DR MICHAEL MOSLEY: I’m addicted to sugary junk food – and this is how I deal with it
Despite everything I know and say about the health effects of junk food, there are certain foods that once I start, I just can’t stop – they are chips, chocolate and biscuits.
If there’s a packet of biscuits in the house, then I won’t just eat one or two, I’ll scoff.
And as for the milk chocolate, well, there have been times when I’ve broken the whole bar and thrown it in the bin to stop eating it – only to run inside looking for it a few minutes later.
A particularly bad point was when I ate my then six-year-old daughter’s Easter egg. She is now 23 years old, but she still hasn’t forgiven me.
The idea that you can be ‘addicted’ to food has been controversial – with charges against it including that food doesn’t change brain function the way alcohol or drugs do.
But a team from the University of Michigan in the US recently argued, in the journal Addiction, that highly processed sugary foods such as ice cream, chocolate, donuts and biscuits should be considered addictive in the same way as tobacco.
And that’s because, like cigarettes, some foods trigger intense urges and cravings to the point that you’ll keep eating them even though you know that doing so increases your risk of life-threatening diseases like type 2 diabetes and heart disease.
The idea that you can be ‘addicted’ to food has been controversial – with charges against it including that food doesn’t change brain function the way alcohol or drugs do
The researchers also point out that highly processed foods can cause changes in the brain that are similar in magnitude to nicotine.
Something like this happened to my friend, Dr. Chris van Tulleken, when he went on a diet of 80 percent ultra-processed food for a month for a BBC documentary.
His diet included foods such as cocoa-flavored breakfast cereal, chicken nuggets, and microwave lasagna.
Perhaps unsurprisingly, he gained 6.5kg (over a stone), but also found himself craving more and more junk food.
And the scans showed that in that short period of time, eating all that junk literally rewired his brain—there were many new neural pathways, many of which connect the reward centers and the cerebellum, the area that controls automatic behavior.
The new diet seems to have reprogrammed him to seek out and eat even more of these junk foods on autopilot. Which is good news if you’re a food producer, but not so good news for the rest of us.
If you accept that some foods are addictive, then what are the worst offenders?
In 2015, another University of Michigan study asked 120 college students to complete the Yale Food Addiction Scale (a measure of how addictive a particular food is) and rank 35 foods according to how addictive each one was.
Unsurprisingly, chocolate tops the list of ‘most dangerous foods’, followed by ice cream, chips, pizza, biscuits, crisps, cakes, buttered popcorn and cheeseburgers.
Somewhere in the middle were cheese, bacon and walnuts, while at the bottom were salmon, brown rice, cucumber and broccoli.
So what do addictive foods have in common?
Well, first they are highly processed, designed to be absorbed quickly and give your brain an almost instant rush of dopamine (the brain chemical associated with reward). They are also a mixture of fats and carbohydrates.
And not just any old mix. Generally speaking, whether it’s chocolate or chips, a cake or a cheeseburger, they all consist of roughly 1g of fat to 2g of carbs.
It seems to be a ratio that we humans find particularly overwhelming.
At the top of the list of ‘addictive foods’ was chocolate, followed by ice cream, French fries, pizza, biscuits (photo), crisps, cake, buttered popcorn and cheeseburgers
To see if you’re ‘addicted’ to a particular food, try my quiz (right), adapted from the Yale Food Addiction Scale.
So what can you do if you’re addicted to sugary junk food?
The first thing is to make sure you don’t keep them in the house or you’ll burst and eat them.
Then, look for alternatives that might, at least partially, satisfy your cravings; I have found that switching from milk chocolate to dark chocolate helps a bit as I still get the chocolate hit but less sugar and it makes it less bitter.
I also find that eating an apple or pear can sometimes satisfy that sweet craving.
Another trick I use is to ‘surf on impulse’, which helps the cravings pass. Surfing the urge means that instead of fighting it, I try to deal with it by drinking a big glass of water, practicing deep breathing, and trying to focus on other things. It usually takes me about 30 minutes before I’m back under control.
Seek support from family and friends. I’m lucky that my wife, Claire, doesn’t have a sweet tooth, so if they give us a box of candy as a gift, she either gives it away or sells it in small quantities.
Finally, when I’m sleep deprived, I crave sugary carbs.
In the study, published earlier this year in the journal Sleep, nearly 100 teenagers were asked to reduce their sleep to 6.5 hours a night for one week. During that week, they ate a lot more sugary, high-carb foods than usual, perhaps because they were unconsciously looking for quick energy to keep them going.
So, once again, the message is to make sure you get enough sleep.
ARE YOU ADDICTED TO CERTAIN FOODS?
Answer the following questions. More than three “yes” answers and you might be in trouble.
1. Once I start eating these foods, I can’t stop and end up eating way more than I intended.
2. I continue to eat this food even when I am no longer hungry.
3. I crave this food when I’m stressed.
4. If it is not in the house, I will go to the nearest store that sells it.
5. I hide this food so that even those close to me do not know how much I eat.
6. Eating causes anxiety and feelings of self-loathing and guilt.
7. Even though I no longer enjoy eating it, I still do.
8. I tried to give up this food, but I couldn’t.
Listening to the sounds of birds can lift your mood
As it gets colder, wetter and darker, I make a special effort to go for a walk in the morning. It helps that we have a dog, Tara, who gets excited when I head for the front door.
Walking, especially in green areas, is really good for your mental and physical health.
In Japan, where I recently filmed, they have a concept of ‘shinrin-yoku’, or forest bathing – spending time in forests and woodlands, taking in the sights, sounds and smells to reduce stress.
Where I live there are many magnificent red kites (pictured) darting through the sky, with their distinctive meow
You will also benefit from inhaling phytoncides, essential oils produced by trees that strengthen our immune system.
Another advantage is seeing and hearing birds.
Where I live there are many magnificent red kites darting through the sky, with their signature meow.
When I see them, my heart soars, and it seems I’m not alone. More than 1,200 people participated in a recent study on the effects of birds on mental health.
Using an app designed by researchers at King’s College London, volunteers reported whether they could see or hear birds and answered questions about their mental well-being.
A study has shown that bird life can affect how we feel, especially in people with depression.
Another good reason to put on your wellies and explore nature.
Nits are an age-old problem
Our children have grown up and left home, and I miss them.
What I don’t miss are the little friends they used to bring from elementary school. I’m talking about lice.
I was reminded of them by a recent study by archaeologists in Israel who discovered that, written on an ivory comb more than 3,000 years ago, were these immortal lines: ‘May this tusk eradicate lice from the hair and beard.’
The oldest known sentence, written in the world’s first alphabet, turns out to be a guide on how to get rid of lice.
The oldest known sentence, written in the world’s first alphabet, turns out to be a guide to getting rid of lice (file photo)
Archaeologists know that the comb was actually used for this purpose because there were nits between its teeth.
There are many special potions to get rid of head lice, but research by researchers at Ghent University Hospital in Belgium has shown that a simple conditioner, a comb and patience are your best weapons.
If you’re worried that robots will one day rule the world, it might convince you that even the most advanced artificial intelligence (AI) systems sometimes need a nap.
We humans need sleep to consolidate our memories – but it turns out that a new type of AI, called spiking neural networks, which closely mimics the way the human brain works, also needs rest if they want to learn and remember what they’ve learned.
Pictured: UBTech Robotics Inc. A Walker robot plays Chinese chess during the 2021 Shanghai World Conference on Artificial Intelligence.
Researchers at the Los Alamos National Laboratory in the US have shown that if they don’t get the equivalent of a good night’s sleep, they tend to become unstable.
Researchers suspect the same will be true for androids and other AI machines created in the future.
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