The strain of swearing off the foods you’re addicted to can lead you to stress-driven binges, says Pamela Peeke, MD, lead author of the new book The Hunger Fix: The Three-Stage Detox and Recovery Plan for Overeating and Food Addiction. “You have to keep your dopamine levels supported because an addicted brain will read any sign of deprivation as stress that requires medication in the form of a doughnut or chips,” she says. Load up on foods that contain vitamin B6 and the amino acids phenylalanine and tyrosine, the building blocks of dopamine. Good sources of all three nutrients include chicken, turkey, lean beef, eggs, salmon, tuna, shrimp, crab, tofu, dark-green leafy vegetables and reduced-fat dairy foods.
Sugar is the gateway drug because we have an innate taste for sweet things and we learn to self-medicate with sugary foods very early in childhood. It hides in processed foods you don’t think of as sweet, such as ketchup, barbecue sauce, salad dressing, bread and chips, explains David Katz, MD, director of the Prevention Research Center at Yale, so you need to scan nutrition labels for aliases like fruit juice concentrate, evaporated cane juice and words that end with -ose, like fructose (as in high fructose corn syrup) and dextrose. “Giving up these ingredients will take many grams of sugar out of your diet,” says Katz. “As a result, after a few weeks you crave soda less, your favorite dessert tastes too sweet, and you build from there. You can grow a sweet tooth by feeding it. But you can also lessen it by decreasing your exposure to sugar.”
This practice dials down stress and strengthens impulse control. “Meditation stimulates the growth of new brain cells in the prefrontal cortex, the CEO of the brain, to rein in your impulses and keep you on track so you don’t cave in to the candy or chips when you’re stressed,” says Peeke. Fit in at least 10 minutes a day, though 20 minutes twice a day (as in transcendental meditation) is better, she notes. Not sure how to begin? Get started with the Mindfulness Meditation app ($1.99; iTunes), which has five- to 40-minute guided meditations and a checklist for newbies. Or try Real Happiness: The Power of Meditation by Sharon Salzberg, a 28-day starter program that includes four guided meditations on CD ($10; amazon.com).
Besides raising the level of functioning D2 receptors, physical activity is calming during detox because it increases the level of beta endorphins, feel-good chemicals, in the brain. What’s more, sustained physical activity is thought to repair and retrain the reward system so that activity itself becomes the reward and eventually replaces food. Look what it did for habitual marijuana users: A Vanderbilt University study found that pot smokers who walked for 30 minutes 10 times over two weeks cut their smoking by half.
Ordering groceries through sites like Netgrocer.com or USGrocer.com insulates you from the food cues that might tempt you to buy things you normally wouldn’t, says Bradley M. Appelhans, PhD, assistant professor in the departments of preventive medicine and behavioral sciences at Rush University Medical Center in Chicago. If online shopping isn’t possible, at least carry a list, which helps you cut down on impulse buys, he says. And avoid the inner aisles, where the packaged goods are.
Once an addict, always an addict. Even if you get clean, you can’t let your guard down, or your inner addict will surface, enticing you with “It’s just a cookie.” “You could be playing with fire,” says Peeke. “The brain has a permanent memory and is primed to potentially overreact when you try a given food again after being abstinent. While some people may not be as reactive because their food addiction is mild, it’s best to be safe and avoid the foods you could binge on.”
To keep your recovery top of mind (and your addict brain in check), Peeke recommends having a visual reminder, like a bracelet inscribed with your reason for sticking with recovery. The reason could be your wanting to achieve your goal weight or run a 10K that’s coming up or sidestep diabetes. When you reach for a cookie or chips and that bracelet slides into view, “it’s a constant reminder to be on red alert at all times,” says Peeke. “When you’re just on a diet, either you’re on or you’re off. But when you’re in recovery, your work never stops—although it does get easier with practice.”