December 23, 2016 Neuroscience, Nutrition, Podcast 1 Comment

Episode 160

Why do people find it so difficult to eat a healthy diet?  And what about food addiction?  We need food to survive, so can you really be addicted to something necessary for life?

Dr. Nicole Avena, author of Why Diets Fail, talks to Jesse about why our brains make us act in unhealthy ways and how eating junk food is actually associated with addiction behaviors.

Food and Dopamine

Dopamine is the neurotransmitter commonly associated with addiction.  Although the brain is very complex, and dopamine is not the only neurotransmitter in play, it is true that there’s a commonality to the way the dopamine system is affected by various addictions.

Drugs which are commonly abused release dopamine with each exposure — it’s the constant rush associated with a surge in dopamine that forms addiction.

Food, on the other hand, is pleasurable, but not generally addictive.  Eating a new food does release dopamine, but after eating it a few times, the rush wears off.

This is not the case for “highly palatable food” aka junk food.  Unhealthy food functions like a drug, causing the release of dopamine each time you eat it.

What’s the deal with food addiction?

It’s hard to talk about food addiction.  We need food to survive; unlike drugs like cocaine.  It’s not food in general that’s addictive, it’s only certain types of food.

So which foods are addictive?  Carrots and broccoli aren’t; cookies and pizza are.  What’s the difference?  Which foods are problematic?

The level of processing is the strongest predictor of whether or not a food is addictive.  It’s not about one type of nutrient (fats or carbs).  It’s about the number of ingredients, particularly additives like sugars and fats.

The not-so-surprising most addictive food according to Dr. Avena’s research?  Pizza.

Healthy eating habits

If you have an unhealthy relationship with food, even if you don’t think it’s at the level of a full-blown addiction, the key to fixing it is to simplify.  The sheer variety of ingredients we’re exposed to, particularly in processed foods, can hurt you.

The more variety in your diet, the more likely you are to overeat.  It’s called sensory specific satiety.  Think about when you go to a buffet.  You can’t eat any more pasta, but you still have room for the steak.  In fact, if you’re really serious about losing weight, the best thing to do is to eat the same thing every day.

You should also avoid processed foods.  The fewer ingredients the better.  And keep a special eye out for sugar.  If sugar is one of the first five ingredients on the label, pick something else.

Although some people can handle eating highly processed food, others are more sensitive.  There’s a genetic component:  for example, people with a family history of alcoholism have a greater chance of showing signs of food addiction.

Episode Highlights

0:22Food Addiction
1:44This Week in Neuroscience: Breathing In May Affect Memory Recall, Response To Fear
5:18The audience interaction section
8:14Introduction to Dr Nicole Avena
10:17Dr Avena’s route to food addiction research
11:07Overlaps between food and drug addictions
14:05Differences in dopamine response in people who eat junk food regularly and those who don’t
14:41Addiction in deprived environments
16:25How to distinguish between food addicts and people who like to eat?
19:54Which types of foods should be eaten/avoided?
21:23The effect of food packaging on addiction
23:34Strategies to fix wayward food habits and understanding ingredient lists
27:27Social issues surrounding food addiction
29:23The link between food addiction and obesity
32:14What leads people to be susceptible to different types of addictions
33:08Processed foods
35:43Are we confusing our bodies?
37:34Eating during pregnancy and the effect on our babies
40:48The Dutch Hongerwinter
43:24Food addiction and compulsive behaviour
44:48Wanting versus liking
45:56Food addiction capacity
50:41Ruthless Listener-Retention Gimmick: Belief About Nicotine Level Influences Cigarette Cravings and Brain Activity

PS:  We can’t promise that you won’t get totally addicted to our weekly Brain Breakfast.


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Written by Hannah Sabih
Hannah believes there's nothing 8 hours of sleep and some kale can't cure (yes, she's from California). She's an avid runner, reader, and traveler, who brings you the latest and greatest in neuroscience via our social media channels.