Thursday, April 29

Food Addiction

I’ve mentioned previously that I have and continue to struggle with an addiction to food. Today we get to do some learnin’ because I’m going to explain how this addiction works. Those of us with an addiction to food (which is more of us than we’d like to admit) struggle with a very drug-like addiction. Granted it’s not as severe as drug addiction; however, I would argue our social acceptance of obesity makes food far more dangerous to our society than drugs.

We have two chemical systems in our bodies that influence what we “like” (Opioid System) and what we “want” (Dopamine System) to eat.

Our Opioid System releases a kind of pleasure chemical when we eat a food we like. We’re sitting eating a hot fudge sunday and our opioid system is releasing chemicals that tell our brain we’re happy (I dare you to try to eat a hot fudge sunday and be sad about it). Our Dopamine System releases chemicals into our brains that our brains translate as a reward when we eat something we like (if we eat a hot fudge sunday every night except Thursday, our brains on Thursday begin to go through withdrawal).

High fat and high sugar foods increase the opioids in your system when you eat them. Interestingly, so does morphine (just on higher level). Check out this article on the research. Once we experience this pleasure, we seek to have it again and again. But we develop a tolerance—the second time we eat that sweet, our opioids system only releases a third of the opioids it previously released. Now you need more and more of that food to get the “feel good” experience you had the first time.

The dopamine system simply compounds the problem. When we continue to overeat foods we like, we teach our brains that every time we eat hot fudge sundays we get a dose of dopamine. When our brains don’t get the dopamine it tells us to go eat a hot fudge sunday. Interestingly, cocaine also causes our bodies to release dopamine (just on higher level).

Are you seeing the pattern yet?

The worst part is that dieting actually increases the reward effect that happens in our dopamine system. When you abstain from that hot fudge sunday for several weeks—then give in—that hot fudge sunday tastes like the best hot fudge sunday you’ve had in your entire life. You think to yourself, “Why don’t I eat these every night?” And you’re back to where we started.

Our food choices are driven by a pleasure and reward system rather than an energy deficit or excess signal system. How do you get back on track? Knowledge! When you know how many calories you’ve eaten and how many you need, it’s much easier to rationalize your brain back on track. But, when it comes down to it, everyone works differently. You may discover there are certain foods you just cannot have; otherwise you can’t stop yourself from overeating. You might find that abstaining for the most time isn’t too hard, as long as you let yourself indulge every once in a while.

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