As anyone at the end of a long day can attest, junk food is addictive. Recent research suggests that food addictions engage similar brain pathways as drugs and alcohol. The Scripps Research Institute recently released a study showing that rats fed a diet of sausage, chocolate, cheesecake, and bacon encountered dramatic rises in dopamine and serotonin, both neurochemicals that affect the brain’s pleasure centers.
When the researchers later withheld these foods and shifted the rats’ diets to more nutritious foods, the rats simply refused to eat – nearly to the point of starvation. Further, the rats even “chose” to subject themselves to painful shocks to get access to sweet and fatty foods. It took a full two weeks for the rats’ brains to return to normal.
Drug studies have shown that rats recover normal brain function from cocaine use in two days. Some people use these sorts of studies as ammunition to argue that “food addiction” can be harder to overcome than drug addiction.
Really? Cheetos are more addictive than crack?
Unhealthy foods have a real and sinister effect on the way our brains work. In a vicious cycle, junk food addicts may actually be eating too much junk as a self-medication to balance levels of the chemicals that are disrupted by… eating too much junk food. Thanks Monsanto!
Here’s how it works from a biochemical perspective. Eating junk food raises our level of dopamine, the “feel good” neurotransmitter that causes the nerve fibers to fire and stimulate the pleasure center of the brain. If the brain is constantly pummeled with surges of dopamine, however, this leads to dopamine deficiency over time.
When we submit to our cravings and indulge in sugary foods, for example, the boost in dopamine is fleeting. Once levels drop, we begin to crave again and eat more to bring our dopamine back up. In response to constant biochemical signals to release dopamine, the brain attempts to achieve homeostasis by suppressing dopamine receptors and preventing additional dopamine spikes. Then we’re left with strong cravings that are nearly impossible to satisfy no matter how much junk food we consume.
Most traditional diets fail because they are based on calorie-restriction and do not address the mechanism of addiction that leads people to overeat in the first place.
IF YOU WANT TO BE SMART ABOUT HANDLING YOUR CRAVINGS, FOLLOW THESE 6 STEPS BELOW.
1. Regulate dopamine levels naturally. Being active and social increases levels of dopamine, as do new and pleasurable experiences such as playing games or sports, whipping up a new recipe, or jamming to music.
2. Bump up your intake of Tyrosine. Tyrosine is a natural chemical that acts as a precursor to dopamine in the body. Tyrosine rich foods include chicken, duck, fava beans, oats, mustard greens, algae, ricotta cheese and, my favorite, chocolate. The supplement “L-Tyrosine,” which can be found at most health food and grocery stores, can also help keep your dopamine levels up throughout the day.
3. Baby steps. If you can’t go off junk food cold turkey, swap one junk food for a healthy food at a time. An example? Buy a fresh, organic apple instead of a muffin.
4. Surround yourself to healthy foods. Your environment and your habits dictate your cravings. It takes at least 10 exposures to a healthy food before you begin to crave it in the same way that you craved junk foods. That’s why I crave kale instead of Krispy Kreme.
5. Eliminate mindless eating. Don’t eat in front of the TV, reading, driving, or anything else. Not only will you overeat because your brain is distracted, you will also begin to associate activities with foods (such as soda with driving, candy with talking on the phone, or popcorn with TV) which increases cravings.
6. Indulge occasionally – hold the guilt. We all want to be perfect, but we’re human. As long as you are making good choices the vast majority of the time, give yourself permission – on occasion – to indulge in foods you truly love. But as always, make even your indulgences the highest possible quality food you can find.
So now you can stop cursing your cravings and do something about them instead. Eat for your brain, not just your body, and you’ll be light-years ahead of most every dieter out
And in a pinch, a little bit of rich, dark chocolate should get you through the day with a smile on your face.