Food & Addiction ... the recursive loop
The term "addiction" is just a description of compulsive eating
behaviors that lead sooner or later to harm. Human behavior is determined to an
alarming degree by strong drives to obtain specific foods and chemicals.
Elaborate habit-structures are built around the goal of delivering a regular
supply of addictive molecules. Successful programs for reducing addictive
behavior work on external behavioral structures, first to withdraw from the
addictive substances and then to maintain successful abstinence. The control of
addiction is strategic rather than moral.
The Recursive Loop
The basic pattern of using and abusing addictive substances is a recursive
loop. Normal eating is controlled by recursive loops with cycles of hunger
and satiety. Normal hunger builds slowly and rhythmically, but can be
over-ridden by normal activities. If food is not eaten, normal hunger builds in
pulses of increasing intensity, but a normal person can carry on with work or
play and does not develop distressing symptoms if food is not available for a
An abnormal, addictive loop is more intense, exclusive and leads to the wrong
results. Cravings are intense feelings of hunger, associated with strong and
distracting drives to ingest food or drink. A craving can be distinguished from
meaningful hunger if you have already eaten and really do not require more food
to satisfy nutritional needs. Cravings may be interpreted as urges to find
missing nutrients, but the foods found in compulsive searches are not
biologically correct. Instead, food cravings are a symptom of an abnormal
Cravings build quickly, interrupting other activities. In the abnormal state,
missing the next "fix" leads to withdrawal symptoms which can be distressing
even within a 2 to 3 hour period. Often the addictive food and drink is not
satisfying, and the most dysfunctional people keep eating and drinking with only
the briefest interruptions.
Cravings lead to ingestion (or injection)and may be followed by a
brief period of stimulation with increased energy, activity and satisfaction.
The gratification is short-lived and is followed by decreasing energy,
irritability and renewed cravings. The loop recurs with specific timing;
presumably timed by the effective duration of the rain activity of specific
substances derived from the food or drug. The nicotine loop in smokers may be in
the range of 20 minutes. The timing of food loops is variable and ranges from
minutes to hours. Closed-looping locks in recursive and repeating behaviors,
cravings, and compulsions, usually with negative consequences, brain dysfunction
Addictive substances are good at inducing recursive loops. Further input of
the loop-inducer is achieved through the appetitive system, which drives your
behavior toward the goal of getting some more (cravings and compulsions). Once
an addictive substance is added to the list of chemicals in your environment you
need to get every day, you are at risk plunging into a withdrawal state if the
supply is cut off. Food addiction is easier and cheaper than heroin addiction,
but it may be more difficult to resolve since the supply may never be cut off
except by heroic abstention.
With continued abstinence from the addictive drugs or food, withdrawal
over-reactions settle down to a more stable level of function. With complete
abstinence, about 10 days are required for the brain-emitted disturbance to
settle. Slow withdrawal of offending drugs and foods reduces the severity of
However, slow withdrawal is more difficult because the remaining addictive
foods or drugs maintain your cravings and compulsions which preclude control
over the amount you eat. All addictive cycles face you with the same conundrum:
suffer "cold-turkey" withdrawal and get out of the recursive loop quickly or
suffer less acute withdrawal and tempt yourself with the difficult, and
sometimes impossible, task of controlling compulsive behaviors. Continuing
stability of the addict requires complete abstinence from the trigger foods.
Food addiction programs, well-learned on the molecular level after a few
repetitions, are linked by classical and operant conditioning to sights, smells,
sounds, faces, and places. This conditioned linking mechanism allows
circumstances and events to take over as triggers for compulsive eating
behaviors. Often the smell or first taste of foods containing addictive
substances trigger an eating binge that exceeds voluntary control. This
context-dependent addictive behavior must be recognized before behavioral
modification succeeds in correcting compulsive eating disorders.
Recovering addicts may do well in neutral or new environments which are free
of the old signals and contexts. However they can be triggered by returning to
the cafe, pub, family home or friend's place where they practiced their additive
behavior. Even look-alikes or smell-alikes will challenge recovery years after
abstinence has been established.
Excessive eating is the most prevalent eating disorder in our society.
Overeating is the cause of many adverse health consequences. Food choices play
an important role in disorderly eating patterns. Often, people with delayed
pattern food allergy or other food-related illness are abnormal eaters. Most
people report sugar cravings and/or bingeing. "Sugar" means a wide range of
candies, cookies, desserts, baked goods, pop, ice cream, and junk food. Sugar is
only one component among many that may cause trouble, but these foods definitely
trigger strong cravings and compulsive or binge eating. Cravings for milk,
bread, cheese, peanuts, fruit, or potato chips are as common as cravings for
sweets. Even people with obvious milk allergy, who have a protective aversion to
drinking milk, will compulsively eat cheese or ice cream, thereby maintaining
their milk-allergic illness.