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Rewiring your brain to stop food addiction and obesity

Hunger, fullness and the desire to start and stop eating is a complicated process controlled by the delicate balance of body chemistry. A disruption of this chemistry can result in a disruption of the homeostasis within the body resulting in food addiction. An addiction to food can wire your brain, leading to a disruption of hormones and neurotransmitters, that can create a pattern of overeating leading to obesity. This can influence lifestyle and disease processes.

Rewiring your brain to stop food addiction and obesity
Photo by Dan Kitwood/Getty Images

Obesity is, in part, the result of our addiction to food, and food can be more addictive than drugs.

In The dark side of food addiction, author Parylak SL explains the similarities between the addiction to drugs and the addiction to food.

Addiction to drugs is a progression from the positive reinforcement of reward and pleasure from casual use, to addiction, and finally to a negative reinforcement. The negative reinforcement is the need to have drugs to avoid the negative state of withdrawal or an environmental situation like depression or stress.

Addiction to food starts with a positive reinforcing of reward and pleasure from highly palatable food which can lead to a negative reinforcing effects. The negative reinforcement effects that we seek comfort from can include, but are not limited to sadness, feeling down, lonely, or depressed. However, repeated intake of highly palatable food over time can amplify the stress circuits of the brain and the brain responds by down regulating (dulling) the brain's reward and pleasure pathways. When this happens, we need more and more palatable food to get the same pleasurable experience and/or prevent negative emotional states.

In an article published on "Cocaine and Heroin are Less Addictive Than Oreos", researcher and neuroscientist Joseph Schroeder stated “Our research supports the theory that high-fat/high-sugar foods stimulate the brain in the same way that drugs do”. “It may explain why some people can’t resist these foods despite the fact that they know they are bad for them.”

One conclusion drawn was that the Oreos are highly palatable. Palatable foods are pleasing and the experiment reinforced the notion that according to the article, "anything that provides pleasure (or relieves stress) can be the focus of an addiction." The degree to just how addictive any one substance is, in this case food, depends on the relationship an individual has with the with the food. That relationship depends on a variety of factors, including, belief system, personality, circumstances, values, tastes, preferences and degree of personal palatability.

The center of this addiction is in the brain. Normally, the brain maintains a state of homoeostasis through the hypothalamus; the homeostatic regulator. This metabolic sensor reads and interprets signals from the body communicating energy needs influencing hunger, fullness and energy storage. There is also a pleasure-reward system at work in the brain is called the hedonic system.

Our brains are hardwired to respond and seek rewards that are essential for survival through this hedonic system that communicates with the homoeostasis system. These normally include water, food and shelter. This system drives other parts of the brain to encourage us to eat and to store sufficient calories to protect us from the potential of future starvation or famine. The degree to which it does this is influenced by the palatability of food or fluid. This palatability normally varies ... it is lower after consumption of food and higher when deprived of food. Palatability of food and fluid can however be learned, rewiring the brain.

Our pleasure-reward system is activated when we eat food that is pleasurable, thus making us more likely to seek out that food again. The more pleasurable, the more we seek. This can create a hedonic hunger that is independent of basic needs for food and water. Neurotransmitters such as serotonin and dopamine play an important role in this pleasure reward system. Overindulging in palatable food stimulates the release of dopamine, the greater the dopamine, the greater the pleasure, the greater the pleasure the greater the desire to consume more.

Food that is highly palatable prompts us ... drives us ... to seek out and eat more, even when we're not physically hungry. So what makes food palatable? What makes foods so palatable that they can make us overeat?

As outlined in a previous Examiner article, Food addiction, obesity and diabetes, Palatability is influenced by: Click here to read additional details on each factor.

1. Processed foods. A combination of industrial processing, sugar, flour, salt, specific fats, flavor enhancers and chemical additives that triggers an excessive release of neurotransmitters, which can promote compulsive intake and loss of control.

2. High sugar / high glycemic load carbohydrates. Highly refined carbohydrates have a high potency and rapid absorption rate, a determining factor for any addictive substance..

3. High fat. Many people crave fatty foods, like melted cheese, full fat ice cream, and cream of broccoli soup.

4. Salt. The food industry uses salt as the answer to making cheap, unpalatable food edible at a very low cost.

5. The combination of sugar and fat. Fast food scientist have taken this combination to create "food" with super addictive palatability.

6. High fructose corn syrup (HFCS). Breaking down fructose can result in an increase in hunger and creating a strong desire for food.

7. Food availability, it's visual appeal, low cost, social situations revolving around eating, and advertising and marketing influence the potential for food addictive-like behaviors.

An article review by the National Institute of Health suggests that the neuroplasticity of the brain can be used to counteract addictive behavior. The brain can be rewired to combat addiction to food.

To combat the drive to seek pleasure from food, in order to compensate for the negative effects of sadness, feeling down, lonely, or depressed, it may be necessary to first seek professional help to discover the underlying causes. Other rewiring strategies include:

  • If you feel you do not have any enjoyment in your life, find a hobby of do something that gives you enjoyment.
  • Practicing gratitude will make you a happier person. The neurons that are activated or that fire during the happiness surrounding gratitude will wire the brain to have a greater tendency toward happiness.
  • Regular exercise can increase blood calcium, which stimulates the feel good neurotransmitter dopamine production and uptake in your brain. This also increases the release of endorphins, similar sensation as a dopamine high.
  • Set a SMART goal (specific, measurable, action oriented, reasonable ant time specific). When you reach your goal, the sense of satisfaction you get can help in the production of dopamine. Make it an easy goal!
  • Getting plenty of uninterrupted sleep will make you feel energized, and reduce fatigue, grogginess and irritability.
  • Reduce stress through guided imagery, meditation and yoga as a supplement to exercise.
  • Increase your exposure to bright light to increase the calming neurotransmitter serotonin.

To combat this drive of seeking pleasure from highly palatable foods, include:

  • Considering taking a processed food vacation for one day/week to jump start change.
  • A reduction of the consumption refined carbohydrates and sugars, and processed highly palatable foods.
  • Consuming a clean diet of fresh unprocessed foods, and begin eliminating highly palatable processed and refined foods today.
  • A diet rich in antioxidants including: Beta-carotene and carotenoids found in green and orange vegetables and fruits, asparagus, broccoli, and beets; Vitamin C found in peppers, oranges, strawberries, cauliflower, and Brussels sprouts; and Vitamin E found in nuts and sunflower seeds, greens, broccoli and carrots.
  • A diet rich in tyrosine which is needed to make dopamine including: Almonds, avocados, bananas, low-fat dairy, meat and poultry, Lima beans, sesame and pumpkin, fava beans, ricotta cheese, oatmeal, mustard greens, edamame, dark chocolate ( moderation here; 1 ounce/week, containing 70% or greater cocoa), seaweed, and wheat germ.
  • Adequate dietary sources of Phenylalanine needed in the manufacture of tyrosine, found in soy products, fish, dairy, and meats.
  • Good sources of omega-3 fatty acids found in seafood.

Seeking out support from others may also be necessary ... others who will not enable your obsession with food.

This information is not intended to replace a one-on-one relationship with a qualified health care professional and is not intended as medical/nutritional/fitness advice. Information presented is subject to change as additional discoveries are made or additional research is published.

Resources: National Institute of Drug Abuse, The Free Dictionary,,, http:/, Institute of National Resources, Merck Manuals,

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