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Hooked on Food

Are you captive of a food addiction?

Getting to Be a Habit

When words like "food addiction" are bandied about, there are plenty of skeptics who hesitate to put foods like cheese and chocolate into the same category as widely acknowledged addictions such as cocaine or alcohol. But Barnard asks, "What other term would you use for a woman who gets into her car at 11:30 at night and drives six miles to the 7-Eleven to get a chocolate bar, and does it every night? She's gaining weight, she feels profoundly guilty afterward, and though she resolves to stop this behavior, she does it every night, night after night? That's a food addiction."

The proponents of this food addiction theory point to possible differences between the sexes in their compulsions. Women may be more susceptible to chocolate, particularly in the premenstrual period. While some men may have a sweet tooth, many more say that the one food they're least likely to give up is steak. Barnard points to an April 2000 survey of 1,244 adults, which concluded that one in four Americans wouldn't give up meat for a week even if they were paid a thousand dollars to do so. "It sounds an awful lot like an addiction to me," he says.

In an animal study at Princeton University in 2002, researchers found that after rats binged on sugar, they showed classic signs of withdrawal (such as "the shakes," anxiety, and changes in brain chemistry) when the sweets were removed from their diet, suggesting that sugar may have addictive properties.

Yet many doctors and dietitians remain unconvinced that the drive to eat certain foods is a true food addiction. "People do crave three basic tastes -- fat, salt, and sugar," says Keith Ayoob, EdD, RD, associate professor of pediatrics at the Albert Einstein College of Medicine and a spokesman for the American Dietetic Association. "Infants as young as a few days old do have a preference for sweeter foods. But when you say that a particular food is addictive, you imply that it's out of your hands. I don't buy that. I'm not aware of any evidence that chocolate is addicting. People like it because it tastes good.

"Yes, people do get into habits," adds Ayoob. "But the good part is that habits can be changed."

Breaking the Food Addiction

If food addictions are real, how difficult is it to break them? Clinical psychologist Douglas Lisle, PhD, says that at the TrueNorth Health Center in Rohnert Park, Calif., where he is director of research, patients have had the most success through "therapeutic fasting" -- in essence, rebooting the "hard drive" in their brain through a period of water-only fasting in a medically supervised setting, followed by the introduction of a diet emphasizing fresh fruits, vegetables, whole grains, beans, nuts, and seeds. (The process is described at TrueNorth's web site, www.healthpromoting.com).

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