If you’re overweight, there’s a good chance that you’re addicted to certain foods and perhaps don’t know it. But it’s not your fault. You are not gluttonous, weak-willed, or a bad person. Food addiction is usually framed as an emotional issue, but it is in fact largely a biochemical problem.To put it bluntly, your hormones, taste buds, and brain chemistry have been hijacked by the food industry.
It makes me furious to hear my patients blame themselves for their weight problems. Although personal empowerment and responsibility are important, they are usually not a strong-enough defense against the steady stream of hyperprocessed, highly palatable, intensely addictive foods that the food industry churns out to claim the biggest market share — or what industry insiders call “stomach share.”
Sugary foods, processed foods filled with sweeteners, and refined carbohydrates, such as bread, pasta, and chips, all turn into sugar in your body and spike your blood-sugar levels. New research shows that sugars light up pleasure centers in your brain, just like cocaine and heroin do. This causes addictive cravings for these foods — cravings that we often can’t resist.
How else to explain that 70 percent of Americans and nearly 20 percent (and growing) of the world’s population are overweight today? How else to explain that one in two Americans has what I call “diabesity” — the spectrum of imbalance ranging from mild insulin resistance to prediabetes to full-blown type 2 diabetes? How else to explain why so many of us eat foods that we know aren’t good for us, that aggravate chronic symptoms, and that make us feel sick, bloated, and guilty?
Many people turn to fad diets or even drastic gastric-bypass surgery to overcome the health and weight issues caused by food addiction. One patient of mine lost 200 pounds after a gastric bypass — and then ate his way back to obesity through a constant stream of M&M’s. Too often, “remedies” such as gastric bypass fail because they don’t fix the underlying biology of food addiction.
Anytime we have access to hyper-palatable sweet or fatty foods, we are biologically programmed to eat a lot of them and to store those excess calories as belly fat to sustain us through scarce times ahead. That’s what your body is supposed to do, but the problem is that the scarcity we’re storing up for never comes. What saved us as hunter-gatherers is killing us now. Seen through this lens, the diabesity epidemic is just a normal biological response to the inputs from our abnormal diet.
In order to break free from these addictive substances, to stop overeating, and to reprogram your biology, you need to detox from the drug-like foods and beverages you’ve been hooked on. Big Food spends millions on food science and hires “craving experts” to ensure that you will become addicted to deviously developed “drugs,” all of which are hidden in cleverly disguised vehicles for sugar, fat, and salt. We need to take a page from 12-step addiction programs. When we treat alcoholics or cocaine addicts, we don’t say “practice moderation” and advise them to cut down to just one drink or one line of cocaine a day. We know they must clear the brain and body of these powerful drugs completely, ideally through a well-designed program that supports the detox process.
The more you are aware of the biological forces at play — both in terms of how your cravings have been chemically induced and how important it is to break free — the better your chance of healing yourself.
How Did We Get Here?
Many organizations — including the United Nations, World Health Organization, and National Institutes of Health (NIH) — are struggling to solve this big fat problem. Obesity-related issues account for 80 percent of U.S. healthcare costs and will create a global price tag of $47 trillion during the next 20 years. The NIH alone spends $800 million annually trying to find the “cause” of obesity. Yet despite all this attention, we are still failing.
The food industry would have us believe obesity is the result of personal choices. Their implication: People are fat not because their biology has been masterfully tricked into craving the “food” that the industry produces, but because people are lazy and gluttonous. If we all just took more personal responsibility, the industry’s paid experts assert, we could solve this problem. There are no good or bad foods, they claim; it’s all about moderation. And, of course, we should all just exercise a bit more.
What they don’t explain is that you would have to walk four-and-a-half miles to burn off one 20-ounce soda. To burn off just one supersized fast-food meal, you’d have to run four miles a day, every day, for a week. Oh, and thanks to the addiction-generating genius of fast-food engineering, once you’ve eaten that supersized meal, you’re going to want another one — soon.
Finger-pointing isn’t going to solve the problem. But I think it’s important for us all to understand that the true blame for our weight and health problems lies less with those of us who’ve inadvertently become addicted to processed foods than with the food companies that consciously design highly addictive food products.
Food scientists focus on creating foods that trigger the “bliss point,” that addictive reward pathway in the brain that keeps us going back for more. They chemically exaggerate certain flavors in order to create taste sensations so intoxicatingly appealing that no matter how much you devour, you feel you can never get enough.
You might think I’m being paranoid, but in his recent book, Salt Sugar Fat: How the Food Giants Hooked Us, Pulitzer Prize–winning investigative reporter Michael Moss pulls back the veil on Big Food. With firsthand interviews and meticulous research into secret company documents, he reveals how these companies have purposefully and strategically altered our food supply to our detriment. Moss points the finger at all the main players in Big Food, including Kraft, Coca-Cola, Kellogg’s, Nestlé, and Cargill.
And yet, industry and government still love to place the blame on us and our “lack of willpower.” This allows the food industry to push its addictive products without limits and the government to avoid any politically risky social reform. But when companies profit from getting people to consume more and more of their products — products that have been scientifically proven to cause obesity, heart disease, diabetes, and cancer — we have a problem.
The Proof Is in the Milk Shakes
The science of food addiction is clearer now than ever before. A powerful study recently published in the American Journal of Clinical Nutrition shows that higher-sugar, higher-glycemic foods might be addictive in the same way as cocaine and heroin. David Ludwig, MD, and his colleagues at Harvard proved that foods with more sugar — those that raise blood sugar quickly or have what is called a high-glycemic index — trigger a special region in the brain, called the nucleus accumbens, that is known to be “ground zero” for conventional addictions like gambling or drug abuse. This is the pleasure center of the brain that, when activated, makes us feel good and drives us to seek out more of that feeling.
Ludwig and his colleagues gave 12 overweight or obese men between the ages of 18 and 35 a low-sugar, low-glycemic milk shake. Four hours later, they measured the activity of the nucleus accumbens. They also measured blood-sugar and hunger levels.
Then, several weeks later, the researchers gave the same subjects another round of milk shakes. Think of these as trick milk shakes. They tasted and looked the same, were engineered to deliver precisely the same flavor and texture, and had exactly the same amount of calories, protein, fat, and carbohydrates. They were designed to be exactly the same in every way — except in how much and how quickly they spiked blood sugar. In contrast to the first shakes, this batch was higher in sugar and had a higher-glycemic index.
Without exception, the high-sugar, high-glycemic-index milk shake caused a much greater spike in blood-sugar and insulin levels, and also yielded reports of increased hunger and cravings four hours after it was consumed. This part of the study findings was not surprising and had actually been shown in many previous studies.
The breakthrough finding here was this: For every single participant, when the high-glycemic shake was consumed, the nucleus accumbens lit up like a Christmas tree. By contrast, when the low-glycemic shake was consumed, the nucleus accumbens showed no such response. This study proved conclusively that foods that spike blood sugar affect the brain in the same way that drugs like cocaine and heroin do and, so, might also be biologically addictive.
We’re not just talking here about table sugar or the liquid sugar found in sodas, juices, sports drinks, and vitamin waters. Many processed foods have a high-glycemic index as well. Did you know a serving of Prego tomato sauce has two-and-a-half teaspoons of sugar — more than two Oreo cookies? Did you know the average single-size commercial yogurt has more sugar per serving than a can of Coke? Did you know the main ingredient in your barbecue sauce is usually high-fructose corn syrup?
And, while our bodies certainly need the starches and sugars found in healthy carbohydrates — such as veggies, whole-kernel grains, and low-glycemic fruit like berries — refined carbs such as bread, pasta, and chips basically turn into sugar in your body, playing havoc with blood sugar and causing cravings.
There are some 600,000 processed food items on the market today, 80 percent of which contain added sugar. Most people have little opportunity to make healthy choices — or even understand what they might be — before the food industry influences their palates and their default food choices for a lifetime.
Food addiction is real and is the root cause of why so many people are overweight and sick. They are stuck in a vicious cycle of cravings. They eat foods that spike their blood sugar and make the brain’s pleasure center light up. This triggers more cravings, driving them to seek out more of the substance that gives them this “high.”
When you continue to “use” sugar and processed foods, your dopamine receptors are decreased. That means you need more and more of the addictive substance to generate the same amount of pleasure. This dynamic is called tolerance. It explains why a light or occasional drinker might feel significant effects from a single glass of wine, while a heavy drinker or alcoholic may need to drink a fifth of vodka just to get a buzz.
Are you overwhelmed yet? Don’t be. The good news is that if you can kick food addiction — and I’m here to tell you that you most certainly can if you do a short detox (for more on this, see “2 Steps to Detox Success” at right) — then you can literally reset your biology and your metabolism. This will enable you to reverse chronic symptoms, break free of your cravings, lose weight, and find your way back to your natural state of health, energy, and well-being.
This article was adapted from the book The Blood Sugar Solution 10-Day Detox Diet. Copyright 2014 by Mark Hyman, MD. Reprinted by permission of Little, Brown and Company, New York, NY. All rights reserved.
Mark Hyman is the medical director and founder of The UltraWellness Center in Lenox, Mass., and a leading expert in functional medicine. Follow him on Twitter @markhymanmd and on Facebook at www.facebook.com/drmarkhyman.