Do you sometimes wonder how you got to the point of overeating AGAIN, even though you were determined that THIS TIME, you wouldn’t give in? It’s likely that you lost control because something has triggered you.
One of the main triggers that cause us to overeat are specific foods. Much has been written on food addiction and the effect of food on the brain. One of my favourite books is The End of Overeating by Kessler (2009). Kessler explains that processed foods made of a combination of sugar, fat and salt make us eat more because they contain a high concentration of ingredients the brain considers rewarding. Kessler calls these ‘highly palatable foods’. When we eat them, we experience feelings of elation and pleasure, as if we were on drugs. The brain releases chemicals that make us associate food with pleasure and condition us to want more. Even when the food isn’t there, we can get triggered if we smell it, see it, hear or think about it.
The brain can become conditioned so that even a signal that predicts food generates the brain responses that make us pursue it. A good way to illustrate this is Pavlov’s dog experiment. In the 1890s Russian physiologist Ivan Pavlov was looking at salivation in dogs in response to being fed, when he noticed that his dogs would begin to salivate whenever he entered the room, even when he wasn’t bringing them food. Pavlov discovered that any object or event which the dogs learned to associate with food would trigger the same response. He started ringing a bell every time he brought them food and they started salivating. After he had rung the bell a number of times, he tried the bell on its own. As you might expect, the bell on its own now caused an increase in salivation. The dogs had come to associate the bell with food.
Food addiction researchers Schulte, Avena and Gearhardt did a study entitled Which Foods May be Addictive? (2015), which shows a list of the most addictive foods. According to this study the number one addictive food is chocolate!! That’s a very obvious trigger for most of us, but there are other foods that are triggering to some and not to others, for example yoghurt or nuts.
So when you start your journey to end addictive eating it’s important to identify your personal trigger foods. How do you do that? It’s quite simple. Here are two ways you can find out what foods trigger you:
- Eat the foods in question and try to stop eating them half way through your portion. If you feel compelled to keep eating, or if you stop eating but keep thinking about them, they are likely trigger foods for you.
- Make a ‘traffic light’ table with three columns to identify your trigger foods. Name the columns RED, ORANGE and GREEN. In the red column, list all the foods that you know you can’t stop eating once you start. In the orange column, list all foods that sometimes you can eat in moderation and other times you can’t. In the green column, write the foods that you can eat without major problems.Your red AND orange foods are you trigger foods.
There’s another important point and that is VOLUME! Often, food addiction progresses to the point where we’re no longer triggered only by specific foods. We become triggered by the activity of eating. That’s when we start bingeing on anything and everything, even fresh fruit and vegetables. I used to eat so many carrots a day that my skin literally turned orange!
If your addictive eating habit has progressed to the point where you have an eating addiction as well as a food addiction, this would also need to be addressed to find food freedom.