Doctor’s Tip: Dopamine and food cravings
Regular exercise and a plant-based, whole (unprocessed) food diet with avoidance of salt, sugar and added oil promotes optimal health and longevity. Why, then, is it so difficult for many people to moderate their lifestyle? One problem is that we are bombarded by advertising from Big Food, and unhealthy food is everywhere. However, the most important factor is the neurotransmitter dopamine, which is produced by the pleasure center in our brain. Joel Fuhrman M.D. says in his new book “Fast Food Genocide” that “overeating and substance/drug abuse share … common characteristics, including tolerance (needing greater amounts over time to reach the same “high”), unsuccessful efforts to cut back on consumption, and use of the substance despite negative consequences.”
In his book “Power Foods for the Brain,” Dr. Neal Barnard points out that there is an evolutionary reason we and other primates have dopamine: “Your reward center is looking for food and for a receptive mate, and when it finds them, out comes the dopamine. But this primitive system can be hijacked by drugs” such as marijuana, cocaine, heroin and other narcotics. Wine, cigarettes and coffee all trigger dopamine, as do the following foods, known as “comfort foods”:
• Sugar, which is difficult for many people to give up.
• Cow’s milk: Dr. Barnard says that “in your digestive tract, milk’s casein protein “breaks apart to release mild opiates, called casomorphins,” which trigger dopamine release.
• Cheese “has concentrated casein and so delivers a much larger casomorphin dose.” Unfortunately, cheese is loaded with calories, saturated fat and sodium, “but people flock to the cheese counter to get their hit of opiates and dopamine.” No wonder many people adopting a plant-based lifestyle have difficulty giving up cheese.
• Meat triggers dopamine release. When people are given an opiate blocker, they lose interest in meat.
• According to Dr. Fuhrman, refined/junk food, fast food and oils all trigger the dopamine response.
All humans have a gene called DRD2 (dopamine receptor D2), which Dr. Barnard says is “involved in building the receptors for dopamine.” People with a variant of this gene have one-third fewer dopamine receptors, and they “need an extra amount of dopamine just to feel normal.” Interestingly, in a study conducted by Dr. Barnard, half of diabetic patients had this variant. This contributed to these people overeating unhealthy food, becoming overweight and diabetic.
Food manufacturers take advantage of the dopamine effect. They hire scientists to figure out how to make their food more addictive to people, just like tobacco companies did a few decades ago with cigarettes. Food companies are more concerned with their bottom line than your health, and have Americans addicted to salt, sugar and fat. Dr. Fuhrman says that fast foods, “rich in added sweeteners, salt, oils, and artificial flavoring (called ‘highly palatable foods’ by food scientists) have addictive properties. Eating a little makes you want more.” Restaurant owners also use food addictions to their benefit. It’s disappointing that most hospitals cater to unhealthy food cravings. Although Valley View Hospital, which claims to be interested in prevention, offers some healthy options in their cafeteria, they also offer unhealthy options there and in the main lobby (such as soda, which we all know is unhealthy). In the hallway behind the ER admission desk, there are two soda dispensers and one junk food dispenser (chips, candy bars etc.).
So what to do? If you adopt a plant-based diet, your food addictions will disappear in 10 to 14 days, and your taste buds will change. Your desire to eat will then be driven by need for calories, rather than food cravings. Another approach is to do what Paul McCartney and his wife did — overcome craving for animal products by developing compassion for animals. As they were eating lamb roast for Sunday brunch one day they looked at the cute, playful lambs outside the window of their farmhouse and decided to give up meat. Other people make the decision to eat healthier so they can be around to see their grandchildren grow up, or because they know that eating plants instead of meat has much less environmental impact. An important part of eating healthier is to exercise, which increases your own “feel good” chemicals — endorphins.
Dr. Feinsinger, who retired from Glenwood Medical Associates after 42 years as a family physician, has a nonprofit Center For Prevention and Treatment of Disease Through Nutrition. He is available for free consultations about heart attack prevention and other medical issues, and to help people with hospital or other medical bills they don’t understand or think are too high. Call 970-379-5718 for an appointment. For questions about his columns, email him at firstname.lastname@example.org.