The human body is a complex organism. But despite this, its main aim is very simple - survival. Whether its the heart racing shock effect of ‘fight or flight’ or the way it disrupts your efforts to be slimmer after just a few days on a new eating regime, the body just wants to stay pretty much the same (within a range which is personal to you). And we know that balance is important in life. This is particularly relevant to the foods you eat as over stressing a particular pathway (like regularly eating loads of carbs) can dull the bodies response to how it deals with those nutrients. In this article, I’ll explain how and why the happy feelings of overeating can become an issue over time so you can be better prepared should you find yourself strolling in to a downward cycle.
You may have heard of the chemical dopamine, which has a major influence on the reward response and circuitry within the brain. Carbohydrates have a positive effect on dopamine levels and create that feel good factor you’re likely to have experienced from a plate of classically super palatable foods like pasta, bread, chocolate and other sweets.
Addictive drugs like heroin and cocaine do exactly the same thing so is it any wonder that carb intake is a double edged sword for so many people. They make you temporarily feel great and give you plenty of immediate energy but as we know, too much of something can also often have negative knock on effects.
Studies on the role of dopamine as it relates to eating food and drug addictive have shown that over time, a decline in the level of reward response is seen. This drives people to seek more of the chosen food/drug to create the same high. And it is actually this down-regulation of sensitivity to dopamine which is needed to trigger a move from casual to compulsive abuse of the highly palatable food item or drug (i.e. addiction).
It's like going to a theme park and jumping on the 'scariest' ride over and over again. After a while, you know what's coming and it's not as scary as it first was. You need to find something scarier.
So far, this bodily response has been observed mostly in overweight rather than lean populations and helps to explain how compulsive feeding behaviours can quickly take over and accelerate someone’s health issues. To give you an idea of timescale, a series of results have indicated that women gaining weight over six months showed a reduced response to consuming palatable foods versus stable-weight women. That doesn’t feel like a large amount of time within which you’ve seriously impaired both your body and mind!
So what am I suggesting? If someone gains weight over a reasonably short time frame, the chances of reduced sensitivity to tasty foods goes up and therefore increases the risk of overeating. At that point, a loop of eating more and gaining more weight is created which only gets worse and worse over the long-term.
As a nutrition coach, I see the best in everyone and the potential they have for shifting their eating behaviours towards a better balance for them. And as we know, becoming overweight doesn’t happen over night. It takes time. And during that time, a whole host of engrained habits and physical changes occur which are usually responsible for the compulsive hedonic overeating of certain food groups which is so common today.
Thankfully, these issues are all reversible. They just need unpicking and modifying to benefit you although its not an easy task and can’t be rushed. If it was straightforward, everybody would be walking around like they’re in an underwear advert and receiving their telegram from the Queen without breaking a sweat.
If you find yourself creeping in to the above scenario, try to take a step back, recognise what is happening (and why) and then take a small positive step forward. Asking for help can often be that first action, so always feel free to contact me if you’re in that boat.
Written by Ben Lawrence, Precision Nutrition Certified Coach
1. Psychology Today. 2011. Dopamine Primer. [ONLINE] Available at: https://www.psychologytoday.com/blog/evolutionary-psychiatry/201105/dopamine-primer.
2. Wikipedia. 2016. Dopamine. [ONLINE] Available at: https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Dopamine.
3. Nature Neuroscience. 2010. Dopamine D2 receptors in addiction-like reward dysfunction and compulsive eating in obese rats. [ONLINE] Available at: http://www.nature.com/neuro/journal/v13/n5/abs/nn.2519.html. [Accessed 26 November 2016].
4. International Journal of Neuropsychopharmacology. 2012. The effects of the dopamine D3 receptor antagonist GSK598809 on attentional bias to palatable food cues in overweight and obese subjects. [ONLINE] Available at: http://ijnp.oxfordjournals.org/content/15/2/149.abstract.
5. ScienceDirect. 2013. Elevated Reward Region Responsivity Predicts Future Substance Use Onset But Not Overweight/Obesity Onset. [ONLINE] Available at: http://www.sciencedirect.com/science/article/pii/S000632231201027X.
6. Journal of Neuroscience. 2010. Weight Gain Is Associated with Reduced Striatal Response to Palatable Food. [ONLINE] Available at: http://www.jneurosci.org/content/30/39/13105.