Our brains are wired to guarantee that our bodies never go hungry. Dopamine, a neurotransmitter in the brain, gets us to focus on what’s most important in our environment to pay attention to. It may be funny to think that something like chocolate chip cookies could serve as a cue to stimulate dopamine in the brain. But if you’ve enjoyed chocolate chip cookies in the past, the brain remembers how you felt when you see them again. And it will do anything to be satisfied like that again.
Our Brains Are Wired to
Make Us Eat in Certain Ways
And Develop Certain Preferences
Of course, if you experienced something that wasn’t so pleasurable, seeing it again will just set up avoidance behavior.
Your brain also remembers where you were, how you felt, what time of the day, etc. when you ate those cookies. If any of those stimuli are activated, even when there are no cookies in sight, you’ll feel a strong need for chocolate chip cookies. The brain even remembers the smell, the sound, and the taste of the cookies. Most of us can be very resourceful and will figure out a way to make sure we get what our brain wants.
But what got us stimulated the first time we experienced the taste of chocolate chip cookies? They contain lots of fat, sugar and salt. As it turns out, that combination of sugar and fat is something that the brain never can get enough of. It never gets satiated to the point of not wanting any more. The dopamine will stay elevated before, during and after your encounter with the cookies. And because of that, it is very hard to stop eating them.
Salt also does something to the tongue that accentuates the flavors of sugar and fat. Try making a batch of cookies with and without salt and see which one you like the most. Food manufacturers are well aware of that quintessential triangle of sugar, fat and salt that makes a food experience memorable. The more you eat these foods, the more you want them. In other words, the more times you repeat a particular experience – especially when it is a pleasant one – the more you reinforce the cues that stimulate you. It’s just for this reason that diets don’t work. You’re using willpower to break your habituated behaviors, which doesn’t work.
So what does work? How can you stop overeating? It really is a weaning process you need to go through. Let’s say, you’re used to eating the very sugary cereals for breakfast, but you would like to cut back on the sugar. Some people can go “cold turkey” and are successful at it. However, they are the minority. What most of us need to do is to put some of our favorite sugary cereal in a bowl along with some of the non-sugared cereals. In other words, acclimate yourself to the new taste. Then take away more of the sugared cereal and add more of the non-sugared cereal – until you reach the point when all you’re eating is the non-sugared cereal. Only then you weaned yourself off for good.
Keep in mind that food manufacturers are in the business of feeding the American public. It’s in their best interest to tease and tantalize and advertise in ways that make you feel better about yourself whenever you eat their products. But remember that you do have control over what goes into your mouth or into your grocery cart. It may take time to wean yourself, but every little (or big) thing you do can better protect you from all the negative conditions associated with weight problems. Don’t let the food industry control your neurotransmitters!
The more foods you eat that don’t control your dopamine, like sugar, fat and salt do, the easier it will be to control your weight. Pick foods you enjoy but aren’t going to trigger a strong dopamine reaction. Determine ahead of time what you plan to eat. Look at restaurant menus online and order foods that don’t sabotage your good habits. And eat lots of foods that are close to the way they came out of the ground, like whole grains, fruits and vegetables.
Roberta Schwartz Wennik, MS, RD is an author, culinary nutritionist and weight-loss specialist. She is the creator of the Spin-a-Recipe® slot machine at www.spinarecipe.com – the ultimate recipe decision-maker for healthy meals (and fun!). She is also the author of the internationally recognized weight-loss book, “A Diet for Every Personality Type”, based on the Myers-Briggs Type Indicator (MBTI®) available at www.advantagediets.com – Follow her at www.twitter.com/spinarecipe_com and http://www.facebook.com/Spin.A.Recipe.LLC
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