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Fast Food Addiction: How to Overcome It


min read


There are many “addictions” people are familiar with. The most notable are addictions to nicotine, drugs, or alcohol. While drug addiction and alcoholism account for most of the addiction struggles nationwide, many other behavioral challenges impact community members. Addictions to gambling, sex, technology, shopping, exercise, and eating are all reasons why people seek treatment at thousands of addiction treatment centers like Meadowglade each year.

Although not all addictive behavioral disorders are listed in the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders (5th Ed.), treatment for those not listed follows a similar path to other behavioral diagnoses. Fast food addictions are one such disorder that is not currently listed in the DSM-5. If you are concerned about fast food addiction, it is essential to reach out for help. Like other addictions, an ongoing addiction to fast food can lead to other detrimental physical and mental health effects, including weight gain, new or worsening heart conditions, new or worsening respiratory conditions, and challenges with your muscle or skeletal system due to potentially increased weight. 

 Fast food addiction does not currently have specific diagnostic criteria; however, fast food addiction develops similarly to any other addiction. The brain indicates a desire for certain foods or flavors, and cravings for those foods begin. Cravings could start because you smell a particular food while walking or driving or because you saw a commercial on television. Regardless of how they develop, cravings can become overwhelming, leading you to reach for foods that are often unhealthy and not nutritious. The demand from the brain is so strong; it overrides the mind’s knowledge that foods are harmful. While some people can manage such cravings or do not experience them to a significant degree, others cannot. In these cases, addictions such as fast food addictions develop.

How Do Fast Food Addictions Develop? 

Human emotions operate based on a reward system. When we do something good or something that brings us pleasure (even something that encourages our survival), the brain receives a reward in the form of dopamine release. Dopamine is the chemical in the brain responsible for feelings of joy and pleasure. This reward system operates for various reasons, including primal behaviors such as eating. In some cases, such as addictive behaviors, the actions of the behavior (such as taking a drug or drinking alcohol) trick the brain into activating the reward system. This is how disorders related to addictive behaviors developed. In the case of fast food addictions, the brain knows that we’re eating, and eating is essential to ongoing survival. As we eat, the brain releases dopamine, otherwise known as “feel good” chemicals, into the body’s reward system, telling us that we have done something good for ourselves even if the food we are eating is not healthy.

As we continue to eat food that we enjoy, the brain interprets the presence of more dopamine as pleasure. Humans are hardwired to seek out joy. Unfortunately, joy can come in different forms end in some cases, those forms are not necessarily things that are good for us. 

When someone who struggles with addiction does something repeatedly that results in dopamine release, the brain will continue to seek out that activity or food item, in this case, to trigger the reward system further. Unfortunately, many modern fast foods and junk foods cause a reward system for people that is often significantly more powerful than what the brain can achieve with whole and nutritious foods. While eating chicken or broccoli may trigger a moderate release of dopamine (because food is still essential for survival or the food item tastes good), eating a pint of ice cream or a candy bar is often significantly more rewarding and triggers a more significant release of dopamine. This disproportionate reward system results in individuals who are susceptible to addiction eating more unhealthy foods and inevitably developing an addiction to fast foods.

Cravings and Withdrawal

Cravings and withdrawal are terms commonly associated with alcohol or drug detox. However, it is possible to build a tolerance and experience cravings or withdrawal symptoms from almost any addictive behavior. When trying to overcome a fast-food addiction, the body attempts to re-acclimate to functioning without the foods it desires. Consequently, as with drugs or alcohol, symptoms of withdrawal can occur. In the case of eating, consuming junk food or fast food causes the brain to continually release dopamine. Eventually, the brain begins to recognize the abnormal amounts of dopamine in the body and looks to regulate your system by removing dopamine receptors to try to balance things out. Because of this, more dopamine is needed to reach the same “high” you previously experienced when there were fewer receptors. 

Inevitably, this causes you to eat more and more junk food to achieve the same reward levels as before. This is called tolerance, and it is commonly seen in other addictive behaviors such as smoking and drinking. Like other addictive behaviors, unless you can satisfy your cravings for fast food, low dopamine levels in the body will cause you to feel unhappy or even physically sick. These symptoms are indicative of the early stages of withdrawal.

Cravings are an emotional state caused by the desire to do or, in this case, eat something. Cravings are not the same as hunger which is the body’s natural reaction to needing food to function and maintain life. Cravings can occur for many reasons at any time. Cravings can also be induced due to specific emotional states, especially depression and anxiety. This is sometimes referred to as emotional eating. Cravings are the way the brain satisfies its need or desire for dopamine. Unfortunately, it is a perceived need and has little to do with an actual need for nourishment, energy, or food required for survival. When someone struggles with a fast food addiction, they repeatedly give in to cravings and satisfy the desire for junk food leading to significant and often detrimental physical and emotional consequences.

Overcoming Fast Food Addiction

Many people struggle with the idea of fast food addiction. Because food is a vital part of life, it is hard to view food intake as something negative or harmful. However, food addictions are real, and fast food addictions can be harmful if not properly treated at an addiction treatment center, those like Meadowglade, where treatment specialists are skilled in helping you understand the physical and emotional consequences of fast food addiction. One of the most effective ways to avoid developing a fast food addiction is to follow a healthy, balanced diet rich in natural, whole, and unprocessed foods. Eating a balanced diet and understanding possible fast food addiction warning signs can help you act quickly and seek treatment if you suspect a problem. 

The process of treating and overcoming a fast food addiction generally follows the same treatment models used in addressing other types of behavioral addictions. It is important to have a plan in place to overcome your addiction and a reliable support system to turn to when experiencing triggers. It is also vital that family and loved ones in your home environment support your healthy eating goals. It can be challenging to maintain recovery and avoid relapse upon completing treatment without a strong support structure that promotes and encourages healthy lifestyle changes. 

Like treatment for other behavioral addictions, the first step in overcoming fast food addiction is to complete the detox process. This is done by avoiding triggering foods, especially processed foods, fast foods, and foods that include excessive sugars. Unfortunately, these are frequently the foods that the body craves most, sometimes making the detox process difficult. In the early days of detox, you will likely experience withdrawal symptoms that can range from mild to severe. This depends on the duration and severity of your addiction to fast foods and processed foods. After completing detox, it is essential to begin the process of changing your eating behaviors. This step may involve a range of activities, including lifestyle changes and participation in therapy. For example, it is essential to avoid triggering foods, locations that provide triggering foods, and people who intensify your cravings to eat in an unhealthy way. 

It may be necessary to break emotional and psychological connections between food and activities you enjoy. For example, if sporting events make you want hotdogs or movies make you want popcorn, it will be important to find ways to enjoy sporting events and movies without consuming unhealthy foods. Other helpful activities that can help you turn to nutritious and healthy meals over quick and easy fast food may include meal prepping and mindful eating practices. For some, a slow reduction in fast food consumption may lead to recovery without the assistance of a treatment program. However, for others who struggle with a more significant fast food addiction, treatment to address addictive behaviors and other potential mental and physical health concerns may improve your opportunities for a successful recovery. 

Addiction of any kind is a highly individual struggle. Therefore, it is essential to talk to your therapist about the best treatment approach for your unique treatment needs and goals. A therapy program at Meadowglade will be specifically designed around those goals. It may include a combination of various behavioral therapies (such as cognitive behavioral therapy), nutritional education, group therapy, family therapies, and aftercare planning to ensure your post-treatment structure is supportive and stable.

If you or a loved one struggles with a fast food addiction, your struggles with food might be more common than you realize. A fast-food addiction, if left untreated, can be detrimental to your mental and physical health. It is essential to seek treatment for addiction of any kind in that environment that addresses any co-occurring physical or psychological struggles that may be at the root of your addictive behaviors. A comprehensive, evidence-based, holistic treatment program at Meadowglade increases your chances for treatment success and a new, healthy relationship with food. If you struggle with a fast food addiction, today is the day to seek help. Contact us at Meadowglade today. Let our staff help you learn more about how a treatment program at Meadowglade can help you start on your journey to a healthy future.

Fight for yourself, not with yourself.

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