We are hard-wired to eat high-fat, high-sugar foods. Studies show that these unhealthy treats activate our brains’ pleasure zones, prompting us to continue to seek them out. Could fatty, sugary foods be as addictive as drugs and alcohol?
Brain studies prove that it is harder for some people to resist these unhealthy treats. Dopamine, a neurotransmitter in the brain associated with pleasure and reward, seems to be the main culprit. If the brain dopamine system is not functioning properly, people could be more at risk for overeating. Subtle variations in the function of these paths may explain why some people are better able to resist unhealthy food.
How could dopamine cause food addiction? When you eat a food that contains fat and sugar, your brain’s dopamine path is activated, causing you to feel pleasure. You begin to associate these foods with pleasure, prompting you to crave them, whether consciously or subconsciously. You may not even realize that is why you are grabbing a certain snack!
This explains why we automatically reach for ‘comfort food’ when we are upset. Our bodies innately know that it will make us feel better. Break up with your boyfriend? Eat a doughnut. Lose your job? Go for a hot fudge sundae. Science can now explain why we tend to use food as an emotional crutch.
Some compulsive eaters experience such a strong urge to eat that it begins to overshadow their desire to do anything else; it simply gets harder and harder to stay in control. In many senses, this is what drug and alcohol addicts experience. They know that they should stop but are unable to. And like a drug or alcohol addict, a compulsive eater puts his life at risk!
While it is unlikely that differing dopamine sensitivity is the entire cause of the obesity epidemic, it does give us all something to think about. Are we eating because we are hungry or because it makes us feel good? If we are eating because it makes us feel good, perhaps we can turn to other activities that also make us feel good, like exercise or playing with our children. Simply identifying the reasons we eat certain foods can help us to make smarter choices. In a sense, we need to retrain our brains; we need to disrupt the connection between eating fatty, sugary foods and pleasure and reestablish the connection between healthier activities and pleasure. So go for a bicycle ride- it will make you feel better!