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Why food and drug addiction aren’t so far apart

By Nicci Micco, April 6, 2011 - 4:22pm

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I recently wrote about my compulsive dark-chocolate M&M eating and mentioned the fascinating story about food addiction that science journalist Rachael Moeller Gorman wrote for the April issue of EatingWell Magazine. In a nutshell: People who chronically crave food aren’t so different from those who suffer drug and alcohol addictions. This week, I read another new study—in the Archives of General Psychiatry—that backs the notion that, for some people, cookies and other particularly delicious foods might stimulate the brain in ways similar to cocaine. In this study, researchers at Yale University’s Rudd Center for Food Policy & Obesity asked 48 women to take a quiz that measured their “food addiction.”

Related link:Where do you fall on the food addiction scale? Take EatingWell.com’s food-addiction quiz, designed by Yale researchers.

Using high-tech scans, the researchers looked at the subjects’ brain activity after they were shown, and then after they drank, a chocolate milkshake. They found that brain activity of subjects who scored higher on the food-addiction quiz looked similar to what’s been observed in drug addicts: there was more activity in regions associated with cravings and less in areas that control urges.
But even if you have a tendency to become “addicted” to food, you can combat overeating.

So how do you know if your relationship with food is just normal cravings or if you might have a more serious food addiction? People talk about being “addicted to sugar,” “addicted to potato chips” and, probably most commonly, “addicted to chocolate.” But people who chronically crave food, like those with alcohol and drug addictions, are highly conditioned to abuse their substance of choice, Nora Volkow, M.D., director of the National Institute on Drug Abuse (NIDA) told Gorman when she talked with her for EatingWell's April issue. If thinking about food rules your life, seek help from a professional.

Want to talk more about food addiction and get your questions answered? Join my colleague, EatingWell’s nutrition editor Brierley Wright on EatingWell’s Facebook page for a live Q&A about food addiction Friday, April 8, 12:30 p.m. EST.

If you’re someone dealing with occasional cravings, restructuring your day and planning ahead can help you resist overwhelming temptation. Here are some tricks:

1. Plan meals and snacks. Grazing all day may keep you from getting so hungry that you’ll overeat the next time food is in front of you, but eating on the fly without a plan can also add up to too many calories. Better to plan meals and snacks ahead: decide what you’ll have for breakfast, lunch and dinner, plus a midafternoon snack. Each time, include a little protein for additional staying power.
Related link:Customize a perfect-for-you meal plan at EatingWell.com  

2. Budget in treats. Studies suggest that feeling deprived—even if you are consuming plenty of calories—can trigger overeating. Banning a food often just makes you think about it more. If chocolate is your downfall, maybe keep it out of the house, so that it’s not around tempting you all the time. Consider making a batch of treats to give to a friend and sampling just one.
Related link: Irresistible cookies for 100 calories or less

3. Keep a food diary. Recording everything—the ice cream binge as well as the carrots and celery—“makes everything you eat part of the plan,” Elena Ramirez, Ph.D., co-founder of the Vermont Center for Cognitive Behavior Therapy told EatingWell Magazine. “It’s no longer a sneaky bad thing.” Writing what you bite can also help you lose weight, studies show.

4. Stay cool. Being stressed often leads to overindulging. Squelch your stress with exercise: you can schedule daily workouts for a natural high. No time for a gym session? Go for a short walk. A change of scenery is often all you need to think more clearly.  

5. Get some sleep. Sleep deprivation increases the risk of overeating and obesity, research shows. The National Sleep Foundation recommends 7 to 9 hours of sleep a night for adults.
Must-Read: Can These 6 Food Remedies Help You Sleep?


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TAGS: Nicci Micco, Diet Blog, Diet, Weight loss, Wellness

Nicci Micco
Nicci Micco is co-author of EatingWell 500-Calorie Dinners. She has a master's degree in nutrition and food sciences, with a focus in weight management.

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