How Modern Day Food Choices and Dopamine-Pleasure Cycles Lead to Overeating
“The honest truth is just that…it starts with nutrition. We, like cars and other such machines, run on fuel. For us, that fuel is food and water. It is easy enough for us to know our car needs gasoline and not dishwasher soap. So, why is it so difficult for us to understand that we need nutritious whole foods and not cheeseburgers, sodas and doughnuts? The reality is that this is not our fault. Our bodies are not flawed.
This is not a problem resulting from defective genes, inability to portion control, or a propensity to emotionally eat. Instead, the problem lies in the environment we currently live in.
You see, we are inherently hard wired to enjoy pleasurable experiences, which served as a very useful survival mechanism for our ancestors….in order for our ancestors to survive in nature, they needed to learn how to find food without becoming the food. The most efficient way to do this was to find the foods with the most calories. For example, if they had a choice between a banana and a cucumber, they were programmed to choose the banana. Why was this, such a useful survival tool? Because we only need a certain amount of calories a day. Let’s say 2000 calories. That would mean either about 25 bananas or about 45 cucumbers. By going for the banana, our ancestors would get the most bang for their buck – they would have to work less to get the right amount of food and by saving time, they would limit their exposure to outdoor danger. So, the banana became a win-win choice. Unfortunately, the advancements in our environment have created new scenarios for us. We are no longer choosing between a banana and a cucumber. Instead, we are choosing between a banana and a cheeseburger. And, using the same algorithm, it now becomes more understandable why we choose the cheeseburger.
Ok, so now we understand why we make certain food choices but what does this have to do with experiencing pleasure beyond that of the foods tasting good, and how does it actually harm us?
When we experience pleasure a neurotransmitter
called dopamine is released in our brain.
This happens with any pleasurable experience from falling in love to being intimate to winning the lottery to eating an ice cream sundae. The release of dopamine is what we then interpret as pleasure and what propels us into a dopamine-pleasure cycle.
Dopamine-pleasure cycle: we release dopamine, we feel good, we continue doing the action that will release dopamine and we continue to feel pleasure.
Through pleasure reinforcement, this mechanism ensures that we continue to repeat those behaviors that are necessary for our survival – for example eating and reproducing. But, those are not the only activities that release dopamine in our brain. In fact, over time, we have learned how to manipulate this system with cocaine, heroin, and unknowingly with our favorite fast food version of a heart attack on a plate…
Let’s explore this a little more. We want to feel good…who wouldn’t? In fact, up until the last 100 years or so, whatever made us feel good was generally in our evolutionary best interest. So as we discussed…it is in our nature to turn those things that will give us pleasure, one of which is the food we eat. The problem is that the more calorie dense the food (the more calories per square inch), the more dopamine is release…
In today’s world with no saber tooth tiger lurking in the shadows and with fast food restaurants and convenience stores at every corner, we no longer share those concerns. BUT, our body is still programmed to see out caloric density. What our body doesn’t realize is that we are no longer only choosing from whole foods. Rather many of us rely on fast foods or processed/packaged foods for breakfast, lunch and dinner or some combination thereof.
So, why is that a problem you may ask? Well, let’s put aside the abundance of cholesterol and fat in these foods – two primary constituents for developing heart disease. Let’s table the loads of sugar and salt poured into these foods that contribute to problems like high blood pressure and diabetes. And let’s even shelve, for now, the environmental contaminants found in these foods (from E. coli to dioxin) that can cause anything from stomach upset to cancer and death. What we are focusing on here is just calorie density.
Our stomach responds to two things: stretch and calories. Based on this information, we have a built-in system that assesses how many calories we need in a given day. This system is very accurate as long as we are eating NATURAL WHOLE FOODS, our “calorie currency” per say. But, when we introduce fast food and junk food into our bodies, our system haywires. This is primary because when manufacturers process food, they remove water and fiber along with other nutrients, which condenses calories so that the stretch of the stomach and calorie density no longer correlates. If you eat 500 calories of potatoes, your stomach will be stretched significantly, and as a result you will feel full.
However, if you eat 500 calories of beef or 500 calories of chocolate, both devoid of fiber and water, they do not fill up your stomach and you will continue to feel hungry. Your body will be confused (by the lack of stretch) into believing it has not consumed enough calories and it will instruct you to eat more. You cannot fight this survival instinct, just as you cannot breathe five times per minute for an extended period of time if your brains says you need ten breaths per minute. So, you eat to not feel hungry, but by the end of the meal you have consumed more calories than your body actually needed. Over time, this results in weight gain as 3500 additional calories equals one additional pound of fat. Which means if you overshoot by as little as 100 calories a meal (1/2 a chocolate bar or 1/5 of a hamburger without cheese) and have three meals a day, you will gain a pound of fat every two weeks and a total of about 25 pounds over the year!
Without even realizing it, we begin to rely on these foods to make us feel a certain way. There is a reason why we seek out pizza or brownies (higher calorie density and more dopamine released) and not cauliflower and wheatgrass (lower calorie density and less dopamine released) when we are feeling stressed or depressed. We are in fact drugging ourselves with the foods we eat (choosing more calorie dense foods that simulate more of a dopamine release). And, like addicts (which, in fact, is what we have knowingly become) over time, we develop tolerance eventually seeking a greater high, which leads us to eat even more of these processed fatty foods. Similar to a heroin addict who no longer feels pleasure from using the same drug dose, people living off fast food no longer feel pleasure from eating fruits and vegetables. You see this all of the time with children. Look at babies who have consumed nothing but breast milk for their first year of life. Then they move on to plain cook rice and enjoy that along with some pureed fruit. But once they get exposed to macaroni and cheese, try getting them to eat plain cooked cereal again – unlikely to happen without a fight.
The idea here is that we eat the processed fast foods, we get our fix, we feel better, we start to wane, we go for our next fix (which is now the processed foods and not the fruits and vegetables) to relieve the “withdrawal” symptoms, we feel good again…and so on and so forth. And this, my friends, is how we live day to day, meal to meal, stuck in the “Pleasure Trap”!”
This is an excerpt from the book “Keep It Simple, Keep It Whole”, an easy to read guide that compiles the essential nutrition and health information you need to obtain optimal health. With fun, short chapters and bold take home messages, it is perfect for people who want to solidify their current nutrition and health knowledge base as well as for those who want to be gently introduced to a truly healthy diet and lifestyle. The book can be purchased at www.Exsalus.com or on Amazon for $19.95.
Dr. Alona Pulde is a Family Physician and Doctor of Acupuncture and Oriental Medicine, uniting two powerful and synergistic healing approaches – the technological skill of Western Medicine with the ancient wisdom of Chinese Medicine. She practices at Exsalus Health and Wellness Center in Los Angeles with her husband, Dr. Matthew Lederman, a board certified Internal Medicine Physician. Together, they have participated in projects such as lecturing for the eCornell Certificate Program in Plant Based Nutrition, films such as Healing Cancer and Forks Over Knives (in which they are the physicians treating some of the patients followed in the film), and answering nutrition and health questions for popular websites. They are currently collaborating with T. Colin Campbell on their next book, a follow-up to The China Study, addressing common and prevalent nutrition and lifestyle questions. They are the first doctors to ever work with John McDougall, MD.
For more on dopamine and your brain, check out this video: