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Seduced By Food

© Joan Price. May not be reprinted without permission.

What do cheese, chocolate, sugar, and meat have in common? No, they're not the new food groups. They're chemically addictive, according to Neal D. Barnard, M.D., author of Breaking the Food Seduction: The Hidden Reasons Behind Food Cravings--And 7 Steps to End Them Naturally (St. Martin's Press, 2003). "Cheese, chocolate, sugar and meat all spark the release of opiate-like substances that trigger the brain's pleasure center and seduce us into eating them again and again," says Barnard, nutrition researcher and president of the Physicians Committee for Responsible Medicine ( See? It's not our fault!

Skeptical? Think about your food binges. "You never had a binge on oranges," says Barnard. "You never say, 'I ate 15 oranges -- I feel so guilty!' You stop at one." Say that about cookies if you can! And who ever salivated at the thought of broccoli, the way we do at the thought of chocolate, doughnuts, or cheeseburgers? According to Barnard, these foods contain opiates that trigger feel-good responses in the brain and make us eat and crave more and more.

When we experience pleasure, our brains release dopamine, a natural, feel-good chemical. Pleasurable flavors, scents, and sexual experiences all imprint on our memory thanks to dopamine, and we want to experience them again and again. Heroin, cocaine, marijuana, alcohol, and nicotine trigger an exaggerated dopamine response -- as do chocolate, cheese, and sugary and fatty foods.

Several bestselling books have popularized the notion of carbohydrate addiction. People blame carbs for their cravings for cookies, cake, bread, potato chips, and French fries. "What so-called 'carbohydrate addicts' are really hooked on is sugar," says Barnard. "In essentially every case, the carbohydrates people crave are those that are either loaded with sugar -- like doughnuts and cookies -- or that rapidly disintegrate into millions of sugar molecules that rush into the bloodstream during the process of digestion." Sugar triggers the release of natural opiates in the brain similarly to the way exercise creates a "runner's high." Adding fat to sugar increases the opiate effect.

Meat affects some people -- mostly men -- the same way. In April 2000, 1,244 adults were asked if they would give up meat for a week if they were paid $1,000 to do it. About 25 percent said no. "Give up bananas for a week to earn a cool grand? No problem. Asparagus? Easily. But meat? No way, say a quarter of us," says Barnard.

What is it about chocolate that makes us trade our souls (or at least our best diet intentions) for a chocolate bar? "Chocolate is not a drug -- chocolate is the entire drugstore," says Barnard. It stimulates opiate receptors in the brain, and also contains caffeine, theobromine (a stimulant similar to caffeine in humans, poisonous to dogs), and phenylethylamine (an amphetamine-like chemical) and traces of compounds similar to THC (the active ingredient in marijuana).

In a University of Michigan study, 26 volunteer chocolate cravers were given naloxone, an opiate-blocking medication. Their chocolate cravings also disappeared. They were offered a tray of Snicker's Bars, M&M's, chocolate chip cookies, and Oreos, which normally would have been scarfed up in a minute. Snacking on these goodies decreased by 90 percent. "Chocolate suddenly tasted like dried bread," says Barnard.

If your attraction to chocolate is satisfied by an occasional candy bar, don't worry about it. But if you've got a regular habit, realize a typical chocolate bar is about 50/50 fat and sugar, about 200 calories and 10 to 15 grams of fat. It also may trigger migraines and aggravate mood swings and irritability during the premenstrual week.

In case you think cheese is a health food, think again. It has the qualities of an addictive, fat-filled drug. "If you wanted to produce a food to raise your cholesterol and make you fat, you couldn't do better than cheese," says Barnard, who calls cheese "opiates on a cracker." Cheese is about 70 percent saturated fat and has more cholesterol, ounce for ounce, than a steak. Surprisingly, it's about the hardest food to give up when omnivores try to adapt to a low-fat vegan (vegetarian, no dairy) diet. "Cheese's popularity may have less to do with its meltability and mouth-feel and more to do with its addictive qualities," says Barnard. "We think of milk as just a food -- it is not." Cheese is casein (the principal protein in dairy) plus fat. Casein breaks apart during digestion to produce abundant amounts of compounds called casomorphins. These morphine-like opiates may be nature's way to insure the bonding that occurs between Mama Cow and Baby Calf, and indeed among all mammals, during nursing. "Nature doesn't leave things to chance. Nature's going to drug that little baby," says Barnard. Human milk does not contain as much casein as cow's milk, but women with severe post-partum depression have been found to have high levels of casein in their blood. And, as you may know yourself, a big dose of cheese constipates you like narcotics.

So what's the answer? Barnard recommends abandoning fatty foods, meat, and dairy cold turkey (uh, cold tofu?) for a three-week period with a healthy vegetarian diet based on these new four food groups: vegetables, fruits, legumes, and whole grains. In Breaking the Food Seduction, Barnard describes in detail his seven steps for ditching your cravings permanently:

1. Start with a healthy, high fiber breakfast, such as old-fashioned oatmeal, pumpernickel or rye toast, and fruit.
2. Keep blood sugar steady with high fiber foods like legumes and vegetables, and by eating enough calories to stave off hunger pangs.
3. Boost leptin, which is the appetite shut-off switch, by eating plant-based, low-fat foods and enough calories -- at least 10 calories per pound of your ideal body weight -- and exercise.
4. Break craving cycles by planning for your "times of vulnerability" so that you're doing something else, breaking out of your normal schedule of cravings.
5. Get regular exercise and rest. "There is nothing that destroys resolve faster than being poorly rested," says Barnard.
6. Call in the reinforcements: Use social support.
7. Take advantage of other motivators: Figure out the reasons for making a change that matter to you.

Breaking the Food Seduction includes a three-week menu plan and 113 healthful recipes as diverse as Orange-Oat Pancakes, Eggplant Pecan Pesto, Tempeh Tostadas, Squash Pudding, Seitan and Mushroom Stroganoff, and a number of low-fat desserts (some contain cocoa powder, which is a low-fat way to somewhat satisfy a chocolate sweet-tooth). Experiment with recipes, make the change fully. It's just three weeks, you can tell yourself when pizza or ice cream beckons. Three weeks is the time it takes for your taste buds to forget old cravings and get used to new tastes. If, after that time, you return to the old comfort foods, they won't taste the same and won't be as appealing or compelling.

From Breaking the Food Seduction: The Hidden Reasons Behind Food Cravings---And 7 Steps to End Them Naturally by Neal Barnard, M.D.
(St. Martin's Press, 2003)