Is Your Appetite Out of Control?
How We Get Hooked on Eating
Experts say our frenzied, jam-packed lives can encourage food addiction. "Americans rarely eat because they're hungry," says Dr. Gold. "They eat for pleasure, because they want to boost their mood, or because they're stressed out." The problem is, food is so abundant that overindulging becomes, well, a piece of cake. "Neanderthals had to hunt for their meals, and in the process they kept themselves in great shape," Dr. Gold explains. "But today, 'hunting' means driving to the grocery store and pointing at something in the butcher case."
The mental signals that urge us to consume are related to those ancient survival instincts: Our brains tell our bodies to store up more fuel, in case it will be a while before we find the next meal. That drive can be so powerful that for some people all it takes is seeing a favorite restaurant to set off a binge, Dr. Gold says. "Once that desire is set in motion, it's very difficult to suppress it. The messages our brains receive that say, 'I've had enough' are much weaker than the ones that say, 'Eat, eat, eat.'"
And let's face it, food has become more tempting and better-tasting than ever, which makes us want more and more of it. Dr. Gold says he's seen this illustrated in his lab. "If a rat is given a bowl full of something tasty and exotic, like Kobe beef, he'll gorge himself on it until there's none left -- similar to what he'd do if he were given a dispenser full of cocaine. But serve him a bowl of plain old rat chow and he'll eat only as much as he needs to keep running on his exercise wheel."
Foods high in carbs and fat (think: french fries, cookies, and chocolate) are the ones most likely to be habit-forming, though researchers don't yet know why. One theory is that these foods spur cravings because they cause rapid and dramatic spikes in blood sugar. In the same way that smoking cocaine is more addictive than sniffing it because it gets the drug to the brain faster and the effect is felt more intensely, some experts surmise that we may get hooked on foods that cause fast, potent changes in our bodies.
Right about now, if you're not overweight, you might be thinking that you don't have to worry about becoming addicted to food. Wrong. "Any one of us might become a compulsive eater," says Dr. Volkow. "Even someone whose weight is under control could have a problem, though she might not realize it thanks to a high metabolism." So am I a peanut-butter addict -- or in danger of becoming one? "You should be concerned if a good part of your day revolves around your food habit," says Stout. "If food dominates your thoughts, then you have a problem." Phew! According to those criteria, I'm okay; I think about PB only when I wake up. So who is at risk? "Anyone who lies about how much food she is eating -- even little fibs -- should watch out," says Stout. "It's also a problem if she hides food, if she frequently eats enough to feel uncomfortable, if she regularly stuffs herself to the point where it makes her sleep badly, or if she feels guilt or shame about eating."
What do you think of this story? Leave a Comment.