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I’ve written about the addictive quality of food that works at the subcortical level of our brain, in the nucleus accumbens. Here’s where certain addictive food stimulates pleasure in much the same way drugs and sex do.
But the nucleus accumbens’s operational features don’t end with addiction and pleasure; they include laughter, fear, aggression, and the placebo effect. The accumbens, then, is thus more than a reward center. It’s a complex area stimulated by and responding to many events.
In the past I’ve mentioned David Kessler’s book The End of Overeating: Taking Control of the Insatiable American Appetite. In this book Mr. Kessler writes about the scientific method used by the food industry to understand and create food combinations that maximally stimulate the nucleus accumbens. Their goal: turn food consumers into food addicts. For profit.
It’s a well-written book and I believe most of it to be true — the science is supportive. I’ve also written about addictive food being mostly processed food — whose base ingredients are typically cheap commodity grains, mostly in the form of flours (even “whole”). These flours are the empty canvas on which aggressive flavors like salt, fat and sugar can be splashed. The result is a “hyper-flavored” food product that stimulates the nucleus accumbens.
People familiar with this food-addiction concept generally make the effort to avoid certain food. Their effort makes sense, just as anyone who wants to kick cigarette addiction would avoid smoking them.
The problem food and cigarettes have different degrees of effect in humans. So the comparison between addictive food and cigarettes (or hard drugs) may not be valid in human.
Addiction is Multifactorial
Even if food and drugs exert the same addictive qualities, this field of study has brought into light the fact that addiction goes beyond the chemical itself, extending to other factors equally (and sometimes more) important in creating the addiction.
Such factors include environment, marketing, peers, emotion, thought patterns, beliefs, cultural meme, and perception of self-worth. These factors strongly affect our eating behavior and addiction… food composition being just a brick in the wall.
Many dietary idealists seem to place too much stock into the food-addiction concept without considering all of the contributory factors. (I was equally guilty, even as recent as during the birth of this blog, but my position has changed since. I no longer fear food that’s flavorful… or as I used to call “hyperflavored.”)
The Insular Perspective
The tendency to major in the minutia often leaves us with an insular perspective, causing us to see food with dogmatic eyes. We need a worldly view of food intake.
Consider for a moment cultures that live long, robust lives. These people not only put more years into their life, but also more life into their years. Talk about having your cake and eating it, too.
In his book The Blue Zones, Dan Buettner interviews and observes centenarians from around the world. I was surprised (as you might be also) that centenarians regularly enjoy food outside of the “Paleo” diet, many consuming even candies and food believed to stimulate the nucleus accumbens and therefore considered addictive.
Yet, these populations exhibit no obesity, overweight, or accelerated degenerative diseases. Although their dietary composition varies significantly from one another, all have a common dietary thread: They don’t overeat.
How can this be, if they’re consuming candy and grain- and flour-based food, otherwise considered by us as addictive food? The answer may lie in the absence of other contributory factors, as well as the presence of other elements.
Are We Blaming the Wrong Things?
So while North Americans run around and blame pasta, breads and sweets for our physical problems, traditional cultures on the other side of the world enjoy many of these things as a small part of their everyday diet.
Ultimately, I’m not saying abstinence from certain food is a bad thing. But the reason for abstinence would serve us better if it’s valid. Rather than blaming food, it’s time we assess our own eating behavior and the environment that causes it.
Intermittent fasting, it helps us assess our eating behavior.