Updated: Jun 14, 2020
I think we can all agree that we’ve uttered the words “I’m addicted” to one thing or another in our lives. Now if you stop and think about it for a moment, how many of those times were you referring to one food or another?
It’s sad but true that a lot of foods in the past few decades have been designed to be addictive, especially the cheap and processed ones. How else will companies sell their products if you don’t want it, crave it, and think you need it. The fast food industries and take-away places don’t care about your health, they ultimately care about their profit and the more you buy they more they will keep producing. The makers of chips/crisps, chocolate bars, donuts, fizzy drinks, jelly candies, and many many more knows how sugar works on the brain and they are cashing in on one of our biggest human ‘glitches’, addictions.
Cue the blame game on Dopamine for just doing what it does. First before we get into it, just a few facts about this neurotransmitter so you don’t go using it as a scapegoat for all your actions (good or bad).
Fact: Dopamine plays a primary role in the brain's reward center. It is also essential for learning, memory and motor control.
Fact: It is not solely responsible for every craving or impulse you have (3).
Fact: There are 5 receptors that use dopamine and 4 pathways it can take...not all are food or addiction driven.
Just on the off chance you’re as fascinated by this as I am, I will share the pathways but not in huge detail...it plays some pretty critical roles in how we function.
Mesolimbic pathway - associated with reward and emotion, this pathway is the one most discussed and associated with addiction.
Mesocortical pathway - associated with planning and responsibility in the simplest of terms.
Nigrostriatal tract - associated with motor function (dysfunction here can lead to Parkinson’s) (3).
Tuberoinfundibular pathway - associated with the inhibition of prolactin which enables breast milk production as well as having an important function in metabolism, arousal and immunity (2).
There are a couple of thoughts or theories on the mode of action of Dopamine within the brain but both ultimately lead to the same result.
The First thought is that it reinforces pleasure, leading the brain to develop an expectation regarding that experience or action. Example; Eat the donut, love the taste, feel happy due to sugar rush...then of course feel like crap later because you’ve come down off your short lived high and now you have to deal with a whole new set of emotions, which I won’t hammer because I think we can all probably relate.
The Second thought is that dopamine helps the brain feel more motivated in order to repeat a task over and over again (3). Example: Rat pulls level for sugar or cocaine in some case studies. Results; Rat sees lever, remembers reward, reacts to stimulation of mesolimbic pathway as mentioned above, acts to obtain that reward and remembers this feeling the next time the lever is presented.
Regardless of which aspect is correct you are probably thinking that it still sounds like dopamine plays a big role in our addictive eating patterns and for the sake of argument, it does.
It comes down to repeat stimulation that can have an effect on neuronal pathways, genetic factors (far too in depth for this post), hormonal mechanisms, and learned behaviors (5,6). What I mean by learned behaviors is very simple. Think back to when you were a kid, you did something good, you got a reward, and most often this was a treat in the form of food.
It may have been the same when you were sick or in a bad mood, you likely received comfort food in whatever form your family enjoyed. These actions enforced a belief in us associated with that behavior and as a result while you were growing up you may have continued those belief patterns, mainly subconsciously. However this is not the only one way in which our “addictions” to foods may arise but is one many of us can relate to.
When a person eats a food, does exercise or gets high from drugs as a few examples, the brain increases production of dopamine, resulting in more connections between neurons, which play an important role in programming the brain to make associations between that action and pleasure. Ultimately reinforcing the effects caused by said ‘addiction’ (4). OK neuroscience lesson over, sorry I hope I haven’t lost you!!
There will always be those exceptions to any rule, the ones with discipline you’d only expect to see in athletes or monks. For the rest of us more regular people that have the typical M-F grind, kids, pets, busy schedules, limited budgets and maybe less knowledge than we’d like about why we are eating the way they are then you are not alone.
I wish I could now tell you how to stop craving all those foods you know you shouldn’t be eating but give into again and again, but sadly I can’t. It’s not a simple fix, it’s a lifestyle change, it’s retraining your brain and your taste buds, but it’s totally possible with a bit of patience and practice. It’s really replacing bad habits with good ones and remembering the feelings you get from feeling better both mentally and physically.
A few quick tips to help you get on the road to less cravings and healthier “addictions” if there is such a thing...take that with a pinch of salt.
1. Drink water, we are often more thirsty than hungry and it will fill you up
2. Eat regularly to avoid getting too hungry, which can often lead to cravings
Start small with healthy snacks, nuts, seeds, veggies, hummus, cheese, apples, nut butter, you name it just have them to hand to avoid impulse buys when hunger/cravings hit
3. Manage stress as best you can, it’s very common to emotionally eat so flex your willpower muscle here and when you are headed for the fridge detour to the door and go for a walk instead or do yoga or make a phone call, just distract from the fridge/cupboard
4. Eat more protein, it fills you up and can really help with cravings. Protein is easier to get than you may think too, many of the snacks above are high in protein for example
5. Increase your fruit and vegetable intake, often cravings can be linked back to nutrient deficiencies and a hearty salad be it fruit or veg can help here. Likewise include veggies and fruit in your snacks, win win
6. Don’t deprive yourself just chose better options. If you are craving chocolate have 70% dark or higher, try making Black Bean Brownies but don’t eat the whole tray, try Chocolate Chia Pudding, or Vanilla Chia Pudding with banana
7. If it’s salt you want mix salted nuts half and half with unsalted nuts and add in some unsalted sunflower or pumpkin seeds, you’ll get protein, fat and vitamins while potentially calming the craving...again portion control is key!
8. Try to limit your sugar intake, it just creates a cycle of cravings, tough and all as it is start small and just kick one bad little habit at a time. Eventually you won’t miss them or even remember why you wanted them in the first place.
OK that’s all I have to say on that for now, though I won’t lie I could have made this 4 pages easily. We all have our challenges and we can all face and overcome them with the right support. I hope this has been helpful for you in one way or another...now go and eat REAL food, it’s ok to!!
1. (WHO 2009) ‘Infants and Young Child Feeding’ From the Model Chapter for Textbooks for Medical Students and Allied Health Professions. Published by World Health Organization 2009. Available at: https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/books/NBK148970/
2. (Bridges, N. 2016) ‘The Four Major Dopamine Pathways’ Published online by Sanesco, 2016. Available at: https://sanescohealth.com/blog/dopamine-pathways/
3. (Kiger, P. 2018) "How Dopamine Works" Published online by HowStuffWorks, 2018. Available at: https://science.howstuffworks.com/life/inside-the-mind/human-brain/dopamine.htm
4. (Volkow et al 2007) ‘Dopamine in Drug Abuse and Addiction’ Published in Arch Neurol 2007;64(11):1575–1579. doi:10.1001/archneur.64.11.1575. Available online at Jama Network: https://jamanetwork.com/journals/jamaneurology/fullarticle/794743
5. (Wang et al 2008) ‘Overlapping neuronal circuits in addiction and obesity: Evidence of system pathology’ Published online by The Royal Society Publishing in the Philosophical Transactions of the Royal Society B, 2008. Available online at: https://royalsocietypublishing.org/doi/full/10.1098/rstb.2008.0107
6. (Lindgren et al 2018) ‘Food addiction: A common neurobiological mechanism with drug abuse’ Published online by Frontiers of Bioscience, Landmark, 2018. Available at: https://www.bioscience.org/2018/v23/af/4618/fulltext.htm