Food Addiction

Veggie egg white scramble w/soysage and avocado

I hate when the time I have available to eat is too early to feel hungry but if you wait until you’re available again you’ll get all grumpy and try to eat someone’s arm off. Kind of an eat now or forever hold your peace kind of situation. So I ate now.

At moments like this I turn to the trusted egg white scramble. It’s light enough that the fact that I’m not necessarily hungry is kind of irrelevant but high enough in protein to carry me over to whenever I eat next. I always add some kind of fat to round it out–today avocado, other times cheese or even nuts–and I use frozen vegetables because it’s just… easy.

This soysage thing is a problem.

I’m having one of those days where the stars are simply not aligning. Went to a meeting I didn’t have. Went to an apartment showing for a place that was already rented. Went to work without a charged laptop. Just, you know…

No matter. I have a delightful evening of activity ahead. Class at FlyWheel (never tried it). We’re talking nutrition counseling opportunities. Cool. Then I’m going back to the studio to support a friend of mine who’s teaching her first class. And then I’m teaching one of mine right after that.


Some people have expressed interest in my food addiction research I did for one of my graduate seminars this summer and I’m happy to share some highlights. I think it’s a fascinating and relevant topic of study, but a lot of the research is contradictory (as is the case with, uh, everything nutrition-related). I won’t share my paper because I’d never publish something I wrote in a night (I did get an A, yes), but these are the highlights…

Why is Food Addiction Relevant?

Today approximately 1 in 3 Americans is obese with the Centers for Disease Control predicting rates of 42% by 2030. While many consider this a uniquely American phenomenon, obesity is actually on the rise worldwide. The Organisation for Economic Cooperation and Development has seen two- and three-fold increases in obesity rates in 19 of their 34 affiliated countries since 1980.

Source: OECD Obesity Update 2012

Despite advances in treatment and prevention of obesity-related comorbidities–including diabetes, heart disease, hypertension, high blood pressure, etc.–along with improved public health initiatives promoting weight loss, we (as a global population) can’t seem to get a handle on the obesity pandemic.

This raises the question: Is there perhaps an element beyond voluntary control that is contributing to increased, seemingly unstoppable rates of obesity around the world?

The answer, some say, is food addiction. If food addiction is validated by research, it could have major implications for the treatment and prevention of obesity, which is why it is a hot topic today.

What is food addiction?

Currently, food addiction is defined as an eating disorder according to criteria in the DSM-IV. However, many argue that it better fits the criteria associated with general addiction (as related to substance abuse). Addiction is defined in the DSM-IV as meeting 3 of the following 7 criteria:

  • Tolerance
  • Withdrawal
  • Increased intake
  • Persistent desire or inability to control use
  • Excessive time spent seeking out or recovering from a substance
  • Interference with important life activities
  • Continued use despite knowledge of adverse effects

Binge-related eating disorders (including BED and bulimia) meet both the physiological and behavioral diagnostic criteria for addiction.

What’s the evidence for food addiction?

Most of the research I looked at involved animal models (usually rats), but some human studies have been done. The process generally involved a period of feeding–either sugar, fat or a sugar-fat combination–followed by forced abstention. Researchers observe physiological and behavioral changes when consuming the food and later during abstention. Evidence for food addiction in rats includes:

  • Neurochemical responses during consumption of sugar – Specifically, the brain sees a spike in dopamine release when consuming sugar.
  • Opiate-like withdrawal symptoms during forced abstention – These symptoms include physiological responses like teeth chattering, forepaw tremor, head shakes, decreased body temperature, as well as psychological/behavioral responses like aggression, depression and anxiety. These are classic signs of withdrawal in humans, too. (Minus the forepaw tremor.)
  • Continued use despite consequences – In one study, rats would endure electrical shock in order to consume sugar.

Is food addiction associated with obesity?

This is where things get tricky. Most studies I looked at did not find correlations between food addiction and increased BMI. In fact, one study found that rats were actually self-regulating their intake of other foods in order to binge on their addictive substance (sugar). Weight gain was noted in studies where sugar was combined with fat. The conclusion here was that sugar is the addictive trigger but fat causes the weight gain.

If we apply this finding to the human population, I would predict that food addiction could be associated with obesity considering the increased availability of highly palatable, sugar-fat combo foods on the market. Still other studies, however, have noted binge/addictive behaviors on fat-free, no-sugar substances that would arguably be considered unpalatable (like rice cakes, pretzels, etc.). So the palatability of the food may not be the cause of the addictive trigger. Instead, some studies have concluded that food itself is not addictive. It is a consummatory pattern of bingeing and restricting that causes addictive behavior. 

One really interesting study also found that sweet taste in the absence of calories (think: artificial sweeteners) signals to the brain to seek sustenance and can trigger binge behaviors. This has major implications for the consumption of “diet” products on the market that reduce calories by replacing real sugar with calorie-free sweeteners.

How is food addiction treated?

Treatment of food addiction is delicate. Unlike other substances of abuse, food is required to sustain life. Imagine telling an alcoholic they have to continue drinking every day in order to survive. As such, abstention is clearly not a solution for the treatment of food addiction.

Right now food addiction is defined as an eating disorder and treated as such. Eating disorder treatment is usually multidisciplinary in approach and could include cognitive-behavioral therapy, interpersonal psychotherapy, medications and self-help groups. Some argue, however, that if food is an addictive substance the way drugs and alcohol are, it should be treated accordingly. Food Addicts Anonymous endorses a recovery program similar to Alcoholics Anonymous’ 12-step program.

And that’s that. Pretty interesting, right? I think it’s a very important topic of study right now. Considering New York’s new soda ban, I think it’s not too far-fetched to consider the parallels between Big Food and Big Tobacco in terms of public policy. When the government decided to address the dangers of smoking we saw tobacco taxation, public smoking bans and counter-advertising, all of which are initiatives we’re beginning to see associated with food, as well. Not saying it’s the same thing. Just that we may see some correlation in the next couple years as government leaders and public health officials scramble to get the obesity numbers under control.

Coke Dealer

Almond pancake w/peanut butter and fruit

I look like a total coke dealer today.

I’m running around with little sacks of white powder for my sugar presentation, which, by the way, I did successfully complete. This morning.

Did you know that the average American adult consumes 32 teaspoons of sugar per day? That’s about 500 calories. While there is no daily value for sugar intake, recommendations are to keep it below 10 teaspoons per day or about 150 calories (40 grams).

As a point of reference, there are about 40g of sugar in 1.5 sodas. Which kind of gives a whole new meaning to the profession of Coke dealing, am I right?

This kind of Coke. Get it?

The goods.

The cocaine-Coke parallels continue when you examine the addictive properties of sugar. In animal studies, subjects consuming sugar exhibit:

  • opiate-like withdrawal symptoms
  • enhanced intake following abstinence
  • cross-sensitization (enhanced susceptibility to other addictions, specifically amphetamines)
  • changes in dopamine and acetycholine release

Most interesting (I think) is that these neurochemical changes are exacerbated when sugar is binged on by low-weight subjects. Implications for sugar addiction during dieting, perhaps?

Who wants a cupcake?

God, And Whatever I Want.

Green smoothie, oats, raisins, cinnamon, honey.

I’m offended by those little “personal” watermelons. It’s as if the qualifier “personal” implies that a full-size watermelon is not intended for consumption by just one person. As if averaging a watermelon every three days (by yourself) from June until August is somehow unacceptable.

Well. I’ve got news for the watermelon industry: Personal watermelons are stupid. Stop harvesting them. Bring me my behemoth melons so I can stop drinking water and just eat fruit. All day, all summer.

I took my last final yesterday. It was microbiology and it was hideous but it’s over and I cried. I feel like someone has lifted the crushing weight of planet earth from atop my body. I don’t even know what to do with myself.

Celebrating with sweet potato fries was a good place to start…

Cowfish = Best fries ever.

Mitch and her mom took me to Cowfish to celebrate. I cried on the way there. Cried in Trader Joe’s (with a personal watermelon in hand). Cried this morning in yoga. Cried on the way home.

I’m am


After dinner I just drove around the city in circles. Literally. I-277  encircles Uptown and is my route of choice for the kind of windows-down-music-up meditation (if you will) that comes when I need a second alone to simply process. I do this a lot.

I ended up at Amelie’s (as I do) where I weaved through the throngs of weary-eyed, coffee-slamming students just settling in (at 10pm) for a very long night, notes scattered across the table, Macbooks glowing, souls withering. That place looks different from this angle.

I plopped myself down in the atrium with my non-academic book of choice: The Prophet. A woman at a Unitarian Universalist church in Greenville gave it to me six or seven years ago when I was in the midst of the standard collegiate “exploring my faith” phase. I have no idea who she is except that she met me there once a week for a couple months until I simply never went back again.

“You shall be free indeed when your days are not without a care nor your nights without a want and a grief, but rather when these things girdle your life and yet you rise above them.”

It’s kind of odd, I suppose, to make a New Year’s Resolution to “know god.” But that’s what I did back in January. It wasn’t a resolution to go to any kind of church or temple or to read any books or pray or anything. It was largely a resolution to simply stop resisting and just see what happens.

I have never had any real semblance of religious faith in my life, but it is something that I explore (academically and spiritually, I suppose).

Wonderfully devout relatives have never gotten through to me. Trying so hard to fit in with the Bible study group in my sorority only further alienated me. Dating a super Christian in a worship band for three years never got me into a church.

Nope. But two very clear things have pushed me towards being open to the idea of a higher power in the last year.

I met Mitch at work at the lowest of my lows. I’m talking the can’t-get-out-of-bed, slamming-St.-John’s-wort, cry-yourself-to-sleep kind of low that leaves you feeling completely alone in a room full of people.

We talk a lot about the timing of our meeting and her moving in and how what our friendship evolved into was exactly what both of us needed at exactly that moment. And it was in acknowledging the absence of coincidence and embracing the seemingly deliberate crossing of paths that I really felt like something bigger than me was at work.

True story.

The other half of it is, of course, my yoga practice. The combination of the physical practice, the meditation, the readings and, most importantly, the people I’ve met along the way is nothing if not total surrender to all that is good. It won’t happen all the time, but there are these moments (on the mat and otherwise) when you just feel like everything in the world and in those around you and in yourself is good. And, while I’m new at this whole faith thing, I hear God is good.

“God is not too hard to believe in. God is too good to believe in, we being such strangers to such goodness. The love of God is to me absolutely overwhelming.”

Time to go find a job… Dream it, do it.

Whatever, Science

Smoothie? Microbial growth on an agar plate?

I am not a “science person.” I do words, not numbers. In college I was required to take two sciences to graduate. You know what I took? My senior year? Oceanography and avian biology. Yes. The study of the ocean spoke to my childhood dream of being a marine biologist (was this not every single girl’s dream from age six to approximately 15?) and I assumed avian bio would be little more than bird watching.

Turns out oceanography is all weather patterns and currents and erosion and shit and not a single mention of killer whales. Avian biology requires a pigeon dissection. Dear God. I also had to memorize 20 bird calls, which I played incessantly in my dorm, driving my hallmates to the edge of insanity. (I do have to throw in that I did get to capture, hold and release a wild cardinal in an avian bio lab and it was really, really cool.)

It would’ve been convenient if I’d taken, oh I don’t know, microbiology… chemistry… something I’m having to take now because I didn’t take it then. Hindsight is always 20/20, isn’t it? I mean, how was I to know I’d completely change my mind and drag my poor one-sided right brain through the act of “mastering” a science?

Microbiology blows is what I’m saying. The cruelest joke of this whole science thing? Lecture and lab. Gross. Who does that? I do not need five hours of this garbage twice a week. And I certainly don’t need back-to-back tests (one for lecture, one for lab) for which I do not study until an hour before they are to be taken.


Anyway. I’m studying for my micro lab exam and my smoothie looks like a bacterial growth. That is all.

Tough Decisions

Tofu scramble w/peppers, broccoli, salad

Here’s the situation.

I am over a month into this semester and just realized last week that I am enrolled in one class that I only went to the very first two weeks. (It meets twice a week.) I forgot! Anyway, this translates to approximately six classes I missed. I think. At any rate, when I figured it out last week and decided to finally go, I got there and class was cancelled. When I got in today, we took our first test.

When I tell people this story, they react in pure unbridled horror and tell me this is their nightmare. (I’m glad my reality is the rest of the world’s nightmare. Good feeling.) Me? I’m not so worried about it. Let me put it this way… On one of the days I actually went to class, we watched a video tutorial on how to use Microsoft Word. This is a graduate level course. You see what I’m saying here?

Plus, I picked the desk with THIS on it upon which to take my test today:

Because it's lucky.

In fact, I took not one but two tests atop that rabbitman today and am happy to report that both were just fine.

You’d think, though, that leading up to this little adventure I might have studied a little bit for the test in the class I don’t go to but… no. Nope. In fact, I had 30 minutes right before the test and presented myself with the option of sitting and reading through the lecture notes or hoofing it across campus to get coffee. You know what I decided?


Tough decisions, y’all. Tough decisions.

I also had the choice of gym or yoga.


Cleaning out my itunes or filing my taxes… Sadly, I did my taxes.

It’s such a hard life.