Brain Health,

#160: All About Food Addiction

December 23, 2016

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.

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

Show Notes
  • 00:00:22

    Food Addiction

  • 00:01:44

    This Week in Neuroscience: Breathing In May Affect Memory Recall, Response To Fear

  • 00:05:18

    The audience interaction section

  • 00:08:14

    Introduction to Dr Nicole Avena

  • 00:10:17

    Dr Avena’s route to food addiction research

  • 00:11:07

    Overlaps between food and drug addictions

  • 00:14:05

    Differences in dopamine response in people who eat junk food regularly and those who don’t

  • 00:14:41

    Addiction in deprived environments

  • 00:16:25

    How to distinguish between food addicts and people who like to eat?

  • 00:19:54

    Which types of foods should be eaten/avoided?

  • 00:21:23

    The effect of food packaging on addiction

  • 00:23:34

    Strategies to fix wayward food habits and understanding ingredient lists

  • 00:27:27

    Social issues surrounding food addiction

  • 00:29:23

    The link between food addiction and obesity

  • 00:32:14

    What leads people to be susceptible to different types of addictions

  • 00:33:08

    Processed foods

  • 00:35:43

    Are we confusing our bodies?

  • 00:37:34

    Eating during pregnancy and the effect on our babies

  • 00:40:48

    The Dutch Hongerwinter

  • 00:43:24

    Food addiction and compulsive behaviour

  • 00:44:48

    Wanting versus liking

  • 00:45:56

    Food addiction capacity

  • 00:50:41

    Ruthless Listener-Retention Gimmick: Belief About Nicotine Level Influences Cigarette Cravings and Brain Activity

One comment

  1. ben says:

    The inhalation thru the nose helping memory reminded me of how some scientists (ex. Dr. Dale Bredesen) think that plaques found in Alzheimers patients may be a defense mechanism against bacteria/infection that came thru the nose! A proper gut flora may help the glymphatic system wash away the plaques during sleep, but it makes me wonder if just inhaling essential oils might be a good preventative measure, since many are anti-bacterial/fungal.

    Regarding non-addictive reasons for obesity.. those with a polymorphism related to either the release of the leptin hormone from fat cells (signaling satiety), or resistance to leptin itself in the brain receptors, leads to obesity without what most would consider food addiction. The other non-addiction link to obesity that comes to mind is gut flora. It’s interesting how changing the bacteria makeup (for example, from Firmicutes to Akkermansia ) can quickly lead fat mice to get lean.

    A couple book recommendations.. Mindless Eating by Brian Wansink is great and talks about all the subconscious triggers that cause overeating… and in case the future placebo episode hasn’t already been recorded, I recommend Jo Marchant as a possible interviewee. Her book (Cure) is fantastic, and shows many examples of where placebos work, even when you know it’s a placebo!

    Finally this year I’m thankful I discovered the Smart Drug Smarts podcast! I did a first pass of all the episodes that jumped out at me (about a dozen or so), but in 2017 I hope to go back and listen to all the episodes I missed.

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