What compels you to fulfill your cravings?
It’s more than memory that leads us back to that dish we crave. We’re driven by a complex set of communication instructions within our brains that ensure we accomplish our goal and get what we’re looking for. Without this communication system, humans and animals lack the motivation to learn and repeat survival techniques such as eating.
Our instinct to survive, the lengths at which we will go to survive and the cravings that propel us, are controlled by a neurotransmitter in the brain called dopamine.
“[Dopamine] allows you to focus on achieving your goal,” said Dr. R. G. Troxler, former medical director of Employee Health Services at the UT Health Science Center.
Dopamine is released in the brain when we feel hungry. It stimulates the brain’s reward and pleasure centers by “increasing the pleasure of food” Troxler said.
We eat for two reasons: hunger and cravings. The difference between hunger and cravings, however, is where they originate. Our bodies tell us when we’re hungry, but the brain triggers cravings.
“Hunger is [the result of] a combination of signals from the gut to the brain,” Troxler said. These signals are a survival mechanism that tells us we need an intake of calories to sustain our bodies.
But we also eat because we crave foods that taste good.
“[Cravings] are built into us. We are drawn to foods that taste good to us, naturally,” Troxler said.
Food cravings begin forming as we think about foods we desire and foods we’ve enjoyed in the past. These thoughts then increase dopamine levels in our brains, which stimulates the brain’s reward and pleasure centers. This stimulation enhances the expectation of experiencing pleasure from our favorite foods.
“Once you fulfill the expectation, [dopamine] kicks the pleasure center,” Troxler said. This progression then triggers what Troxler calls the “ultimate hallelujah” response in our brains.
Troxler also cautions that “anticipation of food kicks [dopamine] out again.”
This anticipation can lead to behavior referred to as “attentional bias” in the book, “The End of Overeating” by former FDA Commissioner, Dr. David A. Kessler.
“The more rewarding the food, the greater attention we direct toward it, and the more vigorously we pursue it,” Kessler states in his books.
Kessler makes the case that the food industry, particularly restaurant chains, have figured out how to enhance food’s desirability.
According to the book, the culprits are sugar, fat and salt: “Usually, the most palatable foods contain some combination of sugar, fat and salt. And the sensory properties of palatable foods stimulate the appetite. The stimulation or anticipation of stimulation makes us put food in our mouths long after our caloric needs are satisfied.”
Troxler agrees and warns that being overweight can actually hinder our ability to fight the temptation to consume unhealthy foods. The more dopamine the brain releases, the more our reward and pleasure centers are stimulated, which creates a pattern of behavior that can result in food addiction.
“I call it the Fat Trap. People with a higher BMI (body mass index) have less dopamine receptors, which means it takes more food and subsequently more dopamine to obtain pleasure (from eating),” Troxler said. Over time, food addicts derive less satisfaction from their favorite foods.
According to Troxler, “the dopamine receptors begin to degrade and become less responsive to the same amount of stimulus.”
Troxler treats patients with food addictions and teaches them principles outlined in the book “The Beck Diet Solution” by Dr. Judith Beck. In her book, Beck stresses the importance of learning the difference between genuine hunger and food cravings.
Beck’s plan also incorporates cognitive behavioral therapy (CBT) to help people overcome food addiction. Troxler follows the principles outlined in Beck’s book and teaches his patients how thoughts about their favorite foods lead to emotional reactions, or feelings about anticipating pleasure. Kessler further advises that “eating and the desire to eat need to be understood as separate activities.”
According to the Center for Disease Control, 34 percent of Americans over the age of 20 are overweight. As the battle against obesity in America rages, science is discovering that it takes more than will power to fight food addictions.
“It starts with awareness,” Troxler says. “Find your (food) triggers. Once you know the difference [between cravings and hunger], you can focus on the hunger and less on the feelings and food (cravings) won’t be as much of a draw to you.”
By identifying the foods that fuel our cravings, we can better equip ourselves to fight the temptation to indulge.