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Dr. Rohi Shetty Dr. Rohi Shetty

Why do you find it hard to resist foods loaded with sugar and fat? Why do you crave for chocolates, cookies, cheese burgers, and fried chicken though you know they increase the risk of obesity, diabetes, hypertension, heart disease, stroke and cancer? You may feel ashamed about your craving for these unhealthy foods. Don’t be. In his book, Breaking the Food Seduction: The Hidden Reasons Behind Food Cravings–and Seven Steps to End Them Naturally, Dr. Neal Barnard, M.D., explains that your craving for these foods is not caused entirely by greed or lack of self–control but triggered by the biological properties of the foods themselves.

Recent research studies have proved that chocolate, sugar, cheese, and meat trigger biochemical effects similar to those of tobacco, alcohol, morphine and heroin. They are not as strong or dangerous as opiate drugs like heroin but seem to act through the same chemistry of addiction.

The addictive properties of these foods have been studied using a drug called Naloxone, which blocks the effects of heroin and other opiates on receptors in the brain. If Naloxone is given to heroin addicts, they will no longer have any desire for heroin. Similarly, when Naloxone was given to volunteers, it reduced their craving for chocolates, sugary foods, meat and cheese.

Psychiatrists have long recognized the addictive qualities of chocolate. In a research study done at the University of Michigan, 26 volunteers who were given Naloxone lost much of their interest in chocolates and chocolate cookies.

Similarly, British researchers found that opiate–blocking drugs reduced craving for ham by 10 percent, for salami by about 25 percent, and for tuna by nearly 50 percent. Volunteers may still eat some of these foods when they are hungry but Naloxone eliminates the craving for these foods.

The taste of chocolate on the tongue apparently triggers the release of endorphins (morphine–like chemicals) within the brain. Endorphins, in turn, trigger the release of dopamine, which reduces pain and discomfort and acts as a mood–elevator. All addictive substances such as heroin, cocaine, tobacco, and alcohol stimulate the release of dopamine in the brain. Research on the chemical cause of food addiction is still in its early stages but studies suggest that the same biochemical events may occur with sugar and meat.

However, the craving for cheese occurs through a different mechanism. Cheese contains a dairy protein called casein. Casein is present in milk, yoghurt and ice–cream but it is especially concentrated in cheese. When casein is digested, it breaks down into morpine–like substances called casomorphins. So, the narcotic effects of casomorphins causes the craving for cheese.

Once you realize the craving for chocolate, sugar, meat and cheese has a biochemical basis, it becomes easier to break the addiction. In his book, Dr. Barnard has outlined seven steps to break the addiction to these unhealthy foods.

  1. Start the day with a nutritious breakfast. Make choices depending on your dietary preferences. For example, have oatmeal or muesli instead of eggs or vegan sausages instead of meat sausages.
  2. Choose nutrient–rich foods such as beans, lentils, green vegetables, fruit, nuts and whole grains.
  3. Eat more than ten calories each day per pound of your ideal body weight. A person whose ideal weight is 180 pounds needs to eat 1800 calories or more daily. Don’t skip meals. You are more vulnerable to craving for junk food when you are hungry.
  4. Break your craving cycles, which can occur daily, monthly, or yearly. Use of substitutes such as low–calorie sweeteners like saccharin, aspartame, sucralose, neotame, acesulfame, and stevia instead of sugar; cocoa powder instead of chocolate; tofu instead of cheese and soy products instead of meat can help to control craving.
  5. Exercise regularly and sleep well at night. Exercise causes the release of endorphins in the brain and gives a feeling of mental well–being. Sufficient sleep at night is important for mental resilience.
  6. Support of friends and family can be crucial to break your addiction to these foods.
  7. Take advantage of other motivating factors. For example, you may decide to eat healthy foods to set a good example to your children.

Dr. Barnard’s advice is to avoid these foods for three weeks instead of trying to give them up for the rest of your life. His advice is supported by research, which shows that if you avoid chocolate for three weeks, you crave it less than if you have it every three or four days.

Finally, Dr. Barnard advises that the most effective way to conquer the addiction to chocolate, sugar, meat and cheese is to give them up completely. Do not buy them or keep them in the house or anywhere in sight. Even if you do it for only three weeks, do it completely. The best way to get them out of your mind is to keep them out of sight. The longer you stay away from these four unhealthy foods, the more your desire for them fades. Just as it is easier for smokers and alcoholics to quit completely than to cut down gradually, it is easier to avoid these unhealthy foods completely.

Contributed by: Dr. Rohi Shetty