The Hippo


Oct 16, 2019








Food addiction
Eating to cope with life

By Joel Bergeron

 How do you feel when you’re hungry? Is it hard to concentrate? Does your mood become anxious or irritable? Do you feel sluggish, tired, or just plain worn out? When our blood sugar drops, we experience myriad negative consequences that motivate us to find the nearest, most convenient meal.

Think about how good it feels when you dig into that first bite. It’s an experience of pure relief, knowing that your stomach isn’t going to ache any longer. Your mind clears, and instead of feeling hungry and desperate to chow down, you feel an overall sense of euphoria and satisfaction.  
This sensation is the result of chemicals being produced by your brain associating pleasure with eating. Hunger is a form of stress. When we eat, we feel good and that is a powerful stress relief mechanism. This positive chemical reinforcement motivates us to want to eat again and stay alive. It’s a basic instinct that all living creates have. 
We run into an issue because instead of eating to survive, we end up eating more food than what is necessary to sustain life for other reasons. If you have a stressful schedule, if you’re feeling sad, or if you’re simply lonely, eating makes you feel better. When we unnecessarily eat, the extra calories are stored as fat and we start packing on pounds. This obviously leads to a slew of health issues. So we’re no longer eating for survival; we’re eating for a chemical “high,” or using food as a coping mechanism for another issue other than hunger.
The Center for Disease Control cites that in 2013, 69 percent of Americans age 20 and up were considered overweight and 35.1 percent were considered obese (having body fat greater than 32 percent in women and 25 percent in men). Yikes. In America, being overweight and out of shape is considered normal.
What’s more interesting is that the patterns of a food addict aren’t all that dissimilar to the habits of drug addiction. Both food and drug addicts go through a three-step process:  cravings for a chemical, use for relief, and the build-up of a tolerance requiring larger doses at the next exposure. The only issue is that we need food to survive, and there isn’t anything illegal about plopping down in front of an all-you-can-eat buffet and going to town.
Hunger is an incredibly powerful motivator to eat, but coping for life’s stresses may be even stronger. 
I would argue that it may be even more powerful than certain drugs such as caffeine or nicotine because we generally don’t perceive over-indulging at the dinner table as a bad thing. Food addiction is widely accepted as normal.
To combat an addiction to food, you have to follow a similar process to a drug addict in rehab.  The initial step is admitting you have an addiction and seeking help. If you can accept that there is a problem, then you have taken a big step in confirming that it may be time to make some changes in your life. Denial is a powerful thing that prevents most people from dealing with their issues.
The next step is to identify why you’re feeling so hungry. Are your meals more than three to four hours apart? Are you eating junk food or low-quality things such as sweets, fried foods, or instant meals?  
If you answered yes to any of these things, keep your changes simple. Have something to eat every three hours: breakfast, a mid-morning snack, lunch, mid-afternoon snack, dinner and, yes, a small post-dinner snack.  
Aim to eat some form of fiber at every meal. Fiber comes from fruits, vegetables, lentils (beans) and whole grains (such as wheat). It also slows down the digestive process and provides a better, longer sense of fullness. Consume a balance of complex carbohydrates and lean proteins at each meal, and reduce intake of fat, salt and calories.
Finally, realize that it’s OK to feel hungry a little bit throughout the day, even after a meal.  Having a slight hunger isn’t the end of the world. The main idea is to eat frequently enough so that you avoid reaching a point of desperation, but not to the point of overeating.  
Joel is a former NCAA D1 and professional sports coach and holds a master’s degree in sport science. Email him at Be sure to check with your doctor before changing eating habits or embarking on a new exercise program. 
As seen in the July 31, 2014 issue of the Hippo.

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