A study in the International Journal of Obesity found that sugary, fatty foods create similar reactions (including the inevitable crash) to drugs.
Similar to drug addicts, researchers found bingers seek to recreate this destructive food euphoria to beat depression. Not surprisingly, a vicious cycle ensues.
“Data shows that obesity is associated with increased risk of developing depression, but we have very little understanding of the neural mechanisms and brain reward patterns that link the two,” researchers said. “We are demonstrating for the first time that the chronic consumption of palatable, high-fat diets has pro-depressive effects.”
Researchers fed mice different kinds of food and monitored how those foods affected behavior.
They also determined the relationship between rewarding mice with food and the behavior and emotions these foods evoked. Later, researchers looked at the mice’s brains to see how they changed.
The gorging mice’s brains showed increased anxiety, stress, and depression. In other words, these eating binges physically changed their brain structure.
Other studies show the same thing. One in the journal Nature Neuroscience found lab rats gravitated to high-fat foods and became dependent on getting their “fat fix” much like drug users need their daily fix.
Dopamine played a key role in getting those fixes. I’ve written before about this brain molecule, which controls pleasure and rewards certain kinds of behavior. Dopamine plays a powerful role in overeating.
But here’s the keeper: the anticipation of eating fatty foods, rather than eating the food itself, releases this powerful hormone.
Nothing wrong with anticipation: it helped us evolve as a species, after all. But problems arise when you associate pleasure with the wrong stimuli or the system malfunctions, as it did in these mice’s brains after eating the fatty foods.
When your reward circuitry becomes hijacked, your “enough!” switch becomes blunted, and addiction often results.
Ultimately, that chocolate chip cookie (or whatever your food addiction might be) fails to satisfy. But oddly enough, you repeatedly gravitate to it again because you anticipate it will satisfy.
When you return, two things happen. You strengthen the association between cue (chocolate chip cookie) and reward (that dopamine blast). And the cue itself (the thought or sight of a cookie) triggers dopamine circuits, where after you have little control over your behavior.
Dopamine is what fuels your drive to get a chocolate chip cookie when it feels like nothing else will satisfy you, and when you certainly know you don’t need or even want it.
Pair that cookie with a powerful emotional stimuli—say, wonderful memories of your grandmother baking gooey chocolate chip cookies — and those powerful associations release so much dopamine that your reward circuits become hijacked.
Next time you notice a powerful craving for something sweet, stop and ask yourself whether the anticipation of eating something is more rewarding than actually eating it.
I also want to provide five strategies to gain control over hormones like dopamine so you don’t subsequently spiral into overeating and depression:
Make lateral shifts. Telling yourself you can’t have something only makes you want it more. Instead of deprivation, make what my friend JJ Virgin calls a lateral shift. Instead of cookies, for instance, have apple slices with almond butter. You’ll get a satisfying crunch and sweetness without the sugar.
Find non-food rewards. Isn’t it funny how we can always find a reason to celebrate with food? Instead, give yourself a non-food reward, such as a massage or long walk with your dog.
Distract yourself and the temptation will pass. Instead of succumbing to the chocolate chip cookies, get lost in a good book or call an old friend. Other strategies include brushing your teeth and drinking a glass of water. I can almost guarantee you’ll forget about your craving.
Keep the enemy out of your house. Don’t set yourself up for disaster. Even if you’ve been good all day, all bets are off around 11 p.m. when you’re exhausted and suddenly remember those freshly baked cookies in the fridge. Don’t let them into your house and you’ll be far less likely to give in.
Get enough sleep. A study in The Journal of Neuroscience found that your brain compensates for lack of sleep by increasing dopamine. Too little sleep also knocks your fat-burning hormones out of whack. Couple that with sleep-deprived lack of judgment, and you’ve got a surefire strategy to overeat. Aim for seven to nine hours of high-quality sleep every night to trigger fat burning, balance dopamine levels, and reduce your urge to overeat.
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