Food Marketing

How to Overcome your Processed Food Addiction and Stop Feeling Powerless to Food

Brigid Titgemeier Headshot
by: Brigid Titgemeier MS, RDN, LD, IFNCP  |  April 30, 2019

Intellectually, you probably know that processed foods are not an ideal choice since they make you feel like crap, throw off your microbiome, and increase risk of cancer and obesity. But that likely does not stop you from finishing off your kids candy or searching the pantry late at night for cookies. Maybe you are trying to take the ‘healthier’ route so you resort to eating three kind bars instead. If you are like most of my clients then you’ll experience an elevated mood from the sugar, followed by anxiety-provoking guilt a few minutes after. If this emotional rollercoaster sounds familiar, you are not alone. I’ve worked with thousands of patients who have all expressed extreme frustration with their intense cravings and feelings of helplessness to the power of food. When it comes to highly addictive substances, knowledge does not always equal follow through.

Background on Processed Food Addiction

Processed foods are quite literally designed to be highly addictive. Ever wonder why you don’t struggle to put down the bag of carrots in the same way that you struggle to close the box of cookies? Food manufacturers hire scientists to design their products to hit the bliss point—the optimal ratio of fat, sugar, and salt to keep you reaching for more and more. Processed foods that have been found to have this highly addictive nature and are more likely to be abused include: sweeteners, flour, salt, caffeine and high-fat foods (like dairy). The goal of these large food companies is to leave you feeling powerless to these types of food and they are true masters.

You Are Living in a Sea of Junk Food

Telling a person that’s addicted to junk food to just eat it ‘in moderation’ is like telling an alcoholic to just drink alcohol in moderation. And then on top of that, forcing them to go to a bar daily. For alcohol, there are certain situations that can be avoided that will decrease your exposure by 75%. For sugar and processed foods, that’s not the case. That’s because you are literally living in a sea of junk food and junk food advertising daily—at the grocery store, gas station, coffee shop, break room at work, drug store, donut table at church, and on television.

Willpower is not Wired into a Person’s DNA

You may tell yourself to eat processed foods in moderation and try to build up more willpower. Or you tell yourself to never eat processed foods again and try to build up more willpower. But here’s what’s true: you were not born with less or more willpower than your friends or family members. Willpower is not wired into a person’s DNA. As Dr. Deborah Cohen says in her book a Big Fat Crisis, our willpower has not changed as a society in the last 50 years, although obesity rates have skyrocketed. But guess what has changed dramatically: our food supply. Food addiction in the 21st century mirrors alcohol addiction in the 18th century, prior to having laws that existed to protect people from these large, powerful companies.

The Relationship Between Alcohol & Processed Foods

2015 paper from the American College of Nutrition explains this relationship between addictions to alcohol and processed foods:

“When processed food addiction is compared to substance-based addictions such as alcoholism and smoking, a clear, consistent disease concept emerges. The similarities between alcohol addiction and processed food addiction include neuro-dysfunction of cravings and suppression of cognitive function, genetics, impulsive and irritable behavior, mood disorders, conformance to addiction diagnostic criteria, family patterns, young age of onset, a fetal syndrome, serious consequences, disrupted careers and relationships, and food industry business practices of advertising, pricing, marketing to children and easy availability. Abstinence has also shown to be effective in treatment”.

I find that to be so profound. According to this research paper, alcohol addiction in the 18th century and processed food addiction today are based on the same 5-A Equation. This includes five words that begin with the letter A that are necessary for creating highly addictive substances. Here are the 5 A’s:

Availability: Make the substance available everywhere 24/7

Affordability: Produce the product for as cheap as possible & make it seem like an irresistible value

Addictive properties in the product: Add components that keep people hooked and coming back for more

Advertising: Spend millions of dollars on marketing to create a new norm in society

Age of Onset: Start them as early as possible. This is why fast food and processed foods target children—in fact kids are targets of nearly 25% of all food advertisements.

If I could add a sixth A then I would add the following for my own 6-A equation: 

Always Disconnected: Being disconnected creates space for addiction. When you aren’t connected to yourself, you are more likely to push too hard and then search for connection outside of yourself. This is where quick and impulsive choices come into play.

Dopamine & Reward

Processed food addiction and substance addiction appear to share many of the same chemical changes in the brain, after exposure to the product. Dopamine, the reward and pleasure chemical that is released during sex and drug use, is released upon eating processed foods. This dopamine makes food much more rewarding to your body than the simple biological need to eat. They aren’t common when consuming natural, unprocessed foods such as carrots and strawberries. Not only does eating this food increase dopamine, but it also produces favorable biological changes in the moment, reducing pain, symptoms of depression, and stress pretty soon after consumption. In a study on rats given the opportunity to choose cocaine or sugar sweetened water, 95% of them chose the sugar sweetened water, showing just how rewarding and addictive these foods can be. Finally, it is in your biology to seek out sweet flavors as they indicated non-toxic, abundant energy sources.

Why you Binge

The problem lies in the fact that these foods not only produce biological changes in the short term, but they also re-wire your brain in long-term. With continued consumption, your body becomes less sensitive to the dopamine produced from eating processed foods, and you need to consume more just to have the same pleasurable experience. In a study on rats, it was found that the obese mice had fewer dopamine receptors than the normal weight group, showing this vicious cycle of seeking more food to get the same chemical experience. Not only does the decreased sensitivity drive you to want more but consuming processed foods also interferes with the hormones ghrelin and leptin, two hormones responsible for controlling appetite and satiety. This may set you up for binge eating, which was demonstrated in rat studies.

Tips for Overcoming your Processed Food Addiction

Ok so that was probably a combination of enlightening and depressing! The point in telling you all of this is not to elicit fear but in fact to help you understand why you experience the cravings and addictions to certain foods. Now that you know, let’s dive into my top tips for overcoming your processed food addiction.

1. Stop allowing yourself to believe that your value is tied to your eating habits. It’s a lie! Eating processed foods does not make you worse than others and abstaining does not make you better. The choice of how to fuel your body is yours to make.

2. If there are times that you eat processed foods, do not beat yourself up. The faster that you stand back up and rebound, the more you have created a sustainable lifestyle. I’m going to give you my own example. I usually eat 1-2 squares of dark chocolate a few nights per week but one day this past week, I decided to eat the whole bar (1/2 of a bar is a serving) which contained 16 grams of sugar. I never felt guilty about doing that. I didn’t feel like I went ‘off plan’. I ate it and enjoyed it and moved on. Here’s what you have to remember: make the best choices that you can and move on. If you direct your energy on the past then you won’t have the momentum that you need to move forward.

3. Cook most of your meals at home. Buying whole foods and cooking at home doesn’t have to be expensive or inconvenient to cook at home. By limiting your meals out of the house, you can control the ingredients, saving yourself added fat, sugar, and sodium and even cutting back on the steep costs of dining out. You can also try doing the bulk of your shopping at farmers markets to limit your exposure to these enticing processed products.

4. Eat regularly throughout the day. This helps to keep blood sugar levels stable throughout the day. The less that you frontload your calories the more tempted you will be to engage in processed foods.

5. Practice yoga. Moving while breathing through yoga poses is a great way to activate your parasympathetic nervous system, relax you and connect with your body. It helps so much with controlling cravings because it makes you less impulsive, less stressed and more connected. Yoga also helps center you and the more centered that you are from the inside-out, the less tempting processed foods become. This can be a 10 minute youtube video or an in-person class.

6. Satisfy your sweet cravings with some easy swaps that still stimulate your taste buds:

  • Eating Evolved 100% cacao dark chocolate with a few salted cashews (you can try 70%-80% if you have not yet adjusted to chocolate this dark)
  •  Organic apple with 1-2 tbsp nut butter topped with salt and cinnamon.
  • Berry Cream: ¾ cup of frozen berries with 1 tbsp nut butter, microwaved for 45-60 seconds
  • A handful of frozen cherries (literally my obsession) 

7. Avoid using artificial sweeteners. They are sweeter than sugar and drive your sweet cravings.

8. Remove processed foods, sugar and sugar substitutes from your diet for two weeks. This will help reprogram your taste buds. This time period will give your taste buds a chance to readjust to natural flavors, enhancing your affinity for those foods. Eating only whole foods will also give your body the chance to recognize your natural satiety cues, something lost in the heavy consumption of processed snacks. Your taste buds crave what you feed them. So, while it is the hardest in the beginning, think of reducing your processed food intake as an opportunity to physically change your taste buds in the long run.

9. Pause for 5 seconds and envision the outcome. Envision yourself two hours after eating the processed food and think about any possible symptoms that you may feel. Then envision yourself two hours after not eating the processed food and how you feel. 

10. Move your body. Increasing physical activity can help combat the mood changes that accompany weaning yourself off of processed foods since physical activity will stimulate your dopamine receptors.

11. Get cozy with a hot cup of herbal tea. Try cinnamon, berry, or ginger tea with a splash of nut milk. Hydration is so important for reducing your sugar cravings and giving you more control over your choices.

12. Journal. This speaks to my sixth A: Always Disconnected. Connect with yourself more. As my yoga teacher, Diana Vitantonio says: if your heart and your mind are not speaking then your will is going to lead you to an addiction.

Be patient with yourself as your taste buds evolve. It is not an overnight process. Having the occasional treat such as dark chocolate or nut butter and fruit can keep you on track since, as mentioned before, too restrictive of an approach can lead to binges. There may also be additional reasons for why you have enhanced cravings such as vitamin deficiencies, candida overgrowth, etc. If this is something that you are concerned about then you may want to seek out a functional medicine practitioner.

Lastly, to make long-lasting change on processed food addiction, food policy changes are in order. Processed foods are too accessible and available, making it an easier choice than whole foods for many people. The marketing of these products to kids should also be better regulated as they are a very vulnerable target. The current subsidies on corn, wheat and sugar make processed foods cheap and full of refined grains and high fructose corn syrup.

Photo by David Streit on Unsplash

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