Updated: Mar 25, 2021
Understanding how we experience pleasure with food is helping me to feel more in control
A couple of years ago, I participated in a Buddhist silent retreat where the one expectation I had going in was that the food wasn't going to be the highlight of my long weekend. I was right, but I was wrong. The food, by my standards on the first day, was pretty dreadful. There was a small salad bar so I knew I wouldn't starve, and really, I wasn't going there for pleasure. But all that didn't matter because the silence and meditation had a profound effect on me, and around 36 hours into the retreat I started finding every flower outside intensely beautiful and every bite of food I put in my mouth was heavenly. At one point during lunch on the third day, I bit into a fresh blackberry and was so overcome with emotion that my eyes welled up with tears. Getting to that state of mind requires a lot detachment from daily habits, and once I got back to my home and family, I stopped paying such close attention to seemingly insignificant details. However, after a year of taking too much solace in food, I'm needing some change and I'm trying to be curious about how I experience pleasure. I wanted to understand why we tend to fall in and out of healthy eating habits and so I began exploring why certain foods are so appealing and why we convince ourselves to eat them knowing full well they're not what our body really needs. What I found is that food provides us with some powerful neurochemicals, particularly dopamine, that make us come back for more and being aware of this has changed my relationship with food.
Though often called a "feel good" neurotransmitter, dopamine actually produces cravings. Satisfying those cravings is what feels good. The better it feels, the more we will want to repeat that behaviour. For this reason, dopamine is considered an integral neurotransmitter for learning and motivation. Not producing enough dopamine can have debilitating consequences but over-relying on its associated pleasure chemicals plays a big role in forming bad lifestyle habits. Dopamine creates an impetus to act, it allows us to control our motor functions, to learn new skills and it motivates us to complete tasks. When dopamine is released we are compelled toward a certain behaviour and we may notice pleasure with our actions. Dopamine, however, is not the source of that sensation of pleasure. In animal studies, subjects pre-trained to press a lever for addictive substances won't press the lever when their dopamine system is blocked. But when these animals are given the addictive substances, they still experience the pleasure reward. The pleasure we get is due to the interaction between dopamine and endogenous cannininoids and opioids. Dopamine drives us to seek out food (or experiences) that were previously rewarding. The saliency of the reward drives up dopamine levels in the moment and then again when we anticipate repeating that behaviour. When you drink a coffee, you will likely feel better as soon as you've taken the first sip even though the caffeine has not had a chance to take effect. It's the dopamine released in anticipation of the stimulant that sets off the release of pleasure chemicals in the brain. While we may not be able to block our dopamine system as they do in the lab (and we wouldn't want to either), we can recognize dopamine's power and question how it might be controlling our food choices.
...we may repeatedly be eating foods that have hijacked our brains.
Dopamine is a neurotransmitter we want to have in adequate levels in our brain. Low dopamine or low dopamine sensitivity is associated with depression, ADHD, and lack of motivation. But those with normal dopamine levels can have dysfunction in their dopamine reward system by overdoing high-reward experiences. In the realm of food-driven behaviour, we may repeatedly be eating foods that have hijacked our brains. Pizza, cheeseburgers, chips, chocolate, and ice cream are on the top of the list of foods known to be addictive. What they all have in common is they are high in saturated fat and refined carbohydrates, two food components known to drive up dopamine levels in the brain. Eating these foods leads to a feedforward loop that encourages those eating patterns. Individually, they may also contain specific pleasure inducing chemicals, but it's the dopamine that will drive us toward those foods over and over again. When we expose ourselves to sugar and other refined carbohydrates, we are causing unhealthy amounts of pleasure chemicals in the brain, and over time, the dopamine receptors associated with those chemicals become desensitized. Adding to this, refined carbohydrates are also known to contribute to dysbiosis in the microbiome. Since the bacteria in the gut help in the production of many key neurotransmitters like serotonin, an unbalanced gut can further affect our sense of wellbeing and leave us wanting more of those foods in order to receive the quick mood-enhancing benefits.
I have not restricted anything but I am just being mindful when planning my meals, right before I eat, and while I'm eating.
There can be many reasons why we experience pleasure with food, and flavour is but one sense involved in our preferences. The more it appeals to our all our senses, the brain will identify this as a high-reward food, thereby increasing dopamine. When we are motivated to eat in order to experience pleasure, it is known as hedonic eating. This motivation can be viewed in contrast to homeostatic eating where the release of hunger and satiation hormones drives us to seek out food. I am recognizing that when the homeostatic and hedonic drives are working together, it is harder to make healthy choices. We know that we shouldn't go shopping when we're hungry, but we also shouldn't be deciding what we're going to eat when we're hungry. This is especially true when we're tired after a long day and high fat, high-carbohydrate meals are only a few clicks away. I've found it very helpful to reflect on my thought processes that prompt me to make bad decisions in the moment, they go something like this:
" Once I'm done these bagels, I'm not buying any more so I better finish them up"
"The kids would like me to bake these cookies"
"After the holidays, I'll go back to my usual way of eating"
"It's a pandemic, everyone's drinking!"
"That pasta needs eating up"
"It's so cold, I need comfort food"
"I'm craving this food, so I must need something nutritionally from it" (this has been disproven!)
My goal is to be at the lower end of my body's set point for weight and I want to eat in a way that I know will support the gut-brain axis and thereby benefit my general health. This means eating primarily vegetables and lots of polyphenol-rich food like blueberries and dark chocolate (85-90%), drastically reducing refined carbohydrates and refined vegetable oils and increasing foods rich in omega-3 fatty acids like fish, seafood, hemp seeds and walnuts. I have not restricted anything but I am just being mindful when planning my meals, right before I eat, and while I'm eating. Taking a mindful approach will be important because the dopamine that is motivating me to succeed right now will no longer have the same effect at some point. With most diets, it can be very exciting (reward!) to see and feel the impacts of the hard work, but after 6 months, the body's metabolism drives us to stay within the limits of our set point and weight loss slows down or stops. When this happens, there's a tendency to seek out those dopamine-releasing foods again, potentially causing more weight gain than before.
As I write this, I recognize how naïve I might be when I make these claims about being more in control. It's March, we're all looking to shed some weight and to feel more alive and we're more motivated to fulfill these goals. In other words, the anticipation of attaining healthy goals might lead to increased dopamine release and we feel better about ourselves when we think of positive attainable goals. But this change also came about as I was preparing for a talk and doing a lot of reading into foods that support brain health. Staying informed and reminding myself of the core principles of an anti-inflammatory diet and its associated longterm benefits was encouraging. The fact that I have not restricted any particular food is liberating, I'm not craving sweets but I'm looking forward to my birthday (coming soon!) when I plan to make this cake. I'm aware that I can so easily be nudged back into old habits, but like my meditation practice that sometimes becomes less of a priority, l hope to always come back to it because I know it's what I need to function well. What I recall from the experience at the silent retreat was that I felt an overwhelming sense of pleasure but I didn't have that sense of craving - the pleasure was a surprise, not an expectation. By truly being present to the experience of eating and understanding the benefits of particular foods, I am more open to the pleasure and ready to receive its gifts.
Here are some suggestions for controlling your food cravings:
Take a break from the foods that you love that you know are flooding your brain with dopamine
Don't tell yourself that you can't have them ever again- we know that doesn't work! Avoiding the flood of dopamine will allow the receptors to regain their sensitivity to dopamine so that you can be less reliant on the big surges to feel better.
Choose certain foods you crave that just happen to be healthy
Coffee, green tea and dark chocolate can drive up dopamine but they also contain antioxidants that are known to be health-supportive. Have those foods as your reward for when you accomplish a small task (healthy anticipation and reward). But, don't over do it either, excess caffeine is not healthy.
Plan your meals
Planning helps us avoid the moments of weakness. There are several food planning apps available that can help you get started.
Make sure you're eating enough protein
The amino-acid tyrosine found in protein-rich foods is a pre-cursor to dopamine and having a good supply of dopamine is healthy.
Boost dopamine levels without flooding the brain
Learning a new skill, getting out in nature, beginning a new project, listening to music, are all known to drive up levels of dopamine thereby improving our mood throughout the day.
Put screens away while you're eating, even when you're eating alone
This is one that I hesitate to say because for most people it feels impossible. Eating mindfully is probably the most effective way of maintaining weight control without feeling a sense of struggle and deprivation. (The dopamine release we get from technology is depleting us as well!)
Take vitamin D, especially in the winter
Vitamin D is believed to help drive up serotonin levels, which may explain why we're more depressed in the winter months and therefore driven to eat quick mood-boosting foods.
Work with a health consultant who can guide you toward healthier eating patterns
Many of my clients tell me that keeping regular appointments with me helps them stay on track. It's important to reflect on where we're at and where we want to be and doing this on a regular basis can produce long-term results.