Just one piece, you think.
It’s been a long day, and you’re craving chocolate. And you know there’s a bag of dark chocolate waiting in the pantry for you. So you decide to eat just one to take the edge off of your hectic day.
But 15 minutes later, you’re sitting in front of the TV with an empty bag and a full stomach. You needed something salty to balance out the sweet, so you popped open a bag of chips to eat, too.
Most people binge occasionally, and it’s nothing to really be ashamed of – food tastes good, and self-discipline isn’t always easy to maintain. While not everyone who binges occasionally has full-fledged binge eating disorder, many people do show signs of food addiction.
Food addiction is characterized by symptoms including loss of control over the consumption of food, continued intake/binging despite negative consequences, and the inability to cut down despite a desire to restrain/refrain. It is a relatively new and somewhat controversial topic because there isn’t conclusive scientific evidence that clearly identifies the addictive properties of foods. The main problem is that food supports life and everyone eats, which prompts many professionals to discount the concept.
Rather than assuming that all foods are addictive, some scientists propose that certain foods are more addictive than others, especially foods rich in fat and/or sugar. These calorie-dense and delicious foods typically are the ones that become self-labeled “bad” foods. This often leads to causing a restriction/avoidance response that may be followed by a binge cycle, which then results in cyclic overeating– which can be classified clinically as an eating disorder.
It is often considered that for both mental and hormonal health, overeating may have its benefits; however, if it becomes a cyclic issue, food addiction can damage your metabolism and cause negative changes to your body composition.
Your body composition is the balance of fat and fat-free mass (like muscle and bone)- you need to keep these two variables balanced in order to reduce your risk of various health conditions. This is why important to understand how cyclic overeating can affect your body composition- it can negatively impact both weight and health goals.
Why are people addicted to food?
If you’ve ever wondered why it’s so hard to stop eating your favorite snacks, you’re far from alone.
Susceptibility to food addiction is somewhat genetic, but many modern foods are also engineered specifically to make you want more. These “hyperpalatable” foods are concocted by flavor chemists in a way so that they surpass the reward properties of traditional foods. In other words, eating a potato chip will release more reward centers in the brain than eating a baked potato.
Salty, fatty and sugary foods tend to be the most addictive types of foods. In fact, though the scientific evidence isn’t quite conclusive in humans, sugar is thought to be as addictive as many drugs. And it doesn’t help that food addiction involves the same areas and many of the same chemicals in the brain as drug addiction does.
But it’s not just that modern foods are engineered to taste good: To binge is to be human. We are hardwired to love the taste of fat, salt, and sugar because those nutrients were calorie-dense and provided energy storage that aided in survival before we had food as we know it today.
High-calorie, fatty foods gave our ancestors the energy reserves needed to survive famines. Salt increases water retention, which helped them stave off dehydration. And our preference for sugar helped lead us to nutritious fruits and berries.
Humans’ natural preferences for these flavors and textures were once essential for survival. But in a world where palatable foods are readily available and often inexpensive, those preferences can become unbeatable cravings. Often, we eat food just because it’s there and it tastes oh so good.
Unfortunately, humans haven’t quite figured out how to deal with the excesses of modern living. And this is why we can’t count on our instincts alone to maintain a healthy body weight—it requires constant and conscious effort.
A healthy, balanced body composition requires a balance in the intake of both micro and macronutrients. When we overeat, we expose ourselves to the risk of various diseases due to excess body fat and changes in our hormones.
What happens to the body when you overeat?
Every meal you eat – regardless of macronutrient composition – triggers dopamine release. Dopamine is a feel-good chemical associated with feelings of happiness and reward. However, meals higher in fat and sugar tend to trigger larger releases of the hormone.
When you overeat, especially those kinds of foods, you probably tend to feel fantastic… at first. When the rush of a binge wears off, most people experience an overwhelming and uncomfortable fullness, accompanied by a side of guilt or shame.
In addition to those unfavorable emotional effects, some pretty unfavorable things are going on inside your body, too.
First, binge eating is usually characterized by fast and uncontrolled eating, which can be detrimental to your metabolism and your heart health. This uncontrolled food intake is associated with obesity and future susceptibility to metabolic syndrome, a condition that often leads to cardiovascular disease.
Second, with binge eating, your pancreas goes into overdrive, releasing larger-than-normal amounts of insulin. This can lead to insulin resistance which, in the long-term, can be harmful to your metabolism. When you suffer from insulin resistance, your cells don’t absorb nutrients as they should and you end up prone to a host of conditions including obesity, high blood pressure, heart disease, and more.
After a binge, your system is overloaded with a rush of calories, sugar, and fat. In addition to causing hormone and energy levels to fluctuate, this significant excess of calories promotes fat storage, inflammation, and digestive discomfort (think bloating and constipation).
These nearly instant consequences aren’t exactly favorable, but the outlook gets even worse if overeating is consistent. Cyclic binging results in hard-to-reverse changes to metabolism. Hunger and fullness cues are thrown off, making one think they’re hungry when you’re not and causing you to overeat further.
Dopamine becomes down-regulated, meaning you need more food to feel the same amount of pleasure as, say, a few months ago. Changes in leptin levels promote further fat storage. Your gastric capacity can increase, which means you may need more food to feel full.
Additionally, you can disrupt your circadian rhythm and induce depression: two factors that make it a lot easier to want to stay in bed all day, avoid exercise, and eat even more junk food.
You can probably gather how all of these consequences combined can drastically alter your body composition for the worse. If prolonged, cyclic overeating can cause negative changes to body composition such as increased fat mass- this leads to an increased risk for the development of long-term health and disease risks.
Why do people binge eat?
It’s no surprise that a common and powerful trigger of binge eating is restrictive dieting.
This type of selective diet is a feasible weight-loss method in the short-term because such a controlled program of calorie intake makes it easier to prevent overeating. The problem is that extreme restriction is not sustainable. If you’re like most people, you can only say “no” to your favorite foods for so long.
Though common, restrictive dieting isn’t the only reason people binge. Many people use food as an emotional crutch, overeating when they have high-stress levels, are bored, sad, or excessively tired. Our brains and bodies are already conditioned to crave addictive foods. When we want to get our minds off of something, cravings can become overpowering.
You might think that being addicted to food isn’t the worst thing: At least you aren’t addicted to drugs, right? While that’s a valid justification, food addiction is still an addiction and ridding yourself of addictive behavior toward any substance – even food – will improve your quality of life all around. Overcoming food addiction comes with physical health benefits in addition to an improved mental health state, namely reduced risk to diseases and improved body composition.
Recognizing that you have addictive behaviors and thoughts about food is the first step in the right direction. Wanting to change your diet for the better is a good thing for both mind and body.
How to avoid binges and overcome food addiction
Fortunately, there’s a better way to eat healthy than confining yourself to a short list of “good” foods. Instead, you can occasionally eat all the foods you like- as long as you are balancing your diet and regulating portions. This is a great way to control bingeing: If you never feel deprived of foods you like, even sugary treats, you’re less likely to develop an uncontrollable desire to obtain those rewards to the brain that these foods can provide.
If that method doesn’t work for you, you can actually train your taste buds to like whole, natural foods as much as they like processed ones. It’s a sad truth that most of us are desensitized to the sweetness of fruit due to excessive amounts of dietary sugar, but it can be undone.
Another tactic is “crowding out” – instead of focusing on what you can’t have, focus on eating enough healthy foods that you don’t even have space for binge-worthy ones. Remember that it’s often the volume our stomachs want, not the calories. If you fill up on meals chock-full of nutrient-dense fruits and veggies, you’ll be way less likely to binge later on.
Some scientists suggest quitting junk food cold-turkey, but for many people, that method just increases the risk of the restrict-binge cycle.
You should take the time to identify trigger foods: those “can’t-have-just-one” foods. For many people, trigger foods come bagged or boxed and are easily over-eaten because they pack a lot of calories into just a few handfuls. Any product that causes you to feel a loss of control while eating – no matter how slight the feeling is – is a trigger food.
Food journaling can help you identify triggers. Try keeping a meal (and snack) log for a few days and write down how you feel after eating each meal or snack. It can be as simple as one word. For example, writing “sluggish” a few minutes after eating a chocolate bar as your afternoon snack. See that enough times, maybe you’ll realize the reward that you get when eating the chocolate isn’t worth the feeling you get afterward.
Meal prepping also helps exponentially because it results in less decision-making for you. Plus, you probably won’t want to waste the food you spent time, money and effort to prepare.
Different methods work for different people, so spend some time experimenting to find the best tactics for you.
Remember, binge eating is something that is controlled by your brain. Creating healthy eating habits and replacing some of these “rewarding” behaviors can help you overcome the binge eating process.
Addictive food doesn’t have to rule you (or your body composition)
Understanding the changes that happen to your body when you overeat is helpful for making healthier decisions. Food addiction and compulsive overeating lead to a whole host of problems, both mental and physical, that can permanently alter your health habits.
Weight gain, changes to your metabolism, hormonal fluctuations, and changes in the size of your organs are all effects of cyclic overeating that can lead to an unfavorable body composition and long-term health risk.
It’s easy to point fingers at big-name manufacturers, but before people realized what processed foods were doing to our health, it was all well-intentioned business – make better food, make more sales. Now that we know the consequences, however, many brands are changing their practices and procedures to put out healthier products.
Being aware of these healthier food products and paying attention to what you eat can help you overcome addictive behaviors toward food. Identifying trigger foods and emotional factors – such as stressful day at work or a fight with your significant other – can also help you overcome the urge to binge.
Remember that what works for one won’t always work for another. Some people find success in restricting and even eliminating trigger foods from their homes completely, while others can learn to enjoy them as an occasional treat by finding activities they enjoy to take the place of binging. For example, next time you feel the urge to finish a sleeve of Oreos, go outside and take a walk. On your walk, think about all the possible reasons why you might want those cookies.
In time, you’ll come to some realizations and conclusions about your food behavioral choices.
Amanda Capritto is a certified personal trainer and health coach who writes about nutrition, fitness and healthcare. A journalism alumna of Louisiana State University, Amanda spends her free time adventuring outdoors, hitting the gym, and encouraging people to live balanced, healthy lifestyles.