Food addiction recovery

Eating-emotionalFood cravings can be as powerful and irresistible as a bright orange bag of Nacho Cheese Doritos. Even the thought of such hyperpalpable foods can increase dopamine, a pleasure-seeking brain chemical.

With 70 percent of Americans overweight or obese, we’ve become a nation of dopamine seekers addicted to the opioid that controls emotions, motivation and feelings of pleasure. The brain is very sensitive to opioids. Receptors, small monitoring devices on brain cells, detect the level of opioids in the brain and continually make adjustments.

How much does the American epidemic of the expanding waistline reflect a lack of personal responsibility, and how much does it reflect industrial food processing that adds hyperpalpable ingredients, including those known to promote addiction?


1. Eating for the emotional effect.
2. Depending on dieting and diet foods.
3. Perfectionist thinking.
4. No-carb dieting. Complex carbs vs. simple.
5. Energy drinks, specialty coffee drinks and wine.
6. Not practicing mindful eating.
7. Not planning meals in advance.

Ask Lisette Cifaldi, Hilton Head Health’s director of behavioral health, and she’ll show you brain imaging (PET scans) that prove hyperpalpable foods like Doritos, Oreos and McDonald’s french fries trigger the same chemicals and pleasure pathways in the brain as heroin, opium and morphine.

Addictive foods light up the reward system in the brain like a Vegas casino — so much so in some people that it overpowers the brain’s ability to tell them to stop eating when they have had enough. Researchers at Harvard University think that obese people have grown resistant to the hormone leptin, which decreases appetite.

Viewing Weight from New Angle

Our immune system, programmed to identify and expel outside invaders like bacteria and viruses, can also be triggered by dietary toxins. These factors cause the release of chemicals and the activation of cells involved in the inflammatory process that drive diabetes, vascular disease, heart attacks and strokes.

The 108 million American dieters who support the $20 billion U.S. weight-loss industry need a paradigm shift — weight is more than a calorie quandary.

“Being overweight can be a symptom of food addiction,” Cifaldi said.

Cifaldi teaches an intensive week-long workshop called Food Addiction Recovery (FAR) at Hilton Head Health, the local wellness spa and weight-loss retreat.

During her workshop, Cifaldi presents PET scans that show that obese people and drug addicts have fewer dopamine receptors, making them more likely to crave things that boost dopamine, a symptom of addiction.

Studies show that brain cells and receptors adjust to the greater degree of fat, sugar and salt in the foods we eat. Abnormally high stimulation generates excessive reward signals, damaging the chemistry of the brain. Over time, the signs of physical addiction to addictive foods develop, such as an increasing tolerance to their pleasurable effects. Researchers speculate that brain receptors, which evolved in ancestral times, have not adapted to hyperpalpable foods.

Why Call Yourself an Addict?

“Eight and a half years ago, I was 60 pounds overweight,” Cifaldi said when describing the seeds of her own recovery and desire to help others. “I lost that weight and have kept it off because I started looking at my relationship with certain foods as an addiction. I am a recovering food addict. I have a long-standing problem with food, and that started showing up on my body.”

Addiction is the loss of control over substances, causing compulsive habits, despite harmful consequences such as illness, disability and loss of work or social relationships. Loss of control can be over the types of food chosen. Loss of control can be seen also in eating excessive quantities of food. Unlike diabetes, which doctors can diagnose with a simple blood test, no diagnostic test exists for the disease of addiction.

Food addiction is a disease because the abuse of food leads to damage in the structure and function of the brain. Dieting treats the symptom of the addiction — weight — but doesn’t fundamentally solve the problem.

The problem is an unhealthy relationship with food.

Naming the problem, Cifaldi explained, begins the healing process. It provides a starting point for problem-solving and no longer limits the solution to willpower alone.

Weeding Out the Roots of Addiction

“Guess what? We’re not going to worry about our weight anymore,” Cifaldi said when demonstrating how she starts the first day of her food addiction workshop. If that isn’t enough to send her typically overweight audience packing, she asks them to imagine the metaphor of planting a summer garden.

Every morning, day after day of clearing away the yard waste, you wake up with an itchy rash. Medicine makes the rash go away for a minute, but the rash ultimately returns, spreading all over your body and driving you nuts.

“The rash is your weight and the stuff you keep using to get rid of it is dieting. You won’t find lasting relief until you weed out the roots of your addiction,” Cifaldi said.

Reversing the damage of food addiction requires a holistic approach, not just a diet, pill or operation. Addiction is intricate; the way to treat it is part emotional, part physical, part spiritual, part social and part cognitive.

Healing the Whole Self

Although the roots of food addiction are as varied as people, the treatment is always the same: healing the whole self — mind, body and spirit.

Many food addicts have a psychological dependence on the brain chemicals triggered by addictive foods. They have an emotional relationship with food. Chocolate is one of the most addictive foods because it boosts opioids and the feel-good chemical serotonin. Small amounts are OK, but addictive foods can become an unhealthy lifeline, a tool in an emotional survival kit.

For many people, addictive foods are like an alcoholic beverage is to the alcoholic. It takes away the stress. It stops the world and lets us get off. It’s an escape and a refuge. Eating addicting foods becomes an automatic response to unwanted feelings. Abstinence may be the only path to recovery. But food addictions can be tougher than a drug or alcohol habit to beat because people have to eat to survive.

“When you’re an alcoholic, you lock up the liquor and keep it away in a cage. Food addicts still have to deal with their addiction, three times a day,” Cifaldi said.

Although abusing food can damage the brain and body, repair and recovery can happen over time and with less exposure to the toxins and chemicals in hyperpalpable foods. Cognitive therapy can help.

Exercising and eating more nutrient-dense foods — foods that contain the most micronutrients, phytochemicals and other health-promoting compounds — also promote detox. Foods have the power to harm but also the power to heal.

Food addicts, especially those who love their sweets, may feel withdrawal symptoms for three to six weeks, but as each week goes by, it gets easier. Be prepared. Unconscious cravings are quick: It takes only 30 milliseconds for the food addict’s brain to queue up a craving for cheesecake. Cravings typically last 15 minutes; the key is to wait them out.

Living in an environment of abundance like the U.S. and following a nutrient-dense diet does not mean sacrificing taste. It doesn’t mean having to become a vegan or swearing off animal products, either. Individual tastes are different, though most people will get addicted to hyperpalpable foods like Doritos. And like any highly addictive drugs, most people must make a conscious choice to avoid them.