Food: Our Most Important Relationship
Food is our most significant relationship in life. It is our sustenance – our survival; equally important as the air that we breathe. Eating is the way we attached to mother, forming that symbiotic “bond” of soothing and nourishment as completely dependent beings when we enter the world – a way of feeling safe, connected and whole. Growing up, specific foods and the traditions around them become rituals: a means of celebration, mourning, managing feelings and emotions, reward, as well as being with one another in a social sense. Food can also be used as a “social lubricant,” much like alcohol, sports, and related activities.
Ultimately, food is powerful – Eating is not a habit to be broken nor is abstinence an option when we have a problem with food or eating, whether it involves, overeating, bingeing, or restricting. Understanding why we eat or don’t eat, and why we choose the foods we choose, are necessary in order to stabilize this critical relationship.
As we learn in life, solving a problem is not just about finding the “one factor” or cause, but the many factors involved which play against and feed off one another fueling the problem. Mending our relationship with food is no different. We need to understand the biological, social and mental/ emotional drivers which form and sustain the habits and patterns we have with problem eating.
Obesity is at the forefront of today’s health concerns and warrants focus, because it is linked to many health problems. Did you know that that approximately 65% of adult Americans are overweight and 30% are obese? It is also estimated that roughly 80% of obese adults have at least one of more conditions such as: cardiovascular disease, diabetes, hypertension, sleep apnea, arthritis, and cancer. There is then another tier of problems which includes depression, substance abuse, and chronic pain that can develop as a result of those issues. Studies show that 25-50% of obese individuals binge eat and that there is a 75-95% recidivism rate to obesity among formerly obese individuals who have undergone treatment. Obviously, this points to a significant epidemic. It also raises a question, “What happened to our relationship with food?” “What went wrong?”
The medical community, insurance and food industries all encourage consumers to exercise “personal responsibility” when it comes to preventing obesity, addiction, and chronic health problems. Self-control, better choices, avoidance of over-indulging/over-eating, and staying away from packaged, high fat, carbohydrate, sugary foods is emphasized and encouraged. Seems simple, right? Being informed and then choosing? No! Food, like alcohol and drugs, is biologically addictive. Food is a substance.
There are specific biological mechanisms that drive addictive behavior. Addictive behaviors are fueled via primitive neurochemical reward centers in the brain that override one’s ability to exert reason, self-control, manage cravings, stop eating and to recognize biological signals of true hunger, appetite, and satiation.
Liking vs. Wanting. Research shows that obese individuals are similar to non-obese individual in their “liking” of foods, but that they have a stronger “wanting” / desire/ drive for the foods they want. They are also willing to go to great lengths to obtain and consume them. It is noted that this may be due, in part, to neurological changes that cause a blunted psychological reward response to food – Much like how a drug addicted person might crave their drug or “want” it very strongly, long after they stopped enjoying or “liking” it.
Craving vs. Addiction. We all crave certain foods from time to time. Women are notorious for craving chocolate. Some other common cravings include fat, sugar, or carbs. Food cravings are important because they play a role in over or compulsive eating – as they serve as “trigger foods.” It is said that our industrialized society ripens the opportunity for obesity, due to the availability and exposure to addictive food substances: sugar, fat, sweeteners, refined carbohydrates, salt and caffeine — eroding at self-control and ability to regulate consumption of these foods. “Loss of control” is both a term and behavior associated with addiction.
The CAGE Questionnaire is a tool used to diagnose alcoholism, and can be adapted to identify people with food addiction. Answering “Yes” to 2 or more items below, may indicate a problem with food addiction.
- Have you ever felt the need to Cut down on your eating? If you don’t ration yourself, you will lose control?
- Have you ever been Annoyed by criticism of your eating? If you get upset when people bring up your eating, you may be too attached to eating.
- Do you feel Guilty about your eating? It builds up, because every time you say you are going to control yourself – you fail.
- Have you ever needed an Eye-opener? You wake up in the morning and are compelled to consume.
Evidence in Support of Food Addiction
According to a report from the National Center on Addiction and Substance Abuse (CASA) at Columbia University, up to one half of individuals with eating disorders (including bingeing) abuse alcohol or illicit drugs, compared to 9% of the general population. Conversely, up to 35% of alcohol and illicit drug abusers have eating disorders, compared to 3% of the general population.
A direct correlation has also been established between the dramatic increase of obesity and overweight population and the aggressive marketing, increased availability, and consumption of foods over the same period (similar to tobacco).
People who are addicted to food tend to exhibit many of the same characteristics as those addicted to alcohol and drugs:
- Exhibit behavior in times of transition or stress
- Common family history
- Common brain chemistry (decreased sensitivity of dopamine-reward system)
- Low self-esteem, depression, anxiety, impulsivity
- History of sexual, physical, or emotional abuse
- Obsessive preoccupation, cravings, and secretive rituals
- Experience mood altering effects from use of substance
– National Center on Addiction and Substance Abuse (CASA) at Columbia University
Join us for the next issue of Living Well News focused on Redefining Our Relationship with Food.