Have you ever wondered why we have food cravings and why people battle with making good food choices? Well researchers have discovered a critical link between the unhealthy connection between food and addiction- Dopamine. Dopamine is the neurotransmitter associated with reward and pleasure. Cocaine, heroin, and sugar all stimulate the dopamine transmitter that triggers cravings. When we are about to eat 90% of the dopamine neurons in the Ventral Tegemental Area of the brain are stimulated. The VTA transmitters branch out to other parts of the brain stimulating dopamine receptors. Scientists are curious about how this works and have focused their attention to understanding how the reward centers in obese and overweight individuals work in an attempt to discover whether certain types of food have the same effect on the dopamine system as drugs. Results from their research shows that obese people had less dopamine receptors in the brain so therefore had to eat more in order to gain the same satisfaction as person of average weight. They questioned whether these people already have fewer receptors predisposing them genetically to weight gain or did they have a normal amount that was downsized due to repeated exposure. Their conclusion was both. They confirmed that it was certain hyper palatable types of food (high fat, unhealthy processed foods) that reduced the amount of dopamine receptors in the brain. When people were exposed to their favorite foods but not allowed to eat them they had a dopamine surge that caused them to have a craving for the food even f they weren’t hungry. This is the same cycle that occurs for drug users too. It’s an addictive cycle of anticipation and reward. When researchers fed rats a diet that consisted of fat and processed foods the rat’s brain structure changed similarly to that of a cocaine user. Researchers also did a study using MRI to monitor neural activity of people who demonstrate addictive patterns around food. They found the same neural pattern as chronic drug users- Very high levels of anticipation and a very low level of satisfaction afterwards.
How does addiction develop? When the brain is continually flooded with dopamine it causes a decrease in dopamine receptors therefore creating an increase of consumption to get the same or less satisfaction. This creates a vicious cycle of increased consumption, less dopamine receptors, and a need to consume more. They also discovered that people with less dopamine receptors also have less activity in the prefrontal cortex which is the area of the brain responsible planning, organizing, making choices, and creativity as well as controlling impulsiveness, impatience, and irritability. Moderation to a food addict is crucial point to exercise because they need to eat more food to experience reward and pleasure that’s normal to the average person. For a person that’s addicted to food it’s much more difficult to stop after one bite. However it is proven that people do get the same satisfaction from one bite as they do ten. The food doesn’t change after the first bite, the individuals reaction to the first bite is what changes.
Researchers are discovering that hyper palatable diets are more rewarding and potentially more addicting than heroin and cocaine. Lab rats that where allowed unlimited access to high fat, high simple carbohydrate diets almost ate themselves to death and when they were withdrawn from the food they went through the same shakes and withdrawal symptoms that drug users undergo without their fix. Once the rats became addicted to sugar they were eager and easily addicted to amphetamines, alcohol, and cocaine. When the cross-addicted rats where offered a choice they chose the sugar first. In humans, there is evidence that habitual consumption of calorie dense hyper palatable diets cause changes in the brain that mirror those that occur with drug addiction. People crave calorie dense foods for the primal reason of surviving. Naturally we where wired to eat to survive and calorie dense foods provide an opportunity for a higher survival rate, however, today things have changed. Some individuals survive to eat.
Another reason people struggle with food addiction is because of genes. I am not talking about changes in the family’s genome structure but rather the influence of environment to trigger certain genes- Epigenetics. Here’s an example of how that works (cited from the ACE Idea Fitness journal October 2012) Take an individual who starts the day in fight or flight overdrive, arguing with a spouse on the way out the front door, skipping breakfast, dealing with traffic on the way to work, getting to work hungry, dealing with a micromanaging boss, and being glued to a computer screen and office chair all day. This individual has all of these external stressors which are causing acetylcholine and cortisol (hormones that trigger fat storage and cravings) levels to skyrocket out the roof. In order to satisfy these hormones it is all too convenient to go to the office vending machine or drive thru to bring you back to a level of reward and comfort. The constant dependence for satisfaction will eventually lead to an increased waist line and changes in the brain structure. It takes a toll on the genes by changing their structure to support overeating and addiction, which then reinforces the food craving addiction cycle.
The great thing about knowing all of this is that there are a few simple steps that individuals can take to help alleviate their cravings and bring their consumption level back under control. The first thing is to reduce the impact of stress on your life. One way to do that is by practicing meditation, breathing techniques, yoga, or any sort of stimulating activity that brings you peace. You can lower stress levels by creating a conscious mind body connection. Sometimes it can be hard to do this because ego and subconscious beliefs can get in the way. That’s ok. Practice meditation and relaxation while focusing on individual areas of the body. When you participate in these types of mind body exercises you strengthen the pre frontal cortex (part of the brain used to make choices) and release more dopamine. After all, the food we consume is based off of choice. Every time we eat we are altering our genetic expression. The stronger your PFC is the more likely you will stick to eating an apple rather than a doughnut. Another way to regain control of food addictions is to start a regular exercise program. Now you do not need a gym membership or fancy equipment. You just gotta get up and get moving, get that heart rate up for at least 30 minutes a day. By exercising you are helping regenerate dopamine receptors which in turn helps rebuild the damage of past addictions and helps to prevent it in the future. You can prepare yourself for cravings by making clean recipes of your favorite foods that you can freeze for later when a crave attack hits and by keeping your fridge stocked with healthy whole foods. Pick one bad habit a week or day and replace it with a beneficial healthy activity or snack.
Some things to be mindful about are what types of living and working environments enables overeating and addictive behaviors? What can you do to emotionally strengthen yourself to avoid food addiction? What social triggers cause people to want to over eat unhealthy foods? Once you can identify some answers to these questions you can arm yourself to be prepared to make healthy choices and feel good. After all your body is your Buggatti and you only get one!
Source: ACE Idea Fitness Journal October 2012