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Nutrition and Herbal Matters: Food Addiction

by Nicki Woodward(more info)

listed in nutrition, originally published in issue 154 - January 2009

Certain foods can taste so good to an individual that they have to have it everyday. This is a food addiction, which occurs for a number of reasons. Some people develop intolerances to certain trigger foods such as wheat. The protein in wheat produces feel-good chemicals that mimic endorphins, and thus the grain becomes like a drug to the individual. Some addictive foods on the other hand make the body feel bad rather than good. Sugar for example can cause negative feelings after the initial high or 'sugar rush', but the individual cannot help themselves and return time and time again to sugary foods. Even diabetics, to whom sugar can be lethal, can be addicted despite the adverse effects. To others, food is an emotional support, something to turn to when the world is against them.

The following exemplify how I dealt with three different types of food addictions.

Case History 1 – The Wheat Factor

Sam (age 13) is an example of how learning to control your food addictions needs to begin at an early age. When he reached his teens, his parents became concerned as his addiction to junk food was getting out of control.  The foods he turned to mostly were wheat-based with cakes and biscuits making up the bulk of his diet. Wheat may have been the main culprit, but sugar was also present in large amounts, leading to weight gain and poor concentration at school. Sam told me he felt addicted to the foods as they tasted so good, whereas his parents told me in confidence that his self esteem was suffering, but the heavier he became the more unhappy he was. Like many teenagers, his timeout from school involved computer games rather than exercise. With the interaction of Sam and his parents I devised a new eating plan and lifestyle regime. Food intake was reduced, wheat based foods eliminated, and fish, whole grains and vegetables increased. This was a large step away from junk food, but I provided recipes for the whole family to try.. At first it was difficult due to the sheer amount of junk food available to Sam, and the influence of his peers at school, but he was rewarded for sticking to the diet with plenty of praise from family members. Bread was difficult for him to give up, but the craving subsided after a fortnight.

Sam started swimming daily in the family pool and rode his bike to and from school. As he began to lose weight, Sam's interest in the regime increased and he was encouraged to devise a weekly menu and exercise plan. As well as menu plans, I prescribed multivitamins, extra chromium (to reduce sugar cravings) and fish oils.  I also recommended the herb milk thistle to cleanse and support his liver. Within two months, Sam had lost one and a half stone, and was enjoying both his food and his more active lifestyle.

Case History 2 – Emotional Issues

Emotions such as stress and anger may be the cause of food addictions. Emma (aged 29) presented with a vicious circle of healthy eating and binging. When she was unhappy, food became a tool to alleviate emotional upset. This was followed by guilt for overeating and thus did little to solve negative feelings. Emma admitted that she turned to sweet, fatty foods in the evenings if she was feeling negative.  I discussed with Emma that comfort food can be a sensory stimulus, temporarily providing mental relief from whatever might be stressful. However poor nutrition hinders energy levels and mental clarity, so in the long run your emotional coping ability becomes affected.

This client I had to reach on a different level. I began by addressing the cause of her angst – unhappiness at work – and focused with her for a while on how to change this. Emma disliked her boss, so I prescribed the Bach Flower remedy Holly which is for negative feelings towards others. I also asked her to try drinking Lemon Balm herbal tea instead of coffee during the day, as it's a feel good drink. Coffee merely exhausts the nervous system after the initial stimulation.

As Emma tended to reach for sweet carbohydrates, I prescribed L-glutamine.  This amino acid is meant to break the vicious circle of carbohydrate craving via suppression of brain messages that cause the addiction. I also recommended that she take up exercise again to help burn off negative energy and we discussed a diet rich in B vitamins and essential oils, both vital for her nervous system. Emma also agreed to try a full body massage to calm and soothe her. As I mentioned, root of the problem for Emma was her job. She admitted that she was well qualified in her field and could move on to another department if she tried hard enough. She also agreed to stop buying 'punishment food' and concentrate on her usual diet that was overall very good.

Two months after her initial consultation Emma had moved to pastures new and was much happier. Her binges were becoming less frequent and food was very much less an emotional crutch.

Case History 3 – The Sugar Rush

Andrew (aged 45) worked long hours driving for a long haul firm. Early starts and late nights meant that healthy eating was bottom of his busy agenda. He did no exercise and his diet was extremely low in fresh foods. His immunity was very poor and he suffered frequent sore throats, poor skin and energy dips. Inspection of his diet revealed a vast quantity of sugar. This not only robs the body of vital nutrients but also exhausts the adrenal glands and encourages emotional imbalances.

As with any drug addict, Andrew needed to cut out the offending substance from his diet. This is hard work but can be achieved. I also opted to begin with a liver cleanse for Andrew because his diet was particularly poor and is a good start with any type of food addiction. This stuck to the usual rules of fresh vegetables, organic meats, wholegrains and low dairy, sugar and wheat. I asked Andrew to include the whole grains (brown rice, oats, millet, barley, quinoa) and vegetables (roots, greens and colourful vegetables such as pumpkins) as a main fuel, so that his body would  automatically crave less sugar. I also suggested sweet vegetables such as carrots, cooked onions, sweetcorn, parsnips and pumpkin to add a natural sweetness to meals. I also suggested some seaweeds for their mineral  content.

I  prescribed a liver cleanse herbal tincture of dandelion, milk thistle, gota kola, borage and ginger. Andrew was likely to be deficient in B vitamins which needed to be supplemented. The grain rich diet I prescribed would also boost his vitamin B levels. No exercise and a hectic schedule meant that Andrew's adrenal glands would also need some attention. I addressed this with supplements of vitamin C and B complex, whilst the borage in his herbal mix would also help. Ginseng is also great for adrenal function and I would consider this at a later date if Andrews energy levels did not pick up. Lycopodium is a homeopathic remedy which can help to reduce sugar cravings and is also good to keep in mind when your client is hooked on sweet foods.

The outcome was positive. The initial body shock of cutting out pure sugar and relying only on those found naturally in foods did lead to headaches, worse cravings and mood swings but these only lasted a few days. Andrew was determined for a life change and took time at weekends to plan his meals for the busy coming week. He did not like the new food at first and was quite surprised that after a week he got used to the new tastes. His retrained taste buds began to reject sugar and ask for a healthy option. His energy levels and health improved in general.  Andrew did however despise the herbal tincture, so I swapped him to a dandelion root supplement in capsule form. As well as feeling like a 'new man' Andrew addressed his busy job by reducing night shifts and booked himself a well earned holiday.

Further Reading

Null G. PhD. The Food Mood Connection. Seven Stories Press. ISBN 978-1-583227886. 2008.
Barnard N MD. Breaking The Food Seduction. St. Martin's Griffin. ISBN 9780312314934. 2007.
Briffa Dr J. The True You Diet. Hay House. ISBN 9781401915438. 2007.


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About Nicki Woodward

Nicki Woodward BA Hons DN MED MBANT Dip Phyt MNIMH ITEC is a fully qualified Nutritionist, Medical Herbalist and Massage Therapist who practises in Middlesex and Surrey. She is a member of the NIMH (National Institute of Medical Herbalists) and BANT (British Association of Nutritional Therapists). Her experience to-date includes training, research and supplement development. She may be contacted on Tel: 07989 968 349;

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