Many of my patients struggle with food cravings, overeating, binges and weight issues. Most of us actually blame this on poor willpower. It is important to know however, that there are many foods we eat that are truly addictive to the body, which make overeating difficult to avoid, especially if your brain is more sensitive to this.
Several foods contain chemicals known as exorphins, which bind to opioid receptors in the nervous system. These chemicals are quite powerful, and studies have shown that blocking their action with drugs such as naltrexone can treat heroin addiction. Some of us have a higher predisposition to addiction due to our genetic makeup. In these cases, food addiction may be as significant a problem as drug, alcohol or nicotine addiction, resulting in binge eating, obesity and bulimia.
The foods with high exorphin levels that may surprise you are dairy and wheat. This explains why we have an association with these foods as being “comfort foods”, and why we crave them so often. I see many small children who will eat wheat and dairy to the exclusion of all other foods – this is because their bodies crave them intensely.
Here is a list of the foods with the most addictive qualities:
Dairy products contain several chemicals known as ‘casomorphin peptides’. This is what creates our intense cravings for dairy, and cheese especially. No wonder cheese is added to almost all packaged foods – it keeps us reaching for more! It’s also one of the most difficult foods to give up with a food intolerance.
Gluten-containing grains contain five known ‘gluten exorphins’, which exert this opioid effect on the brain. Gluten is found in wheat, spelt, kamut, rye, barley, and less in oats. Most people who have given up gluten find that their food cravings are reduced, they have lost weight and they are less distracted by foods.
Coffee not only contains caffeine which is addictive to the body, but also cafestrol which is found in both caffeinated and decaffeinated coffee. Cafestrol has potent morphine-like activity so it’s amazing that even decaf coffee can be addictive.
Chocolate contains a chemical called epicatechin that acts on opioid receptors, which has been studied to protect the heart from injury associated with low oxygen. In animal studies, the opioid-blocking drug naloxone, has been shown to reduce chocolate cravings, suggesting that part of the reason we love chocolate so much has to do with the opioid response in the brain.
Fructose, which is widely found in packaged foods and pop as high-fructose corn syrup, has been shown to increase endogenous morphine levels after ingestion. It stimulates what is called the ‘hedonic pathway’ in the brain (similarly to alcohol), creating habituation and possibly dependence.
If you are struggling with binging, overeating, bulimia or hard-to-manage food cravings, I would suggest taking a look at the the foods listed above, and see if it fits your typical binge foods or strongest food cravings. You may consider a 4 week trial of cutting out the foods above that fit most closely with your food behaviours. From experience, the simplest way to do this is with a side-step approach: first just substitute the foods you crave with gluten-free and dairy-free alternatives. You may still experience some ‘withdrawal’ symptoms like mood swings, fatigue, nightmares or intense cravings, but they will ease up within a week or so.
Remember – food cravings are not only about willpower. There is often a physiological reason for them. For many of us, simply avoiding these ‘addictive’ foods can create so much more peace with food.