Have you ever wondered why some foods are so hard to resist?
Why do we sometimes eat more than we need, even when we are not hungry?
The answer may have something to do with a brain chemical called dopamine.
Dopamine is a neurotransmitter, which means it helps send messages between nerve cells in the brain. Dopamine release happens in the nucleus accumbens, a brain region famous for its role in registering pleasure and reinforcing learning. Dopamine is involved in many functions, such as learning, memory, movement and motivation. One of the most important roles of dopamine is to make us feel good when we do something rewarding, such as eating a delicious meal, playing a video game or getting a hug from a friend.
Lots of things give you little dopamine boosts… eating a tasty meal when you’re hungry, connecting with friends and loved ones, and achieving goals. However, certain activities and substances—like drugs, gambling, and (yes) highly-processed foods—can produce unnaturally high surges of dopamine.
When we eat something tasty, our brain releases dopamine as a way of saying "good job, that was a smart choice". This makes us feel happy and satisfied, and also encourages us to repeat the behavior in the future. This is how we learn to associate certain foods with pleasure and reward.
The greater the dopamine response, the more pleasure you experience. The more pleasure you feel, the more motivated you are to repeat it.
When you experience a dopamine surge, you learn to associate pleasure with the specific activity or substance that caused it.
As that learning continues, your prefrontal cortex and your reward system get hijacked. You become focused on getting more of the thing. And you have trouble experiencing pleasure from anything else.
Not all foods have the same effect on dopamine. Some foods, especially those that are high in sugar, fat and salt, can trigger much more dopamine than others. These foods are called highly palatable foods, and they can be very addictive. They are like drugs for our brain, because they make us feel so good that we want more and more of them.
The problem is that when we eat too much of these foods, our brain gets used to the high levels of dopamine and starts to need more to feel the same pleasure.
Over time, your brain adapts to these floods of dopamine.
This is called tolerance. Tolerance drives you to chase more of the pleasurable thing, yet you rarely feel satisfied, and it means that we have to eat more of the addictive food to get the same reward. Over time, this can lead to a cycle of craving and bingeing on these foods, even when we are not hungry or when we know they are bad for us.
This cycle can also affect our mood and emotions. When we are not eating the addictive food, our dopamine levels drop and we feel unhappy, anxious or irritable. This is called withdrawal, and it makes us want to eat more of the food to feel better. This can create a vicious circle of addiction that is hard to break.
This is the addiction cycle.
Food addiction is a serious condition that can affect our health and well-being. It can cause weight gain, obesity, diabetes, heart disease and other problems. It can also make us feel guilty, ashamed or depressed about our eating habits.