Eating food is pleasurable. Our dopamine-based brain reward systems are designed to respond to food and other experiences that improve our chances of survival and reproduction. All animals have similar reward systems to guide their behaviour. However these systems are tuned to their natural environment and artificial environments can lead to overstimulation of these systems and maladaptive behaviour. A moth is well-adapted for flying off into the moonlight but behaves in a self-destructive way when it flies towards a bright light bulb. Our own species is also vulnerable to artificial stimuli that hyper-stimulate our reward systems. Drugs like cocaine act directly on the dopamine reward system and often result in a self-destructive spiral of pleasure seeking behaviour.
The human brain has not changed much in the last 10 000 years. Although we may be highly educated and living in an urban environment, we still have a hunter-gatherer brain with reward systems that are tuned to a hunter-gatherer environment. We are hard wired to seek out calorie dense foods as this would have improved our chances of getting enough calories in a hunter-gatherer environment. Other food qualities such as sweetness, saltiness and softness would also have been desirable.
Our food culture has evolved to supply an abundance of foods that are hyper-palatable and over-stimulate our hunter-gatherer tuned reward systems. This leads to food addiction and overeating. Food technologists have perfected the science of palatability, and while nutritionists ponder over why people can’t show more moderation, the technologists know exactly how to make a snack food so irresistible that the consumer can’t put it down until it’s finished.
Our attraction to calorie dense foods applies just as much to foods that are not traditionally considered as processed or junk foods e.g. meat, nut products, cheese and olive oil. Cheese seems to be particularly addictive for some people, perhaps because it contains beta-casomorphins which are opiate like peptides.
Our current foodie culture adds to the problem by promoting food as some sort of ecstatic experience – we need to remind ourselves it’s just food, nourishment for our bodies. We can still enjoy food that is not calorie dense and hyper-palatable in the same way that we can still experience much pleasure in life without using cocaine.
Our brain is constantly fine tuning itself back towards a normal state of function, a process called neuroadaptation. Cocaine users soon find that a higher dose is required to experience enhanced pleasure and the original dose just makes them feel normal. A similar neuroadaptation process happens with hyper-palatable food. Initially the hyper-palatable food give us a lot more pleasure than simple unprocessed plant foods. But as time passes, neuro-adaption occurs and the amount of pleasure we experience from these foods adjusts back towards normal – extremely sweet food now tastes mildly sweet, salty food tastes normal and oily calorie dense food is ordinary. At this stage you are caught in the pleasure trap because healthy whole plant foods now taste bland and unrewarding and no matter how much you eat, it won’t feel the same as eating a high calorie fat-rich meal. Fortunately neuro-adaption can move back in the other direction, just like it does when people recover from drug addiction. Gradually over weeks to months, taste buds and calorie detectors reset and eating whole plant foods becomes enjoyable again (or for the first time if you have always eaten rich food). This process typically takes one to three months.
Hints for breaking free from food addictions:
- Moderation keeps you trapped. It maintains your taste for the addictive food and requires constant effort to limit portion sizes.
- Be mindful of the natural attraction to energy dense foods such as nut products, baked flour products and dried fruits. Compensate by finding low energy density meals and snacks that you enjoy.
- Hunger is more powerful than willpower. Keep your brain well fuelled with healthy carbohydrate foods and don’t let yourself get too hungry.
Stop expecting food to be an ecstatic experience. It’s just food to nourish your body.
Once you break free from addictive hyper-palatable food, you will find it easier to resist comfort eating. And even if you still succumb to emotional eating, low calorie density whole plant foods will just make you feel full without harming you. Individuals with severe emotional eating disorders may also benefit from psychological therapies to help them deal with underlying emotions and past traumas.
The standard model of nutrition tells us that all we need to do is control our portion sizes and we can keep eating calorie dense hyper-palatable foods in moderation. Dr Alan Goldhamer has likened this approach to treating alcoholics by advising them to drink out of smaller glasses. Few people have enough willpower to control alcoholism or food addiction by this method. For most of us, it’s all or none. Doug Lisle says that “the big problem with willpower is that the problems we are facing are not those which we were designed to deal with”. If moderation and will power worked then there would be much less obesity in Australia. The fact that many obesity experts are themselves overweight is testament to the ineffectiveness of this approach.
- Lisle, D. J., & Goldhamer, A. (2006). The pleasure trap : mastering the hidden force that undermines health & happiness. Summertown, Tenn.: Healthy Living Publications.
- The pleasure trap: Douglas Lisle at TEDxFremont (17 min video)