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Are Some Foods Literally Hijacking Your Brain Causing A Food Addiction?

As a fitness coach who has spent years counseling with clients struggling with weight problems and food addictions I’ve always tried to maintain a measure of empathy. We turn on the TV and see celebrity trainers yelling and screaming at their clients in attempts to change behavior in some twisted way.

Sure it makes for good TV but anyone who has spent some time in the trenches will tell you this is poor coaching. Trying to humiliate or use “tough love” tactics to change diet and lifestyle habits certainly doesn’t empower the individual in a positive way.

Being bold with conveying the consequences of a person’s actions if they don’t change is something altogether different. The role of a coach is to help uncover the issues that are keeping a person stuck in an unfit and unhealthy body. Often times these issues transcend far beyond a willful desire to overeat and avoid exercise.

At the core you’ll find emotional pain and complexities with behavior and actions. That’s a subject for another day but in this post I want to discuss the connection between food addiction and obesity.

The complexities of obesity…it’s not just a willpower issue

It’s always bothered me when I see some people take the position that weight problems are always the result of a lack of willpower and discipline. You know what I’m talking about, that overweight individuals are simply lazy and won’t put down the knife and fork.

Granted, there are certainly cases like this because let’s be honest, not everyone wants to change. However, the people I come into contact with as a coach all have a desire to change the way they look and feel.

They’ve likely struggled with losing weight on their own by using fad diets, quick-fixes, and even well designed exercise routines. They’re frustrated and simply want to find something that works long-term. Truth be told, the solution will always be centered around a supportive nutrition diet, regular exercise, and behavioral changes.

But how do you deal with a situation where some foods can be addictive making lifestyle habits difficult to change?

It all starts with having a clear understanding of what may be happening internally with chemical balances in the brain.

In 2001, Nora Volkow and her colleagues at the Brookhaven National Laboratory published a groundbreaking study called “Brain Dopamine and Obesity.” The results of this study have changed the way health professionals look to treat obesity. What they found was obese individuals had lower levels of dopamine in the “reward” center of their brains than did people with normal weights.

The brain scans done on the obese test participants were literally game-changers because it showed the same thing that happens in meth heads, cocaine addicts, alcoholics, and other addicts. What we are talking about here is a bona-fide addiction from a neurotransmitter standpoint.

Dopamine is a neurotransmitter that motivates the person to eat, have sex, and engage in other “rewarding” behaviors. It triggers a sense of wanting in the brain. Research has clearly shown that animals who lack dopamine will eventually starve to death because they have no desire to eat. Using brain supplements from can help you concentrate and focus more on exercise or work. Dopamine plays a very important role in the human body and it works in part of a mechanism that enables the species to survive.

It’s no secret that drugs like cocaine, heroin, and others can hijack the brain and create a spiral of addictive behavior. All the addicted person can think about is the next high and food, sex, and other desires become completely secondary.

What was so surprising about the study is the fact that obese individuals had LOW levels of dopamine.

If dopamine makes you want to eat, take drugs, etc, why would people who are obese or addicted to some substance have LESS of a dopamine response?

Experts used to believe that people who were addicted were more sensitive to the rewarding effects. In other words, they thought if they had more dopamine release that it would be more pleasurable. In reality, it’s the exact opposite.

Less dopamine response make them want more. People who don’t get much reward from food or drugs want more and more because they’re never satisfied.

So the question becomes, do some people overeat because they’re born with a dopamine system that doesn’t respond normally, or is it because they consistently overate and overstimulated dopamine?

The answer isn’t exactly clear but there’s strong evidence for both.

What is clear however is that overeating changes the chemical balances of dopamine in the brain along with the receptor affinity.

In other words, regularly consuming a diet of junk foods can literally change the way your  brain functions…

Foods that are high in sugar and or contain a combination of sugar and fat are the most damaging. Sugar as you know is one of the most addictive substances there is. When you combine sugar and fat, it’s a double whammy to the hormonal and chemical balances in your body.

So what do you do if you suspect a food addiction?

For starters, it’s important to understand the fix won’t entail willpower and discipline alone. You’ll need to alter back the hormonal and chemical balances in your body to remove addictive behavior.

An obese individual trying to use willpower alone to avoid fast-food will have as much success as a drug addict trying to use willpower. Bottom line is this strategy won’t work very well. There needs to be strong intervention and a commitment to a long-term process for recovery.

The obvious immediate changes will involve getting help with your diet and exercise routines. Moving to a natural, whole food diet and completing daily exercise will be paramount in achieving success with breaking a food addiction. This can be tough going it all alone so look to employ the help of an accountability partner or coach.

This is the same reason why alcoholics go to AA meetings and are assigned a support partner. Addictions aren’t something to battle all on your own.

Here are some additional tips to help you break a food addiction:

Avoid mindless eating

Get on a regular schedule where you plan out your meals and eat at designated times. Start looking at eating as a way to fuel your body with energy and nutrition to support lean muscle, not something to alleviate stress or overcome boredom. Use a journal and plan out your meals for each day then track your compliance. There’s great power in this so don’t overlook it.

Clean out the cupboards

This should be an obvious one but you’d be surprised how many people don’t take it seriously. If you find yourself making excuses like “the kids want the potato chips” or whatever, take a hard look at what you’re putting priorities on. You’re not depriving your children if you don’t have junk food in the cupboards.

In a truer sense you’re depriving your children by not taking full responsibility and control of your health. Let’s be real here for a second. If you have addictive habits with junk foods you’ll have to completely remove them from your environment.

Research has clearly shown that it’s the sight of addictive foods or drugs that triggers the caving in. If it’s there and you can find it, you’ll eat it. Clean house and only stock up on healthy foods and snacks. Make the decision and just do it.

Beware of the cues

Much like the sight of an addictive food or drug, the sense of smell plays an equally important role. It can trigger a response to make you fall off track with your healthy diet. Plan accordingly and look to have a counter attack for those ever so powerful triggers. Going out to the mall where you know you’ll encounter the smell of freshly baked cookies in the food court, etc? Eat a small snack before you go or take a baggie with a healthy snack in your purse.

Distract yourself

Addictive behaviors are largely tied into our set routines and habits. If you find yourself snacking on unhealthy foods while plopping down on the couch after work, change up your habits. Come home and put on your tennis shoes and go for a walk.

Do something, anything, different to change up your routines and habits where you find yourself most vulnerable. Something as simple as taking a shower can break up your routines and allow the normal cycle to be disrupted.

To be continued…

I’ll be writing on this subject in more depth in the future. It’s a topic that’s way more complex and detailed than can be covered in one post. I hope that this first article has helped to provide you with a better understanding of food addictions and what’s really at the bottom of it.

If you’re in the Charleston, SC area and would like some assistance with making lifestyle changes with diet and exercise, I’m always happy to be of service. At my Shaping Concepts Personal Training Studios, we don’t simply provide a place to exercise like the typical gym or health club.

All of our programs are personalized and include hands-on coaching and accountability. Everything from hormonal imbalances to behavioral changes are taking into the equation and a plan designed to help you overcome any obstacles. It’s a difference that I think you’ll find to be worth every penny of your investment in coaching.

You can sign up for a free no-obligations consultation and trial by filling out the web-form on my homepage. Even if you’re not in the Charleston area I’m happy to help in any way I can, even it’s just with a question. Please don’t hesitate to contact me if I can ever be of assistance.

Shane Doll is a certified Charleston personal trainer, fat loss expert, speaker, and founder of Shaping Concepts Personal Training Studios. He specializes in helping people achieve a body transformation with burst training exercise and whole food nutrition. You can receive a FREE no-obligations trial of his Charleston personal fitness programs and start experiencing the Shaping Concepts difference today.

Extra reference: treatment centers in LA.

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Category: Hormones & Health.