You want to know why you have no will power when it comes to things like cookies, cake, pizza, pasta, ice cream, double cheeseburgers, Doritos and/or Devil Dogs?
It’s because you’re weak!
I’m just kidding. If you’re like me, that’s the message you’ve beaten into your head since you polished off your first pint of Ben and Jerries or full can of Pringles.
Good news. It’s turns out you’re not weak. You’re just a victim of dopamine.
Feel better? I know I operate from a much more comfortable and secure base when there’s something (or someone) to blame. “Dopamine’s to blame? Awesomeness!”
Now that we’ve successfully played and won the blame game, what can we do about it?
Let’s start with a little information.
What exactly is dopamine?
Technically (and very generally) speaking, dopamine is one of many neurotransmitters (or chemicals) in your brain which assist in communicating all kinds of information to the rest of your body and mind; everything from emotions and feelings to muscle and body movements. Dopamine is responsible for feelings of pleasure. It’s the thing in your brain that reminds you, “I like that! I really, really like that. And I need to have more of it right freaking now!”
There’s quite a bit more to it but for the purposes of this entry, this is as much of a neuropsychology lesson that we’ll go into right now.
Dopamine has the ability to take any amount of common sense that might prevent you from engaging in something you know to be unhealthy or toxic and throw it right down the dumper. It plays a big part in how and why people become addicted to things like drugs, cigarettes, food, sex, coffee, gambling, shopping, or people. It’s power can be completely blinding.
One of my a main nemesis’ is food. Specifically anything with sugar. Just the thought of cookies, cakes or ice cream is enough to get my dopamine in a dander. I have struggled with these foods for my entire life and was always lost in the idea that I was an extremely weak person with little or no control.
Last year, at the recommendation of a colleague, I read the book It Starts with Food by Dallas and Melissa Hartwig. If you have any interest in addressing your own maladaptive or unhealthy eating habits, I highly recommend you read this book.
The information provided within this book actually freed me from my “why am I such a weak loser” mentality. It liberated me by breaking down the science and power of various foods in such a simple manner that my entire perspective has been forever altered. It made me realize what a losing battle I have been fighting and how no matter what I did, if changes weren’t made, I would never be able to avoid unhealthy food choices.
Apparently, dopamine was at the forefront of my issues. At it’s essence is the concept that by just knowing that I’m going to the supermarket and going to have to move past the bakery section, my brain is going to start to release dopamine which will in turn delude me into believing that there is great comfort and delight inside the cookies and cakes underneath that glass. It won’t matter that earlier in the day I resigned myself to the fact that I was going to watch everything that I ate. Dopamine will lead me to believe that the pleasure of giving in to the temptation of those items will grant me instant happiness and satisfaction far outweighing any health concerns I might have had only an hour ago. It happens in the blink of an eye and without an understanding of what’s actually going on, resistance can be extremely difficult. For those of us with addictive genetics, it can be impossible.
It’s the same logic smokers face on an almost daily basis. In one instant, they can tell themselves, “On the lives of my children, I will never smoke another cigarette again as long as I live.” A day later… dopamine (and nicotine in this instance) will trick them into believing that quitting smoking can wait (regardless of the consequences). Sorry son.
Adding fuel to the fire, realize that food manufacturers have intentionally added flavor enhancing chemicals and colors for no better purpose than manipulating your neurotransmitters thereby completely tilting the scales in their direction. Also, because these foods provide little or no nutritional value, our body never reaches a point of fullness (or satiation) so it simply never knows when its had enough. This little nugget is best summed up by the part in It Starts With Food titled, “Prime Rib and Oreos.”
I’m paraphrasing, so bare with me. Basically, it’s like this: “Prime rib contains complete protein, the most satiating of all the macro-nutrients, and naturally occurring fat, which makes the protein even more satiating (Hartwig & Hartwig, 2012).” Just the sight of the prime rib on your plate will send that dopamine of yours into a frenzy. That first bite of deliciousness will confirm what you already know. However, as you make your way through that deliciousness, you will find less and less pleasure. That’s because your brain is being told that your hunger and nutritional needs are actually being satisfied or “satiated.” Also, because prime rib physically takes longer to eat, chew and swallow, your stomach keeps pace with your brain, ultimately sending you the appropriate signals in a timely manner that you are done and, more importantly, nourished. You are satiated.
Now consider the Oreo. It’s quite a different story. You can eat an entire bag of Oreos and odds are you will make yourself sick long before you are ever truly satisfied. Satiation will take forever to occur where any kind of junk food is concerned (if it ever occurs). That’s because “unlike prime rib, there are no breaks to decrease our want. We want the tenth Oreo just as much as we want the first. And we never stop wanting more because even though we’ve eaten plenty of calories, our bodies (and brains) know that we are still lacking in nutrition. So we eat the whole darn package because satiety can’t be fooled (Hartwig & Hartwig, 2012).”
Now do you have a better idea of why it is that you can’t have just one potato chip? It’s because the minute that chip or even the idea of that chip hits your body, the dopamine starts working and the food you’ve chosen can’t do anything to stop it.
If you’ve struggled with food and weight for any period of time, read It Starts with Food by Dallas and Melissa Hartwig. Even if you don’t want to completely change your eating habits, this book will open your eyes to many things you must know and understand about food. Also, it’s an easy read and simple to follow. The main idea is that you only eat real food; nothing processed or manufactured. It’s filled with invaluable information dealing with the science of food. The kinds of things that might have been more beneficial to learn in school than how to use a protractor or who won the Peloponnesian War (but that’s a whole other blog). It offers you the idea to try this way of life for 30 days and see what happens.
At the outset, your body won’t know what’s going on as it starts ridding itself of all the unhealthy junk you’ve been binge eating for God knows how long. Without dairy, sugar and unhealthy carbs, you will have withdrawals that can involve anything from slight nightmares to the dreaded carb flu.
I won’t lie. It’s hard. But as the book says, not as hard as quitting heroin or giving birth. It’s only thirty days. Hang in there because the payoff is definitely worth it, whether you’re trying to lose weight or just be healthier.
If you decide to explore this new way of eating, at the very least, you’ve got a new excuse to put into your wheelhouse. It’s not me — it’s dopamine.