Obesity has risen at an epidemic rate over the past 20 years so that now, two-thirds of adults in the United States are overweight, and 30 percent are obese. Overweight and obese adults have a higher mortality rate. They are at risk for other chronic conditions such as diabetes and certain cancers, including cancers of the breast, colon, kidney and esophagus. An estimated 400,000 adult deaths each year in the U.S. are associated with obesity. Total costs – medical costs and days lost from work because of illness, disability or premature death – from obesity in 2000 were estimated to be $117 billion.

Most people are now aware of the still growing obesity crisis, but few understand that a large portion of this problem is caused by an underlying addiction to specific foods and sometimes to volume of food in general. Initial scientific estimates, according to Dr, David Kessler, former Commissioner of the U.S. Food And Drug Administration, are that about 50% of the obese, 30% of those overweight, and 20% who are at what we consider a healthy weight, are actually addicted to a specific food, combinations of foods or, in some cases, volume of food in general.  At least half of the obesity crisis would be better understood and more suitably named the food addiction crisis.

fast food and obesityExperiments in animals and humans show that, for some people, the same reward and pleasure centers of the brain that are triggered by addictive drugs like cocaine and heroin are also activated by food, especially highly palatable foods. Highly palatable foods are foods rich in:

  • Sugar
  • Fat
  • Salt

Like addictive drugs, highly palatable foods trigger feel-good brain chemicals such as dopamine. Once people experience pleasure associated with increased dopamine transmission in the brain’s reward pathway from eating certain foods, they quickly feel the need to eat again. The reward signals from highly palatable foods may override other signals of fullness and satisfaction. As a result, people keep eating, even when they’re not hungry.

People who show signs of food addiction may also develop a tolerance to food. They eat more and more, only to find that food satisfies them less and less. People who are addicted to food will continue to eat despite negative consequences, such as weight gain or damaged relationships. And like people who are addicted to drugs or gambling, people who are addicted to food will have trouble stopping their behavior, even if they want to or have tried many times to cut back.

Signs of Food Addiction

Some of the signs of food addiction include:

  • Cravings despite being full
  • You eat much more than you  intended to
  • You eat until you feel “excessively satisfied”
  • You feel guilty afterwards but do it again soon
  • You hide your consumption from others
  • You  are unable to quit despite having physical problems

Getting Help for Food Addiction

Science is still working to understand and find treatments for food addiction. Some argue that recovery from food addiction may be more complicated than recovery from other kinds of addictions. Alcoholics, for example, can ultimately abstain from drinking alcohol. But people who are addicted to food still need to eat.

A nutritionist, psychologist, or doctor who is educated about food addiction may be able to help you break the cycle of compulsive eating. There are also a growing number of programs that help people who are addicted to food. Some, like Food Addicts in Recovery Anonymous, are based on the 12-step program that has helped many people addicted to alcohol, drugs, or gambling.

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