Dopamine, Binge Eating, & Food Addiction
Updated: Jan 13, 2020
What is dopamine?
Dopamine is a neurotransmitter that is a reward mechanism for the brain. Some things like food, novelty exercise, and cocaine trigger the production of dopamine and its uptake into brain cells which gives us the feeling of motivation to find the stimuli again.
How does dopamine relate to food addiction?
If nutritious food triggers a dopamine response, this would be considered beneficial as it would motivate to find this food source again - especially if food was scarce. The dopamine response can also aid in satiation as the reward was indeed received. But in food addicts, the dopamine response isn’t as strong, so satiation is a bigger challenge to achieve and the desire for more and more is still there. Eating highly palatable food (sugar, salt, junk food) is more addictive than nutrient-dense foods as it results in a greater dopamine rush.
How might dopamine signaling act differently in those who tend to overeat?
The dopamine response is weakened in those who tend to overeat. That is, when eating a food that might trigger an adequate dopamine response in a healthy weight person, the over-eater may have a smaller dopamine response in comparison. This situation may exacerbate the food addiction for the over-eater whom is not able to reach satisfaction as efficiently.
Obesity and Binge Eating
Binge eating disorder is an eating disorder associated with obesity. Binge-eating is often characterized by bingeing on highly palatable food such as those rich in fat, salt, or sugar (potato chips, sodium-cured bacon, Little Debbie snacks) rather than healthier choices such as salad or walnuts. Dopamine is a neurotransmitter involved in both food addiction and binge-eating behavior. Studies have shown that the obese have less dopamine receptors and the same has been seen in opioid addicts (Avena, et al., 2009).
What are the differences seen in sugar and fat bingeing?
Sugar-bingeing is associated with induced dopamine rushes and subsequent overuse of the dopamine system which causes a dopamine/acetylcholine imbalance. This is seen in drug/alcohol addicts as well. Fat-bingeing brain abnormalities are very similar to those found in sugar addiction with the exception of the periventricular compounds in the hypothalamus found in fat-craving individuals. Sugar withdrawal in the sugar-addicted appears to induce more anxiety, but the same symptoms of withdrawal were not associated with fat-addiction (Avena, et al., 2009).
What are some strategies to prevent or minimize overeating?
Exercise, even brisk walking, can help promote healthy brain cell and function which can help regulate impulses.
Being aware of stress and the coinciding desire to eat. Ask, 'Does my body need nourishment? Or am I just anxious and looking for comfort food?' Being in-tuned with feelings, the state of the brain, hunger, and fullness can be explored in the Intuitive Eating Workbook.
Food can be a habit opposed to eating for nourishment. Taking breaks between meals and doing something else can provide distraction to break the habit.
The body tends to crave what we give it most. Introducing healthier food choices such vegetables and fish in the daily diet will eventually set a physiological response of desiring these foods.
Prioritize self-care and self-esteem. Food addiction and binge-eating disorder often revolves around a sense of shame. It doesn't matter if you are your ideal weight or 100 pounds overweight, your inner worth remains the same. Own your significance. Size and worth are not synonymous. Go to therapy or find other ways to prioritize yourself and your self-esteem. Practice self-care by taking care of you and giving your body what it needs: nourishment.
Indulging in calorie-dense/nutrient-void processed food won’t help matters of the brain. If it triggers temptation, best to keep it out of the house.
Food addiction of highly palatable foods is real. Since brain dysfunction exists with food deprivation as well as food surplus, perhaps intuitive eating may be positive nutrition therapy and to not focus on self-restriction as it may lead to over-indulgence. If certain nutrient-void foods are a temptation (i.e. soda), avoiding bringing them in the house would likely be beneficial or even pivotal. But don't just remove food, fill the cabinets and refrigerator with healthy options: nuts, a bowl full of fresh fruit, a variety of vegetables, simple salad dressings, greek yogurt dips, and more. Eat real food - the food closest to the Earth and that has spent minimal time in a food processing plant.
Avena, N. M., Rada, P., & Hoebel, B. G. (2009). Sugar and Fat Bingeing Have Notable
Differences in Addictive-like Behavior 1 – 3, 79793.