Monday, October 4, 2010

How to beat food addiction

Food is pleasurable to eat. Nature has endowed us with a desire to eat the foods that keep us alive and healthy and a sense of enjoyment and satisfaction when we do so.

The pleasure of food is part of the body's balance system for maintaining weight and health. We're designed to be motivated by this pleasure to seek out foods that sustain life and health. As we eat them, they become less appealing until we stop. The system works perfectly to maintain optimum weight with foods provided by nature.

That two-thirds of all Americans are overweight does not represent a failure of our bodies to regulate weight, but a failure of our food system to provide real food.

While most foods taste good and are pleasurable to eat, some foods act on our bodies like drugs. Certain combinations of concentrated salt, fat and sugar and other ingredients act on the brain's reward system much like heroin, cocaine, or morphine.

Cupcakes, for example, have high concentrations of processed white flour, sugar, and fat. In addition to tasting good, this combination can trigger the release of dopamine, which is the brain's "feel-good neurotransmitter." Later, the body craves another hit of dopamine. But over-stimulating the brain receptors for dopamine causes the body to produce less of it. So the more cupcakes you eat, the more cupcakes it takes to reproduce the dopamine high you crave. In other words, you'll eventually have to eat two cupcakes to get the same dopamine reward you used to get with one.

This is why fatty, salty and sugary foods are such a perfect product. They're cheap to manufacture, and once companies get people to try them through advertising, they may quickly become addicted. The foods themselves generate a strong desire to eat an ever-increasing quantity.

Companies have become skillful at engineering food products to trigger exactly this addictive response. As the amount of food necessary to satisfy the addiction goes up, companies are happy to super-size portions to respond to the "demand" they have created through addiction-engineered foods. You'll notice that only fatty, sugary, salty -- addictive -- food portions have risen. Portions of non-addictive foods have not.

Addictive junk foods are designed to side-step your rational decision-making process and turn you into something like a drug addict. Food companies have hijacked your food decision-making process to serve their goals, and at the expense of your health.

What they’re really engineering is the ideal customer: one who compulsively eats increasing amounts of their branded food products. (They're also engineering the ideal customer for the medical-industrial complex, but that's a topic for another post).

Caffeinated sodas represent a "perfect storm" of addictive qualities. They contain sugar and caffeine, which are both addictive. But the carbonation itself causes an additional release of dopamine. Those tiny bubbles create pain in the mouth, which causes the brain to release dopamine.

Some foods and beverages are addictive, but not unhealthy. For example, sparkling "fizzy" water in glass bottles is perfectly healthy. Spicy foods made "hot" with chili peppers can be very healthful. And chocolate is highly addictive, but raw cacao is generally beneficial to health. 

The risk in eating peppers and chocolate is that these foods are often difficult to find without a generous portion of junk. An addiction to peppers could lead you to crave nachos, for example. But if you make your own spicy food at home using healthful ingredients, spicy pepper addiction does no harm.

Chocolate is especially problematic, in part because it's unusually addictive but also because it tends come overly processed and mixed with junk like sugar, milk, preservatives and other ingredients that are not the healthiest of foods. Even if you buy organic raw cacao and add it to foods without resorting to sugar, dairy and the rest, you risk a strong addiction that could later motivate you to eat chocolate bars and chocolate cake.

Most addictive foods are total junk foods. Worse, these foods tend to be very high in fat and calories and low in nutrients. So too much junk food in your diet can leave you malnourished. This triggers a panicky survival mode that combines with the junk food addiction to make you experience a weird metabolic hunger that causes even more urgent uncontrollable eating.

But addiction can strike even when you're not hungry. The most common example is craving for dessert. By having something sweet after a meal, we condition our brains to expect a sugar-high and dopamine reward after meals. Even when we feel full to the point of discomfort, we still want dessert. 

Uncontrollable junk food addicts behave very much like drug addicts -- hating themselves for lack of control while simultaneously becoming defensive about junk food and hostile toward healthy foods. Extreme cases involve hoarding, hiding and lying about food, and damage to career and relationships.

Plutarch tells a story about the Spartan King Agesilaus leading his army through Thasian territory. The Thasians sent the Spartans barley meal, plus a wide variety of sweet desserts, fatty delicacies and a wide variety of "expensive things to eat and drink" -- the addictive junk food of classical antiquity. Agesilaus kept the barley for his army, but ordered the rest distributed to the Helot slaves in their company. When the Thasians asked why he did this, Agesilaus said: "It is not in keeping that those who practice manly virtues should indulge in such gormandizing, for things that attract servile people are alien to free men."

We believe that all addictions, including food addictions, constitute a form of slavery.

The Spartan Diet solution is to, well, get on the Spartan Diet.

The Spartan Diet takes a two-part approach to addictive foods. First, all addictive foods are eliminated: No processed flour, no concentrated fats like butter, and no overly salty foods. In fact, there are no industrial "engineered" foods at all. And we also call on Spartan Dieters to honestly identify which foods are eaten with addictive compulsion -- and to stop eating them, eliminate them from the kitchen and take pride in abstinence. If you crave dessert, stop having dessert altogether. The compulsion will slowly decrease until you no longer feel it.

The second part is to increase the healthy pleasure of food. Because Spartan Diet foods are by definition the highest quality, fresh ingredients, Spartan Diet foods taste just about as good as food can taste. In our upcoming book, we'll show you how to make the healthiest foods also the most delicious.

The drug-addict's dopamine pleasure is replaced by the pleasure of how food tastes, and also by the pleasure of vibrant health.

By abstaining from addictive foods, and embracing fresh, nutritionally complete and balanced whole-foods, you enjoy food more than ever, plus enjoy the ultimate pleasure of total, lifelong health – which we believe is better even than cupcakes.