Thursday, July 16, 2009

Are we all addicted to eating?

It is an undeniable fact that more and more Americans are getting fat. Obesity rates have skyrocketed over the last 30 years. Of major concern is the number of our children who have problems with their weight. And Type II Diabetes, (so-called Maturity Onset Diabetes), is now showing up in pediatric practices all over this country.

Dr David Kessler has just published a great book on why so many people overeat and how our culture and the food industry promote this. It ties in with our work in the addiction field very nicely because it turns out that the process is really the same. In his book Dr Kessler explains how the brain works, particularly the reward system which is responsible for giving us drives and desires for things necessary for our survival. He shows how what he calls “hyper-palatable’ foods hijack the brain and make us want more, even when we are not hungry. Eating these hyper-palatable foods leads to changes in our brains that make it very difficult to resist in the future.

If you substitute the words alcohol or drugs for the word food you have the identical problem with chemical dependency. A chemical substance causes hyper-stimulation of the reward pathways of the brain. We really enjoy it. Our brain develops memory and emotional attachments to the experience, so that our brain is now hard wired to want to repeat the experience. If the substance is readily available, we continue to use it to the detriment of our well-being.

To explain the process of overeating, Dr Kessler has coined the term “hyper-palatable foods”. By their nature, and they are not ever found in nature, these foods cause the brain to want more and more. He points out that rats and other lab animals will keep eating and eating if they are exposed to foods that are unnaturally sweet. It turns out that if food has a sugar content of about 5%, animals, including us humans, will eat an appropriate amount of food and stop when we are full. But if the sugar content is artificially raised we will eat more, even past the point where we are no longer hungry. As the sugar content is raised even higher, animals will eat more and more and gain a lot of weight, and become obese. At some point the food does become too sweet and animals will reject it. The same process happens with fat content and salt content. There is an optimal percentage of fat and salt that induces animals, including us, to keep eating way past the point where we are full. It turns out that the food industry has specialized in providing us with foods with this exact perfect content of sugar, fat and salt. Think Doritos, chicken nuggets, French fries loaded with cheese and bacon, ice-cream with peanut butter cups added, oversized blueberry muffins. These foods have all been optimized to contain high levels of sugar, fat and salt – they are hyper-palatable foods.

And we love this stuff. It releases so many pleasure molecules in our brains – more than we were ever meant to get from natural foods. As mentioned, our brains are designed to attach memories and emotions to foods that provide this level of stimulation, so that we will want to, and be able to find them again. Our brains do this very well. And our culture specializes in making these hyper-palatable foods very available. We subsidize the farmers who produce cheap corn syrup. Fast food restaurants tempt us with huge portions of these foods that are often cheaper to buy than healthy foods we could prepare ourselves at home. Even grocery stores lay out their stores so that cakes and candy and other tempting foods are staring us in the face as we do our shopping. And in many neighborhoods, healthy choices for food are simply not readily available. Try to walk into a 7-11 when you are really hungry and buy something healthy! We can’t really blame the food companies or the fast food restaurants. They are just trying to compete and survive in our fast paced society.

So, it seems true that we are all being addicted to eating. What is scary to me is that the process seems to be starting very early in our children. As a parent of 11 year old twins, I am very aware of how easy it is to feed them these hyper-palatable foods. If we go out to a restaurant, there are almost no choices on the children’s menu that don’t involve hyper-palatable foods. I have started to cook a lot more at home.

So what does this teach us about chemical dependency? For me, it confirms a lot of what we know about how the brain works and how easy it is for hyper-stimulating substances to rewire our brain circuits. It helps us to understand that easy access to these drugs makes it very difficult to avoid temptation. It teaches us that triggers that remind us of the pleasurable drug experience are very powerful to induce cravings. It also teaches us that our recovery, whether from drugs or overeating, is ultimately our responsibility. For us to fully take responsibility for this, we need to accept it, understand it, and structure our lives to avoid temptations and, on a regular basis, make healthy choices.

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