If you really think about it, how far is eating junk food from other forms of addiction, like taking illicit drugs or drinking too much alcohol? Not very far, according to nutritionists and healthcare professionals. As someone who is both a healthcare professional and nutrition advisor myself, I have to agree. Eating junk food can lead to health problems and emotional problems that are not unlike any other addiction.
Normally, when you eat, you get a signal in the form of “ghrelin”—a hormone secreted by the stomach in response to hunger. It tells the brain that it is time to eat. When your body receives enough food, the fat cells release “leptin”—also known as the satiety hormone. It tells your brain that you’ve eaten enough and you stop eating. In theory! Often, when you use junk food as part of an abnormal eating pattern you don’t pay enough attention to these signals and tend to overeat.
Rather than paying attention to ghrelin and leptin, you eat for the rush of positive feelings associated with eating food high in fat, salt, or sugar. When you eat these kinds of foods under stress or distress, the food is capable of releasing endorphins in the brain. You’ve heard of endorphins, right? They are the feel-good chemicals that give you a temporary rush or a feeling of wellbeing when you eat certain foods. The key word here is temporary. Unfortunately, because it’s temporary, you then keep eating those foods to re-experience the “high” that they give you.
The cycle of endorphins
This cycle of eating and releasing endorphins is no different from the cycle experienced by addicts that use heroin to mimic endorphins in the brain. Heroin and other illicit drugs either release endorphins from the brain or act as endorphins themselves. When you eat junk foods, especially when you’re sad, angry, lonely, or depressed, there is a temporary release of endorphins from the brain, which reinforces the negative pattern of eating too much on a repetitive basis. The vulnerability that is created by these emotions makes the “food high” much more satisfying because the euphoric feelings are much stronger than they would be if you weren’t experiencing stress or negative emotions.
Certain foods release endorphins better than others. And obvs they’re the ones we love and know we shouldn’t eat; high salt, high fat and high sugar foods. When you eat these types of foods, you feel temporarily better and you keep eating in order to continue to feel better. This process only needs to be the norm for a short time to become ingrained in your brain. This creates a psychological imprint that makes you return to food repeatedly during times of distress so you can get that high again.
Junk foods especially have high addiction potential. We’re talking high salt foods like crisps, snack crackers, or popcorn. They can also be high sugar foods, such as ice cream, biscuits, chocolate, and pastries. If you find yourself drawn to these types of foods and they form the main staples of your diet, it is likely that you have more of a food addiction rather than using food as a normal part of fueling your body.
Few people are overweight because they have a glandular condition or “low metabolism.” If you are overweight or obese, it is more likely that you are using food as your drug of choice to make you feel better in situations where you would otherwise be angry, sad, bored, or depressed. Food becomes a way to feel better that has nothing to do with getting the right nutrients and eating a healthy quantity of foods that could be providing you with proper nutrition.
If you recognise a lot of this in yourself. It’s time to make changes. Your body and brain will thank you.
You need to find some healthier coping mechanisms for times of stress. Meditation and mindfulness are great techniques. Try using apps like insight timer or Calm to get you started.
Some other tips for avoiding ramming a burger down your neck:
- When you feel the urge to grab something unhealthy, try doing something else instead. Make it something that requires focus and attention so that it will divert you from thinking about eating right then and there
- Drinking a large glass of water when you have the urge to eat junk food can help stave off actual hunger pangs. If you’re not eating to satisfy hunger though, a glass of water will be a much better replacement until you do eat a healthier meal. Which brings me to my next point……
- Teach yourself to eat when you’re really hungry and stop when you’re comfortably full. This might sound simple but it’s ridiculous how often we eat without actually considering if we’re hungry! Stop and ask yourself if you are actually hungry. Wait a few minutes and if you still feel hunger, eat something. Eat slowly and listen to your body’s cues. Eating more slowly will mean you pick up on your body telling you when you are full. We often overeat because we eat too quickly and miss the cues. You know those times when you eat til you literally feel sick? That. Don’t do that.
- Have healthy snacks on standby. If you have something healthy that’s easy to grab, go for that instead of the crisps or the chocolate or the McDonalds drive-thru.
- Plan your meals in advance. Knowing what you’re eating and having it prepped will mean you’re less likely to go for the easy option of junk food. If you need help with this, I wrote a post on it here.
Do you recognise some of these signs in yourself? Are you an emotional eater? If you need some help with identifying your own habits, go here.
I’d love to hear from you if you have any questions or want to share your story. Just comment below or email me at email@example.com.
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