A yearning for a cheesy slice of pizza, a sudden urge for chocolate, a desperate longing for that wedge of cheesecake still in the fridge. As many of us know, desire and food can be synonymous.
“Food can be physically addictive,” says Dr. Neil Barnard, a nutritional researcher and professor at George Washington University.
“Some people imagine food addictions only relate to people who have some hidden place in their closet with M&Ms. But I am arguing that food addictions are dramatically more common than that. A man sitting in his cardiologist’s office refusing to adopt a vegetarian diet is addicted.”
Dr. Barnard defines cravings and the biochemical processes that cause them, as well as steps to end the craving cycle, in his new book, “Breaking the Food Seduction: The Hidden Reasons Behind Food Cravings and Seven Steps to End Them Naturally.” The book also includes 100 recipes using alternatives to addictive foods.
A representative for the American Medical Association says the group has no official stance on food addiction.
“Craving is a specific desire,” Dr. Barnard says. “It has a target, and it is independent of hunger, though hunger can accentuate it.”
Dr. Barnard started to research and write his book after conducting an experiment in which 59 overweight post-menopausal women were put on a vegan diet.
“I looked at what they really missed,” he says. “It wasn’t chocolate ice cream. The most-missed food was cheese. It sounds silly to talk about cheese addiction, but cheese can have more cholesterol than meat ounce for ounce.”
Chocolate addiction has been talked about for years. Many people are aware that chocolate contains caffeine and other stimulants and that it also releases certain chemicals in the brain that ensure that the first bite of a chocolate bar isn’t the last.
According to Dr. Barnard, however, most people are unaware that there are similar biochemical pathways triggered by cheese and meat. Cheese breaks apart during digestion to form a range of opiates, he says. Meats create both opiates and insulin in the body.
“A little of these foods makes you feel good,” Dr. Barnard says. “You didn’t intend to eat another one, and before you know it, your hand hits the bottom of the bag.”
Dr. Barnard has come up with a three-week program to fool the body into forgetting the tastes it loves.
“Your taste buds remember tastes for only three weeks,” he says. “So figure out what else you can eat instead of eating cheese, meats or chocolate. Then, when you are ready, take your calendar and mark up three weeks. On Day 22, you can go back. But most people will feel OK and find that they have lost weight or their skin is clearing up. And they will give it up for another week.”
Because Dr. Barnard treats food cravings as a form of physical addiction, he expects people to fall off the wagon.
“It isn’t a willpower issue,” he says. “Don’t beat yourself up. Just do another three weeks and get back on the wagon. What usually happens is that it begins to become a habit.”
Food and desire might go hand in hand, but Dr. Martha Grodrian, a clinical nutritionist at Good Samaritan Hospital in Dayton, Ohio, would also add nurturing to the list.
“People use food as a means to nurture themselves,” Dr. Grodrian says. “If you are a woman and you have a lot of stuff to do, you might go home and eat a candy bar before starting your chores. You get nurture and nutrition at a very early age. Mothers hold their babies and feed them. Your mom gives you a hug and a chocolate chip cookie. Most people don’t know how to reward themselves without food.”
Dr. Grodrian suggests making a list of ways you nurture yourself that aren’t related to food.
“Make behavioral changes,” she says. “Going and buying flowers or jewelry are ways to nurture yourself. Go on a walk; put it on your calendar.”
Dr. Grodrian also urges people to come to terms with the reason for their addiction to a certain food.
“Some people have an addictive personality. There is often a psychosocial piece that needs to be addressed,” she says. “You can’t give up eating. All you can do is learn to modify it. One of the things I teach that is effective is to ask yourself, ‘What food will nourish my body?’ Put that question on the top of your grocery list, and you will start eating for a whole different reason.”