Dopamine is the feel good, pleasure chemical in our brains that plays a large role in drug abuse, sex, and food consumption.
While it’s not as evil as it sounds, it is especially important in the consumption of sugar and fat filled foods – which is the bain of my existence.
Dopamine may also be the driving factor in our need for instagram likes and constantly checking our phones for notifications (don’t pretend you don’t do this), that “shopping addiction” your friend has, or the urge to go to Vegas.
While chemicals in our body like insulin and ghrelin are associated with feelings of hunger, chemicals in our brain – neurotransmitters – stimulate our appetite and cravings as well. This is normal for survival, however, dysregulation of dopamine in the brain is not only found in drug and alcohol addiction, but also in high sugar consumption. In essence, dopamine may play a role in obesity.
And yet, when most people hear the term “sugar addict” or “food addiction” they brush it off as a cute saying for someone who just has a little bit of a sweet tooth and invalidate the long term health consequences of regular excess sugar and saturated fat consumption.
For years I’ve told myself, “This is the week I’m going to cut out sugar,” and each week I keep over consuming sugar. In fact, the longer this has gone on, the harder it seems it remove sugar from my diet.
So why is sugar so addicting and is cutting it out of our diets the best solution?
I decided to take a look at some research for answers and found a great article: Food Reinforcement and Eating: A Multilevel Analysis.
Here are some important points:
“sugar has effects similar to some drugs of abuse, as intermittent bingeing on sucrose and drugs of abuse repeatedly increases extracellular dopamine in the nucleus accumbens shell… Given the importance of food for survival, it is not surprising that there are multiple pathways and physiological systems working to ensure that adequate energy intake is achieved… Similar to drug use, ingestive behavior may be unrelated to homeostatic need, that is, driven not by the need to maintain energy balance but by cognitive and environmental factors that are not compensated for by the body’s internal feedback system to maintain stable body weight… One of the most powerful ways to increase the reinforcing value of food is food deprivation. This is important because many approaches to changing eating behavior require or are associated with reductions in energy intake. “
Ok, that’s a lot to unpack.
Let’s start with the role dopamine.
According to the research, food acts as a reinforcement, or reward. If you teach a dog to sit and give them a treat when they do, that treat is the reinforcer for that behavior. Likely, that treat stimulates the release of dopamine in the dogs brain, leading to that feel good sensation that makes the dog want more and willing to put in the work to get it.
Foods high is fat and sugar tend to taste better than the non fat and sugar laden counterparts. Think ice cream and cookies vs green beans. The better the taste and the higher the energy density, the more reinforcing the food is to continue consuming. And we continue chowing down on ice cream, cookies, and doughnuts [or insert your guilty pleasure foods here] despite knowing they’re not good for us.
Now here’s the second most important part to unpack.
Most doctors, friends and family, instagram influencers, etc. tell us the way to stay healthy is to restrict calories and cut out the processed junk food.
But the research says when we deprive ourselves of something we find extremely reinforcing, the value of that reinforcer actually increases. Think if you live next to a flowing river, you may never think or care too much about water. But if you are stranded in the middle of a vast desert, you would probably trade a million dollars for a tall drink of water. After that experience you may never take drinking water for granted again.
In support of this, research shows that many adolescents who reported dieting had higher weight later on. The theory is that dietary restraint or deprivation increases how reinforcing specific foods are in our brains, making us want more and more each time we deprive ourselves.
This is the basic principle in binging and purging or yo-yo dieting, and the reason most fad diets do more harm than good.
We have been told to restrict and cut out our whole lives, when this may only serve to hurt us in the long run.
So if not restriction, how do we get healthier?
One way is to increase dopamine levels through alternative means. Rather than seeking a quick dopamine “fix” through food, find an activity you find highly rewarding and engage in that instead.
I find shopping as rewarding as food, so if I find myself craving ice cream after already having a large satisfying meal, I may run to DSW and browse for shoes, but leave my wallet in the car to prevent unnecessary spending. I also find successfully completing a difficult sudoku or other type of puzzle very rewarding, and can use games like these as alternatives to cravings. The alternative doesn’t have to be a huge reward. Sometimes if I choose to engage in a healthy behavior instead of an unhealthy one, a simple pat on the back and some self praise may be a way to find healthy reinforcement as well.
In fact, creating this blog has been extremely rewarding for me, and working on it can also serve as an alternative to binging on junk food.
It’s also important to increase base levels of dopamine naturally by means such as eating enough protein, getting enough sleep, exercising regularly, meditating, getting massages, listening to calming music, and getting enough sunlight each day. By keeping base levels of dopamine normal rather than depleted, it’s less likely to experience that craving for a “quick fix”.
Some preliminary research even suggests probiotics could aid in neurotransmitter production in the brain-gut connection! (If you like psychology and haven’t heard of this, I highly suggest you do a google search. It is fascinating.)
The research suggests reducing the variety of high energy dense, low nutrient dense foods in our pantry. It is pretty intuitive that the easier access you have to junk food, the more likely you are to eat it. But how do we do this without depriving ourselves in a way that hurts us in the long run? I suppose if you regularly binge on Oreos, ice cream, and pop tarts, maybe allowing just one of these “guilty pleasure” foods rather than all of them is a potential solution.
In addition, it is suggested to reduce other stimuli while eating, such as eating in bed or in front of the tv, in order to prevent these stimuli from becoming associated with eating.
While the sugar industry doesn’t want us to know how addicting and unhealthy sugar really is, it’s important that we do our own research, be our own health advocates, and look at a wide variety of research on the topic to make the choices that will aid in our health and longevity.