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Why Am I Craving Food?

By Emily York, PhD and Dale Veith, PsyD

 

Have you ever been clobbered by an uncontrollable food craving?

 

Why do we feel such a strong drive to overeat foods likes pizza and ice cream? Is there anything that can put you back in control? Well, willpower isn’t the answer. In fact, the answer lies largely in feel-good chemicals in the brain.

 

You see, neurons are cells in the brain. When we eat, neurons fire electrical signals and release chemicals. These brain signals and chemicals drive us to either like or dislike something. Different types of foods cause different neurons to fire. For example, one neuron may fire when we eat something salty, while a different neuron may fire when we eat something sweet. The more textures, tastes, and smells a food has, the more neurons fire. The result of this is that the urge to eat this food becomes stronger. In addition, even anticipating eating these types of foods can activate these same neurons. Food that tastes good tend to be high in sugar, fat, and salt. Sugary, fatty, and salty foods cause certain types and patterns of neurons to fire. The result of eating foods that are sugary, fatty, and salty is that neurons fire in a pattern that activates the reward pathways in the brain. Reward pathways stimulate the dopamine system, which produces a certain type of brain chemical that creates pleasurable sensations.  Drugs, such as heroin or cocaine, also produce euphoric sensations by activating reward pathways, disrupting the frontal areas of the brain, and compelling us to pursue the pleasurable substance. Imaging studies show that the brain functioning of reward pathways in individuals who are addicted to drugs is similar to that of individuals who struggle with food addiction. Thus, when we eat foods that are high in sugar, fat, and salt, we are stimulating the same reward pathways in the brain as drugs.

 

What can we do?

Just as the brain can learn to associate food with pleasure, it can learn new associations using a variety of techniques. First, become more aware of the activities, locations, or moods that increase your risk for temptation. Consider seeking resources to plan for and handle these difficult situations. Second, replace unhelpful habits with more helpful ones, such as breaking the routine of picking up fast food on the way home from work by taking a different routine. Third, ask yourself what the long-term outcomes will be before making food choices. Fourth, find sources of social support that can provide encouragement through these difficult changes. If you would like more information on food addiction, here are some resources:

  • Book – The End of Overeating (David Kessler)
  • Online documentary video – Are You Addicted to Food? (60 Minutes)
  • Online article – Drugs, Brain, and Behavior: The Science of Addition (National Institute of Drug Abuse)