Food and Addiction

April 8, 2011 in Blog Recipes, Food and the Brain, Foodland, Nutrition, Weight Management, Whole Grains by Mary Ireland

In her blog Mother Nature Offers Protection from Cancer and Obesity, Dr. Grandma mentions a marvelous book, Thin for Life: 10 Keys to Success from People Who Have Lost Weight and Kept It Off, by Anne M. Fletcher, M.S., R.D. The book is a compassionate and inspiring look at losing weight and keeping it off. According to the book, research shows that obesity is more a factor of biological causes than a lack of will power or a love of food. Interesting new research on the brain and addiction seems to substantiate Ms Fletcher’s view.

A study published this week in the Archives of General Psychiatry found similarities between brain activity during addictive-like eating behavior and substance dependence. In the study, women who ranked high on a food addiction assessment showed increased activity in regions of the brain that govern cravings and reduced activity in regions that curb urges and inhibit behavior. These finds are even more significant given moves by food manufacturers to design food to be addictive. Dr. Grandpa’s blogs Full Food Cost Accounting: Part 2. Designing Foods for Craving and A Rat’s Eye View of the Recent Junk-Food Study provide information about these activities referred to as food hedonics.

To give further insight into how addiction works, a study by Dr. Michael Nader and colleagues at Wake Forest Universitysuggests that low dopamine reception may play a key role in addiction. Dopamine is a neurotransmitter that plays a key role in a person's reward system and feeling pleasure in life. Dopamine receptors reside in the outer membrane of brain cells that shape motivation, emotion, thought, and movement. The receptors enable the neurotransmitter dopamine to attach to these cells and affect their activity. At the beginning of the study, the dopamine receptor levels of a group of monkeys were tested. The study found that monkeys with lower dopamine receptor levels self-administered more cocaine than monkeys with higher dopamine receptor levels. The findings suggest that lower dopamine reception increases sensitivity to the reward delivered by a drug. Similar findings have been reported in studies that compared drug abusers and people who do not abuse drugs.

What is interesting to me and of particular importance to people who are struggling with food addiction issues is the link between stress and dopamine reception.  The National Geographic: Stress: Portrait of a Killer documentary reports several studies exploring the relationship between the social hierarchy in monkey colonies and the level of dopamine reception. PET scans of dominate monkeys showed high levels of dopamine reception; the PET scans of subordinate monkeys reveal much less of dopamine reception. Applying this concept to humans, the documentary included the Whitehall study in England which found a significant link between stress and a person’s position in the government hierarchy.

Two other studies have shown how stress and low dopamine levels affect addiction. A study by Dr. Nader at Wake Forest (preceding and cited in the study above), showed that subordinate monkeys have lower dopamine receptor levels, resulting in greater response to cocaine. A study reported in Nature found that an inescapable stress (such as a fixed place in social hierarchy) intensifies the rewarding properties of morphine. According to this study, images human brains have found reduced levels of dopamine receptors among abusers of cocaine, heroin, nicotine, amphetamine, and alcohol. Lower dopamine receptor levels has also been observed in other populations, such as the severely obese.

Given the connection between stress, low dopamine receptor levels and addiction, an important question becomes how to deal with stress. You may be surprised to learn that one way to manage stress levels is to nourish our bodies with healthy foods that promote the release of dopamine and other neurotransmitters that support well-being such as serotonin. Foods that support these neurotransmitters are:

  • Poultry - Turkey can help release serotonin in the brain and cause you to become very relaxed. Duck and chicken can also help release of neurotransmitters.
  • Fish - Especially those fish high in Omega 3 fatty acids can also help release serotonin.
  • Beans – Beans are high in fiber and B vitamins, and they also support neurotransmitter release. Some specific varieties include black-eyed peas, chickpeas and lentils.
  • Eggs - Eggs can aid in the release of neurotransmitters.
  • Dairy – In addition to providing calcium, dairy products also help boost neurotransmitter levels.
  • Seeds and Nuts - Seeds and nuts are known for being high in essential fatty acids. They also have fiber and protein, and some varieties such as hazelnuts and walnuts support neurotransmitter release.
  • Whole wheat products - Wheat germ is high in phenylalanine, an essential amino acid that supports neurotransmitter release.
  • Vegetables - Vegetables such as red beets, leafy greens, broccoli, asparagus, artichokes and avocados help activate more dopamine and serotonin.
  • Fruits - Bananas, apples, oranges, melons, prunes, blueberries and strawberries are good for your brain and neurotransmitter production.

Exercise is also another excellent way to reduce stress. In addition to burning calories, lowering blood sugar levels and releasing stress from your body, exercise actually has the effect of stimulating dopamine reception and the reward system. Exercise is a positive and beneficial way to stimulate feelings of pleasure and well-being.

Research shows that dopamine levels vary among individuals; this means that each of us has a different tendency toward or a resistance to addiction just as we differ in the physical activities we choose, the foods we like to eat and the things that bring us joy. The beauty of Thin for Life is the focus on eliminating the idea that there is a one size fits all way to health, happiness and weight control. It emphasizes the importance of an individual finding their own unique lifestyle that supports a healthy body and a healthy life. This is also our philosophy at Dr. Grandma’s, where you will find healthy recipes, and sound nutritional advice – everything you need to create you own unique brand of healthy living.

I made this yummy salad dressing using papaya. The salad includes a lot of vegetables and chunks of canned salmon. I hope you enjoy it.

Papaya Cilantro Salad Dressing


1 cup papaya chunks
1/2 cup non-fat Greek yogurt
1/3 cup orange juice
2 Tbsp chopped fresh cilantro
2 Tbsp poppyseeds


Blend all ingredients in a blender until smooth.

Halve papaya. Remove seeds, peel and cut into chunks.

Gather ingredients and blend until smooth.

Ready for salad.

I put the dressing on this Veggie Salmon Salad

Tear Romaine lettuce.

Add grated carrots.

Add sliced red pepper.

Add chopped broccoli.

Add sliced sweet sugar peas.

Add tomatoes.

Top with chunks of canned red salmon.

Add a couple of dollops of dressing.