Complex metabolic systems that evolved alongside our eating habits over millennia are breaking down in today’s processed-food-on-every-street-corner environment. We’re at breaking point, as are the healthcare systems set up to manage our health — and something needs to change.

As governments rush to bring in sugar taxes to combat obesity rates more and more evidence is pointing to the addictive nature of processed food in general. The same neurobiological pathways that drive drug addiction have also been found to be part of our control system over food consumption.

Are you born addicted or does your body learn it?

Over the last forty years, our reliance on highly processed foods has increased dramatically. Supermarkets, fuel stations, convenience stores and increasingly even pharmacies, have become central repositories of Big Food’s latest temptations. Real foods that are either unprocessed or are minimally processed have been pushed to the margins. In the way that people would’ve learnt to use the nutrient dense food around them pre-war, later generations have been taught that highly processed foods that need little or no cooking are preferable – and certainly fit better with our modern, busy, highly stressed lifestyles. How wrong can we be! As our lives have become ever busier and we’ve become time poor, cooking real food has taken a back seat. Parents teach their children, children conform to peer pressure, old habits are lost and new habits take hold.

There is a body of evidence suggesting that genetics can affect how we eat and our propensity to become overweight, but it is a small percentage of people who are affected. Epigenetic influences are likely to be more important, where eating habits of one generation affect the way their genes work and these changes may then be passed onto their children and their children’s children. But this is only a part of the picture.

The dark side of food production

Perhaps, the most sinister side of our present food addiction problem is the deliberate way Big Food designs foods that hit the magic ‘bliss point’. Many of the foods we regularly consume today are both very palatable and comforting leaving us wanting more and more. They lift us when we’re down, help us deal with stress, or so we think. In actuality the repeated consumption of energy dense, rather than nutrient dense foods may have the opposite effect. It increases the stress on our body and drives the down regulation of our reward pathways leading to symptoms of withdrawal and driving the need to seek out more of the same foods.

Many of us no longer go hungry, even though our bodies are designed to withstand and even benefit from periods without food. We can eat 24 hours a day if we like, and many of us mindlessly graze to avoid hunger ‘pains’ and to satisfy our psychological and physiological addictions . Our bodies get very little time to repair and regenerate when they are not in food digestion, assimilation and excretion mode. Yet we know intermittent fasting is crucial to overcoming the systemic chronic low-grade inflammation that underlines so many chronic diseases.

Added to this are the marketing techniques that have been engineered and increasingly refined to better exploit our emotional relationship with our food.

How can we beat food addiction?

  • Consider carefully why you make certain food selections, whether in supermarkets, in restaurants or elsewhere. Consider how much of your draw to a given food is caused by your apparent emotional need for the food as compared with your body’s need for the nutrients within it
  • Wean yourself off sugary foods – save them for occasional treats, don’t make them a daily habit
  • Don't – as a matter of course – reward yourself or others (especially not children) with sweet treats
  • Reset your hunger switch by opting for nutrient dense wholefoods and incorporating periods of fasting as recommended by the ANH-Intl Food4Health guidelines
  • Drink plenty of water between meals
  • Find out more about how we – and especially our children - can develop a healthy relationship with natural, wholesome food, as detailed in last week’s article on food addiction.