The Farm Stand: Why we struggle with food addiction

Authored By Shawn Schuster

Addiction is such an interesting state of mind. In most cases, those who are addicted to harmful substances don’t want to admit the damage that the addiction has on their body, family and life. Some may be addicted to drugs or alcohol, while others are addicted to seemingly harmless activities like working out or knuckle cracking.

Food addiction is no different. Oftentimes, the focus of a food addiction problem is on the quantity of food eaten, but I want to also talk about the quality of food in an addiction scenario.

The University of Michigan recently released a study showing that pizza is the most addictive food, with chocolate and potato chips tied for second place. We already know that it’s the salt, fat and sugar in junk food that we crave, but why do we keep falling prey to this trap? Why does our mind betray our body?

The science behind food addiction is broken down quite simply into an overstimulated reward system. Our bodies release chemicals (mainly dopamine) that make us feel good in certain situations. Our bodies sometimes crave nutrients that may be lacking, but in the case of junk food, the cravings are for the dopamine.

Hoarding fats, sugar and salt is a primal instinct that harkens back to the prerefrigeration days when our bodies needed to stock up on those things to help us last through the winter. But in just the last generation or two, we’ve gone from actively taking part in our food acquisition process to instant gratification. You can now order pizza online or grab a candy bar at any corner gas station, and you don’t even need to leave your car to get a sackful of hamburgers and fries.

As with any reward system, the threshold continues to rise as the rewards become more abundant. Our bodies automatically lower the dopamine output levels to balance things out, so we need to eat more and more “reward foods” to compensate. We also don’t need to stock up on fatty foods just before winter anymore, but we do it year-round to continue stimulating that reward system.

I’m not here to shame anyone or make anyone feel guilty about the way they eat, but I think it’s important to realize how this all happened so quickly. We’re surrounded by these bad foods and we grew up with them all around us, so it’s to be expected.

There’s no easy way to fight food addiction, but the good news is that it’s becoming more widely recognized as a legitimate problem. The National Institute on Drug Addiction has recently recognized food addiction as an issue on par with drug addiction, and the University of Massachusetts Medical School held its first Food Addiction Conference last October to help psychologists, social workers, dietitians and medical professionals discuss the latest treatments for food addiction.

I’ve had my own fair share of struggles with food addiction over the years, which is a main reason why I became a farmer and food activist. I’ve never done a drug in my life and alcohol doesn’t interest me, but I used to be able to sit down and eat two or three Quarter Pounders with cheese several times a week. The high metabolism of my youth made me think that I was perfectly fine, but it all caught up to me when I hit my 30s.

Even though I’m now surrounded by some of the healthiest food that I raise myself, I admit that I still have the occasional unclean thought about junk food. But it’s a constant battle that must be fought. If I were to give in and indulge on some junk food, the guilt and health consequences wouldn’t be worth it. That’s what I have to keep in mind.

As a father, I’m hyperaware of how my own food choices transfer down to my four children. I’m proud that my kids get more choices than I did growing up, but I want to make sure they understand the benefits of eating healthy in moderation. Sure, they still get junk food every once in a while-but that’s what grandparents live for, right?

Shawn Schuster is a small-scale sustainable farmer in Alabama. He can be reached on Twitter or by email. The opinions expressed in this column belong solely to the author, not or its employees.