We find food comforting period. It is comforting for several reasons. It tastes good, it makes us feel good. In our culture, holidays and most celebrations or events center around food. A birthday isn’t a birthday without candles and a cake to go with it. The dinner table is one of the only times families come together. Not to mention how often crying children are soothed with the promise of ice cream or a cookie.
The foods we choose for celebrations aren’t typically health foods either. How many times have you been at a gathering where you notice the veggie tray barely touched while everyone is vying for the last piece of pie or cake? Because we associate food with fun and feeling good, we develop habits. These habits are hard to break because, at least temporarily, they work.
Do you ever wonder why you crave the foods you do? Well, it isn’t necessarily lack of willpower. It’s biology baby! In various studies on food and the brain, researchers have discovered that foods high in salt, sugar and fat light up the same pleasure centers in our brains as drugs. This creates a very strong association with food and pleasure or comfort.
Dopamine is a chemical in the brain that is, in part, responsible for pleasurable rewards. It helps to feel pleasure or pain and has a role in our emotional response. When stressed, we interfere with the ability of dopamine to create the sense of pleasure. Increased stress combined with decreased sleep cause dopamine levels to plunge. Low levels have also been linked to depression. Sweets and, in particular, chocolate create surges of dopamine in the brain. Have you ever felt better after eating your favorite chocolate treat?
The word endorphin is said to come from the words endogenous morphine. This is due to their similarities to the drug morphine in the painkilling effect they have on our bodies. Endorphins act on opiate receptors in our brains to reduce pain and give us feelings of euphoria. Runner’s high? Likewise, high sugar and fat foods like cookies, cakes and ice cream have a similar effect. Although, the effect on our thighs does not seem to be similar!
Serotonin deficiencies are responsible for depression, aggression, anxiety and increased pain sensitivity. When you have felt down, how often have you craved refined carbs? When carbohydrates are broken down by the body, they become insulin which when broken down further, becomes serotonin. Have you ever had a great piece of bread that made you feel calm and content? Increased levels of serotonin lead to a sense of calm, contentment, and a positive outlook.
The problem with using these foods for emotion stabilization is that it is only a temporary solution. Cake is only a Band-Aid. While it will make you feel good now, wait 5 minutes and you’ll want more. When we eat high fat, salt and sugar foods consistently, we actually desensitize our brains to their effect. Therefore, we create the need to eat them more. As it was shown in the documentary Supersize Me, fast food chains load their food up with sugar because it creates a greater need to continue eating that type of food.
So, what do you do? Interesting enough, food is still part of the solution. Balanced meals and snacks with quality protein, heart healthy fats and complex carbohydrates actually provide the same effects on the brain, but last much longer. The only difficulty is giving up the “high” you feel when eating the high fat, salty and sweet foods you love. The foods do affect your mood in a positive way, but because is gradually released, you don’t feel the sense of euphoria after a really great chocolate treat. Due to this strong connection in our brain, it really sets us up for emotional eating and binge eating.
Am I saying that you need to give up sweets, fats and salt? No! Like everything, food is better in moderation. If you eat a balanced diet, you can still incorporate the foods you love; but as an exception, not the rule. When you do eat those foods, take time to actually taste them and savor the flavors. Plus, when you have something less frequently, it can be more enjoyable and your brain will find it more pleasurable. In addition, utilizes symptoms of hunger and fullness to determine if you really are seeking out food for hunger and not eating for emotional reasons.