In my Banish Burnout Toolkit™ the first step is the Stress Audit™, in which you write about your reactions to any particular stressor or stressful event. In order to change your reactions to stress it is important to first look at how you react to stress so you can think about what steps you are going to take to change. We look at the various reaction types: physical, verbal, emotional, exacerbating (how upset did you get & how long did you stay upset?) and possible addictive behaviors. Of course addictive behaviors include actions like drinking alcohol, smoking cigarettes or drugs, shopping, staying in bed, and any avoidance behavior. Overeating is certainly included.
When I was discussing the stress audit with a mentor recently, he warned me to take care not to confuse the word addiction with habit when talking about the use of food for stress relief. He said that using the word addiction infers lack of control and that overeating was about habits.
So I began to wonder: is overeating caused by addiction or habit?
Normally I don’t dwell on the addiction piece in my talks because it is such a large & complex subject.
However I realize that it is an important piece of the food dilemma. Based on my decades of research and experience managing my own weight and maintaining a 50-pound weight loss for over 15 years, plus coaching and helping many others with their weight loss journeys, I have studied the subject ad nauseum.
First, let’s do some numbers. According to the Centers for Disease Control, one-third of Americans are overweight, and another third are obese. That’s two-thirds of Americans overweight and obese. The causes of overweight and obesity are many and complex, ranging from biology, to endocrinology, psychology & even to genetics.
To kick off my research I went to the Webster’s Encyclopedic Unabridged Dictionary to look up the definition of addiction: “the state of having yielded to a habit or practice or to something that is habit-forming, as narcotics, to such an extent that its cessation causes severe trauma.” Based on this strict definition, I would have to agree that overeating is not an addiction because cutting back on the portions of our meals does not cause severe trauma. While giving up sugar does cause a physiological reaction, that reaction is not traumatic.
On the other side of the argument lies Dr. Robert Lustig, pediatric endocrinologist, Professor of Pediatrics at University of California, San Francisco Medical School, who has been on a campaign to reduce sugar in the food supply and to educate all Americans about the amount of added sugar in many foods. Dr. Lustig, author of Fat Chance and several other books, came to the fore when his Youtube video, “Sugar: The Bitter Truth” went viral.
According to Dr. Lustig, sugar is certainly addictive, causing the same reaction in the brain as cocaine. The reason is physical, just like with cocaine, when you ingest sugar. “An addiction causes thoughts, which then causes certain habits.” So in this case the addiction is what causes the habit.
So now let’s break down habits. A habit has three parts: a cue, an action, and a reward.
The cue triggers you to do a behavior. It could be something you see or smell, or a time of day, an emotion, or a place. The action is obviously the behavior, and the reward is the benefit you receive from doing the action. It usually includes a feeling of satisfaction or pleasure, which encourages you to repeat it.
So, for example, after I teach Zumba Fitness, I go for a healthy smoothie. The cue is the Zumba class, the action is going to get the smoothie and drinking it, & the reward is the good feeling from having replenished my electrolytes. Another example, which is not so healthy came in the form of a client’s complaint, “This weekend I have to work on a difficult report. For this, I’m going to need some chocolate.” In this case the cue is the difficult work, the behavior is eating the chocolate, and the reward or benefit is the temporary good physical feelings and mood-boosting from eating the chocolate.
With eating or overeating, the reward is feeling full after having eaten a meal, or in the case of sugar, a chemical reaction in the brain, which makes us feel good, at least temporarily.
According to a report on NPR.org, “The negative effects sugar has on our bodies are staggering: sugar alters our hormones so we don’t register hunger the way we normally would, making us eat more; it spikes our dopamine (happiness chemical in the brain), requiring us to eat more sugar for the same effect; and it affects our liver in the same way that alcohol does.”
So according to this line of thinking, it would follow that sugar is addictive.
So, is overeating caused by habit or addiction?
After careful thought and deliberation, I have decided that the answer is: both.
Ingesting sugar sets up a chemical reaction in the brain causing us to want to eat more.
And the reward from overeating is the contentment and comfort provided by eating a big meal.