connect with other people.

BUT

– and this is a big one –  

We are neurologically wired for human connection

Neurologically, we are still tribal.  

Back when we were foragers in hunter-gatherer, nomadic societies, being part of a tribe was literally a question of life or death.  

We needed to fit in to survive.  

The tribe protected us.  

As a group, there were people in the tribe responsible for food acquisition, others for building structures, others who looked out for predators, etc.

Someone who was in a tribe had a much greater chance of survival versus someone who was exiled.

Being exiled from the tribe was literally a life or death situation.

Our neurology is still unchanged today. We still have a primitive need to connect.  

When we have meaningful human interactions, it allows for healthy amounts of dopamine and serotonin to be released in the brain.  These are neurotransmitters that are responsible for feelings of happiness and joy.

When we do NOT have a tribe of people – be it family, friends, or people who just “get you”, that neurological, primitive need will go unmet and we will seek out other things to connect with. Things that will comfort us when we need it. To make us feel safe.

Enter food.

Comforting yourself with food, will excite and release the same neurotransmitters that we see in human-to-human bonding –  serotonin, dopamine, oxytocin.

Any behaviour we repeatedly engage in, at least from a functional neurology perspective, is downstream from real changes in the brain.  Another way of saying this is the behaviour (which is the symptom) is not the problem.  

The root cause of the behaviour is in the brain.

Looking at the behaviour only is looking at the manifestation of the problem.  Not the problem itself.

The food addict’s brain starts in childhood

In all addictive populations, changes in the brain usually start occurring in childhood.

Dr. Robert Melillo teaches extensively about unmet developmental needs, and its impact on the brain.  What we see first in these young children is deficits in learning and behaviour – labels like ADHD, OCD, and oppositional defiant behaviours are common.  Addicts usually have at least one of these developmental issues.  

Essentially, when a child grows up in a stressful environment –wherein the child is abused, or humiliated, or shamed, or disempowered in some way–their brain will stop developing.  

Literally. Their brain development stops.

Specifically, we will see a developmental weakness and lag in the frontal lobe.  The frontal lobe, and the prefrontal cortex (PFC) are involved in making good decisions, visualization, judgement, time management, thinking about the future, happiness, and moderating social behaviour.  

People who have not had the appropriate cortical maturation are more susceptible to poor coping methods when under stress –  because their prefrontal cortex is already weak.  

Just think of how stressful high school is and the coping mechanisms many kids fall into.

High school is a highly competitive environment, with incredible pressures to fit in, and just about everything and everyone is being judged. Harshly.

Combine that with newer stresses like social media, cyberbullying, with someone who has not had the appropriate brain development –  they are going to try and soothe themselves and numb the pain somehow.

This is where we see alcohol, drug use, and eating disorders develop.

When I first learned this it gave me a new perspective.  It is not so much that someone is born with a broken brain, but it has more to do with how a child grows up, what their environment is like growing up that will enable or disable addictive personality traits.  

It’s not a genetic problem, it’s an epigenetic problem.  

Dr. Bruce Lipton talks extensively about epigenetics.  It is not the genes that are awry, but the experiences those genes have growing up – that will determine the neurodevelopmental maturation in a child.  

Environment is everything.

So, it is not as simple as to say – get more willpower, or control yourself.  It is the subset of the population that through their experiences and environment will become addicted.

No one would ever say that because stores are open, we have shopaholics. Or, because we have offices, we have workaholics.  The same is true for food addiction.  Just because we have access to food is not the reason we have food addiction.

It is the environment that a child grows up in that will predispose him or her to addictive qualities or traits.

All you parents of toddlers are painfully aware of the potential of a 3 year old throwing a tantrum in the grocery store because he can’t have a toy.  

This is not because your child is a narcissistic jerk.  

This is an example of an underdeveloped frontal lobe, and what we expect from someone this age. They don’t yet have frontal lobe maturation, and their primitive pleasure centers will drive most of their will and behaviours.

With time, your frontal lobe matures, which is why we don’t often see 25 year olds on the floor kicking and screaming when they don’t get what they want.  

A child growing up in an environment where they have been humiliated, disempowered, or had their dignity taken away will turn to things like food (or other addictions)  to help them cope, and to soothe them. The child assumes, consciously or unconsciously, there must be something inherently wrong with them.

Part of our approach to care then is to reframe the assumptions the child – now the adult – has made about themselves.

As children, we completely depend on our mothers, fathers, teachers and community leaders for our survival.  We look to them for food, for love, for shelter, and what the world around us means. They show us our place in the world. We assume what people tell us about ourselves must be true.

As adults, we seek out to replay these “truths” in every aspect of our lives.

So if you’re told you’re not good enough, smart enough, capable enough, not pretty enough, or not enough in some way, there will be a neurological pattern that develops and solidifies in the brain.

Once this pattern is established, our motivational and emotional centers in the brain seeks to replay it because that is safety.  It is what we know to be “true”.

No matter what the pattern is.  

Good or bad, your brain will play it out, because it is familiar, and safe.  Even if self sabotaging and moves you away from what you want as an adult.

If I can geek out on the neurology behind this for a moment with you…

With normal frontal lobe function, we have areas in the brain like dorsolateral prefrontal cortex and nucleus accumbens that help regulate more primitive areas in the brain like amygdala and motivational areas in the brain like orbitofrontal cortex, ventral striatum, and dorsal striatum.

Another way of saying this is we have a “parent” brain (DLPFC, nucleus accumbens) and a “toddler” brain (amygdala, motivational centers).

With childhood trauma, the “parent brain” is weak, because it has stopped developing. It therefore will have weaker influence on the “toddler” brain which is the primitive pleasure desire driven centers.

Big Food is Working Against Us

In the book The Pleasure Trap, the authors discuss how we are neurologically wired to seek pleasure, avoid pain, do so with greatest economies of energy.

The food industry knows this pleasure trap well and preys on your desire to seek pleasure (great tasting food), avoid pain (hunger), and do so in an efficient way (so you don’t have to sit and hunt an animal, bring it back to the tribe, and cook it).

Think about it.  You can get into your car now, and for most of you reading, within 10 minutes, you will find a drive through fast food joint.  

You drive up to a window, shout into a box what you want, drive to the next window, and a nutrient deficient bag of toxic garbage is tossed into your window.   

BUT WAIT – THERE’S MORE!

It’s filled with fat and sugar (pleasure), and is fast (avoiding pain of going out and hunting for it) and easy (energetically efficient).  

A triple whammy.

You better believe the marketing geniuses in big food companies are aware of this pleasure trap.

It’s not just drive-throughs that prey on us.  Think of the microwave meals, the frozen dinners, the fast foods joints that are abundantly available. They all want your business, so they line their foods with sugar and other chemical warfare, and hope they can make a repeat customer out of you.  

The end game is to get your brain addicted and wanting another ‘hit’.

Changes in brain

What we see, over the course of addiction, is two different presentations in the brain:

Early stages of addiction

Initially, motivational centers are strongly trying to activate the dorsolateral prefrontal cortex (DLPFC).  The DLPFC is involved in setting up visions of the future, and goal setting.

In early stages of addiction, we are trying to control addictive behaviors via the DLPFC.  The food addict is trying to exercise judgement, regulation, and self control.

They might feel bad or guilt for what is going on and try to stop it.  

Later stages of addiction

Over time, the weak DLPFC loses control over more primitive areas of the brain.

Essentially over the long term, there is a split that happens between DLPFC and these desire-driven centers. These connections can dissolve over time.

If you have heard the saying “neurons that fire together wire together”; the reverse also is true:

Neurons that fire apart wire apart.  

When the DLPFC goes offline, what you have left is primitive, desire driven behaviour.   We see this in drug addicts, tech addicts, porn, gambling, technology, and in sugar and food addicts as well.

Now what I DO NOT want is for you to throw your hands up and say That’s it! I’m neurologically wired for fast food drive throughs and microwaves dinners.  

That is absolutely not why I’m sharing this with you!  

You need to understand how you have been preyed on, lied to, and stolen from.  Because what has been stolen is your health.

I’m here to give it back to you.

For us to have a better understanding of why the behaviours are showing up in the first place, we need to heal your brain.  Behaviours are never the problem.  Behaviour is just a symptom of a larger brain-based problem.

The really great news is your brain is an adapting organ, and we can change the way your brain operates through appropriate interventions.

Clinical considerations for brain healing can look at a whole host of modalities.  They all involve getting the frontal lobe healthy, or ‘flexing the frontal lobe’ as I like to call it. My favourite strategies are physical rehabilitation, metabolic rehabilitation, mindset, and stress management.  

Often all of them, depending on the person:

Physical rehabilitation

Physical rehab is really all about activating and getting the frontal lobe back online.  

First, I look at how the brain is controlling vitals. Heart rate, bilateral blood pressure, heart rate variability, pupil symmetry, oxygen saturation, eye movements, posture, balance, proprioception, and the vestibular system.  

Physically, evaluation of your posture, balance, coordination, and proprioception is a great window into the health of your brain.  Things like forward head carriage, head tilt, balance, motor strength, flexibility, gait, all will give us an understanding of how your brain perceives the world, and the compensations it has to make in order to function.

Eyes, as they say, are truly the windows to the soul.  

It is also the window to your frontal lobe.

In particular looking at how your eyes fixate on a target, and follow said target using only your eyes.  We will look at how your eyes watch an object as it gets closer and further away, and of course we look at reflexes that should be there, and ones that should not.

Balance and proprioception have direct inputs to the frontal lobe, and most modern lifestyle contribute to weak coordination and feedback because we are sitting all the time!  Another post is in the works for this, but sitting is truly the new smoking.

Stress Management

One of the biggest detriments to frontal lobe function is perceived stress levels, poor sleep, and/or excessive use of technology.

Being in a state of stress, or sympathetic dominance inhibits our ability to move in to a parasympathetic state.  A very simple model of our nervous system is akin to the mechanics of the accelerating and braking system in a car.  

The ‘gas pedal’ is your sympathetics.  It is the go-go-go, hustle, drive, overwork.  The ‘brakes’, on the other hand are your parasympathetics.  They allow you to rest, digest, sleep, heal and repair.

Physiologically, under sympathetic control, our heart rate increases, your blood pressure elevates, our cholesterol levels increase.  Immune, digestive, and reproductive function decrease, and learning and sleep are impaired.

This is classically referred to the “fight or flight” response, because these physiological changes support ‘fighting’ or ‘flighting’ a threat.  

Imagine a bear jumped in front of you now.  Who cares about digesting lunch when you might not survive this encounter?  Same goes for immune and reproductive function.  The body is not concerned with fighting off small invading organisms versus fighting off a bear.  And you shouldn’t be thinking about reproduction, either. At least, one would hope.

Short term – this sympathetic response is a brilliant adaptation.

Long term – it will kill you.

Chronic long term distress is pro-inflammatory, and will lay the groundwork for heart disease, stroke, digestive issues, infertility, and a chronically compromised immune system. 

Part of stress management and frontal lobe rehab is to help take the foot off the gas, and put the foot on the brake.

A few great strategies for frontal lobe stress management:

  • breathing techniques to activate the Vagus nerve (with strong parasympathetic innervation)
  • journalling, visualization, goal setting
  • an electronic fast 30-60 minutes before bedtime
  • exercise
  • sleep hygiene, and the development of evening rituals
  • blue light blocking glasses

Metabolic  

Often, the foods we become addicted to are carbohydrates. They are often quick, cheap, readily available and easily converted to sugar in the body.  This temporarily give us a fleeting state of euphoria.  Serotonin is released, we feel elated.  It is, just like other addictions, a short lived high that we invariably come back for.

Tools to combat this are a high fat, moderate protein, low carbohydrate dietcoupled with a wide range of fasting protocols.

Essentially, we are detoxing off sugar, and laying the foundation for the chemistry of the individual to change.

This allows for our microbiome to heal, and to be able to naturally induce a parasympathetic state.

 

Conclusion

There are several changes that happen in the brain of an addict.  Changes in higher level, executive functions of the brain become compromised over time, and in severe cases, we see a dissolution of the neural pathways from the frontal lobe over more primitive, desire-driven areas.  

The great news is, there is always hope.  The brain is incredibly adaptable, and capable of change.  Applying neuroplastic stimuli such as physical, metabolic, mindset, and stress management strategies will not only help the neural pathways heal, but in many cases we can change the chemistry, desires, and behaviours by flexing their frontal lobe, and bringing it back to life.

Want My Quickstart Guide to Battling Food Addiction?

One of the easiest things to do first is to heal your brain using a hybrid protocol of the ketogenic (high fat) diet and fasting protocols.  Download my quick start guide, including keto superfoods, my fasting checklist, and my restaurant survival guide.

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