Just how far away is junk food eating from other forms of addiction, like the taking of illicit drugs or drinking too much alcohol? Not very far, say nutritionists and healthcare professionals. Eating junk food can lead to health problems and emotional problems that are not unlike any other addiction.
Normally, when we eat, we take a signal in the form of “ghrelin”—a hormone secreted by the stomach in response to hunger. It tells the brain that it is time to eat. When the body receives enough food, the fat cells release “leptin”—also known as the satiety hormone. It tells your brain that you have eaten enough and you stop eating. People who use junk food as part of an abnormal eating pattern do not pay enough attention to these signals and they tend to overeat, stuffing themselves with junk food.
Rather than paying attention to ghrelin and leptin, junk food eaters are eating for the rush of positive feelings associated with eating food high in fat, salt, or sugar. When you eat these kinds of foods under stress or distress, the food has the capability of releasing endorphins in the brain. Endorphins are the feel-good chemicals that give us a temporary rush or a feeling of well-being when we eat certain foods. Temporarily, we feel happy. Unfortunately, you must keep feeding your body in order to re-experience the “high” that eating junk food has caused.
The Cycle of Endorphins
This cycle of eating and releasing endorphins is no different from the cycle experienced by heroin addicts that use heroin as a mimicker of endorphins in the brain. Heroin and other illicit drugs either release endorphins from the brain or act as endorphins themselves. When you eat junk foods, especially when you are sad, angry, lonely, or depressed, there is a temporary release of endorphins from the brain, which reinforces the negative pattern of eating too much on a repetitive basis. The vulnerability that is created by these distressful emotions makes the “food high” much more gratifying, because the euphoric feelings are much stronger than they may be for one who is not in distress – this is the hallmark of the addictive process.
Certain foods release endorphins better than others, such as high salt, high fat and high sugar foods. When you eat these types of foods, you feel temporarily better and you keep eating in order to continue to feel better. This process need only occur once to become completely engrained in the mind creating a psychological imprint that makes the emotional eater return to food repeatedly, during times of distress, for that gratification.
Because emotional overeating is such a powerful stimulus to the brain, centers like Overeater’s Anonymous have sprung up. These programs teach you the emotional reasons why you overeat and why you make poor food cycles. Like any twelve step program, you relinquish the power you don’t really have in the first place to a higher power and learn better eating habits. You come to learn what the triggers are in your life that have led to poor eating habits and eating too much. In the fellowship, you will find that others, who share your problem, can be very helpful in getting out of the cycle of junk food eating, obesity, and feeling bad, guilty, or angry with yourself for having eaten the wrong foods.
Junk foods have an especially high addiction potential. In such cases, junk food can be high-salt foods like potato chips, snack crackers, or popcorn. They can also be high-sugar foods, such as ice cream, cookies, and pastries. If you find yourself drawn to these types of foods, it is likely that you have more of a food addiction rather than using food as a normal part of fueling your body.
Few people are overweight because they have a glandular condition or a “slow metabolism.” If you are overweight or obese, it is more likely that you have found food as your drug of choice and are using food to release endorphins in your brain, which make you feel better in situations where you would otherwise be angry, sad, bored, or depressed. Food becomes a way to feel better that has nothing to do with getting the right nutrients and eating a healthy quantity of foods that could be providing you with proper nutrition.