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If you experience cravings for sweet, salty or foods rich with fats, or try to eat in moderation, but simply can’t, or if you feel guilt after eating, you are likely addicted to food and experience the same withdrawal symptoms as a person coping with substance abuse and addiction.
We are structured to enjoy food, our brains evolved in such a way that we feel pleasure from eating foods that are good for us, the sugar and fruits makes for valuable energy, salt ensures chemical balance in our body and healthy fats store energy.
Dopamine is responsible for our need for sugar and fat. Even though the food is calorific it was an advantage in our past, not a health risk. Consequently, our brain evolved a reward system to serve activities crucial for the existence of our species, such as reproduction and feeding behaviors that activate that system are connected with feeling good.
Research shows that the brain starts to react to sugar and fat, even before they enter our mouth. Just looking at food encourages activity of the reward system. The presence of food encourages the release of dopamine, which leads to the feeling of pleasure.
After the consumption of sweet and greasy food our brain saturates with dopamine and desensitization happens. The number of receptors which react to that stimulus decreases, so more and more stimuli is needed for primary pleasure to be felt.
Today, contrary to our historic selves, we have a large variety of food readily available to us, and large amounts of sugary foods among them. If we take into consideration that it’s possible to receive energy from a lot of different groceries, sugar shouldn’t be our priority, like it was in our evolutionary past.
Food manufacturers create packaged foods that intentionally set off our natural pleasure centers with concentrated amounts of sugar, salt, and fat. Think of literally every type of junk food out there, they all fall into those three categories, sweet, salty and fatty, sometimes in various combinations of the three.
The problem is when you eat an apple. It’s filled with tonnes of nutrients and fiber that actually makes you feel satisfied, processed foods are stripped of all nutrients, so you don’t get the satisfaction11.E. L. Gordon, A. H. Ariel-Donges, V. Bauman and L. J. Merlo, What Is the Evidence for “Food Addiction?” A Systematic Review – PMC, PubMed Central (PMC).; Retrieved September 23, 2022, from https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC5946262/.
However, the pleasure centers in your brain light up from the salt, fat and sugar, but you don’t feel as satisfied or satiated. So you keep eating. Now, because processed food is immediately pleasurable, some of us abuse the fact that when we are stressed, we can eat those things and feel better right away.
It works in exactly the same way alcohol can make some people feel better, almost instantly. As you struggle against stress and negative feelings, you could lose control over your consumption of alcohol. And you could do the same with food.
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- 11.E. L. Gordon, A. H. Ariel-Donges, V. Bauman and L. J. Merlo, What Is the Evidence for “Food Addiction?” A Systematic Review – PMC, PubMed Central (PMC).; Retrieved September 23, 2022, from https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC5946262/
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