Food Addiction

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By Claire McDonnell Liu, Nutritionist at Leafie.org

Food addiction, often a highly controversial topic, is receiving increasing attention as a serious problem that many people struggle with.

Food addiction refers to a behavioural problem where a person is unable to stop eating, despite consequences that can include physical and emotional discomfort, weight gain and health risks.


Food addiction pathway

Research suggests that food addiction follows a similar pattern to drug addiction and can lead to cravings, changes to food tolerance and withdrawal symptoms.  

Convenience foods are engineered to be highly palatable, loaded with refined carbs, poor quality fats, salt, sugar and additives.  Research shows that these Ultra Processed Foods (UPF) are capable of supercharging the brain’s reward centre in the same way that alcohol and addictive drugs like cocaine and heroin do, with the potential toalter behavioural, neural and endocrine pathways over time [1]. 

The limbic system containing the brain’s reward circuit regulate our ability to feel pleasure. Release of dopamine, a feel-good brain chemical, can associate eating with heightened pleasure, whilst disrupting our messaging system that recognises when we are full.   Feeling pleasure motivates us to repeat behaviours, so that a person is motivated to repeat the same reward stimulating experience. With each use the pathways become stronger and more compelling, creating an addiction. This can lead us to want to eat more, more often and set the pattern for an unhealthy or addictive relationship with food.

Dr Mary Barson: Overcoming the blocks to healthy lifestyle

Dr Mary Barson is a GP based inBellarine Peninsula, in Victoria, Australia with a particular interest in holistic and lifestyle medicine.

In an inspiring presentation Dr Barson shares her experiences of supporting patients to change food addiction behaviours using low carb lifestyle support. She explains emotional eating, the psychology of changing habits and how different people required dramatically different approaches and tools to support and overcome food addiction. “Low Carb lifestyle actually really can work because it addresses the physiological changes behind why people become overweight and obese in the first place. It fixes the causes, sustainably, without hunger”.


Dr. Jen Unwin & Dr David Unwin: Behaviour Change ‘In a nutshell’

Dr Jen Unwin, a Clinical Psychologist, and husband GP Dr David Unwin present on behaviour change when addressing harmful food choices and behaviours. Dr Jen Unwin has recently launched her Recovery Podcast aimed at helping to inspire and support those looking to break free from food addiction to sugars, processed foods and refined carbs.

In Dr Jen’s new book Fork in the Road on this topic she teams up with experts in the field of food addiction and behaviour change to share what they have learned about breaking free from the emotional and physical consequences of overeating sugars, flours and processed foods. Her book provides a clear path through identifying addiction, to developing the steps and strategies that will fit with your personal goals to acheive long-term freedom.


Dr Burns: Carb Addiction is not your fault

Lifestyle GP and former ‘carb addict’ Dr Burns discusses the criteria for addiction, including: withdrawal symptoms; persistent use despite physical or mental harm; and increasing tolerance levels, where increased amounts of a substance are needed to achieve a desired effect. She explains the brain’s reward system, the stimulating dopamine release effect on our food habits an behaviours and the role carbs and processed foods play in food addiction.

Breaking the cycle

Food addiction is a developing field with more studies needed into effective diagnosis, treatment, causes and contributing factors, such asgenetics, trauma, brain chemistry and emotional eating, where people eat toto dampen negative emotions or enhance positive emotions.

Recovery from food addiction requires breaking the cycle of compulsive overeating. Experts have found thatabstaining from problem foods and ingredients, like sugar, highly refined flour, wheat, potato and rice products, as with a Low Carb High Fat Lifestyle, may help to reduce and overcome compulsive food habits.

  1. Psychological and Neurobiological Correlates of Food Addiction, 2016: PMID: 27503449 E Kalon; JY Hong; C Tobin; T Schulte

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