It's Not All About WILLPOWER - How Foods Affect Our Pleasure Centre

Hi there – its Wendy and before I start today's blog I really wanted to extend a big thanks to everyone who sent such positive messages to me in response to my weight loss story that was published last fortnight.  What I hope some of my story highlighted was the fact that many things, that don't include yourself, fail you when you are trying to lose weight.  Just like me, there are many out there that know eating cake every day isn't getting them closer to their weight goals, but what's hardly ever discussed is how that cake has itself biochemically wired into your reward system.  It's more than willpower that needs a light shone on it in these instances - it's our reward systems and how they are affected by certain food choices.

This fortnight we are discussing how some foods affect the way the brain works and can contribute to emotional eating and addictive like behaviours.  We have all experienced it at some stage – once we start eating particular foods it seems that we want them more and more and in ever increasing quantities, which is a pretty accurate picture of chemical reactions happening inside your brain!

Your body has a highly intelligent and complex system that regulates your food intake and the way that you use energy.  We could write pages and pages about how the body is spectacularly designed to work in harmony and how food can directly affect it - that is the subject for workshops later in the year but for today let’s focus on how food affects our reward system in our brain.  In short, food activates it.  This makes sense from a primal perspective because we need food for survival, so to get pleasure from it means that we will do it.  Some food however has significantly more effect on our reward centre than others.  These are highly palatable foods, are very processed and usually contain a high fat, high sugar content. In studies that have documented this effect on the brain they call this diet the Cafeteria diet or the Western diet.  In our primitive ancestor’s time, these highly palatable foods were a rarity, so when they were available, our bodies were driven to eat them as the high fat, high sugar combination meant that they could quickly be converted to energy and this was vital for survival. Fast-forward to today, and these foods are not only cheap, but you can get them everywhere at any time thanks to the 24/7 society we live in, and we aren't moving our bodies nearly as much.  Not a good combination.

If we look a bit closer at our reward centre we look at the actions of three main neurotransmitters (AKA brain chemicals); dopamine, opioids and serotonin. I bet some of them are familiar to you – they are often mentioned when we talk about feel good hormones.  There are loads of actions in the body that they influence but the key ones for this blog are feelings of pleasure, behaviour, memory, learning and addiction behaviour.  Wow.  No wonder when I have a piece of chocolate cake I want another one the next day and the day after that and I want the slices bigger and bigger.  Continued consumption of highly palatable foods has shown to change the balance of these chemicals in the brain and potentially contribute to addictive like behaviours, depression, anxiety behaviours and even affect an individual’s ability to learn.  In fact, there are a number of studies that, although controversial, compare the effect that highly palatable foods have on brain chemistry to drugs of abuse because of these similarities!

Clearly, drugs of abuse can have greater physical and social repercussions but it’s an interesting concept and in some way explains why continued consumption of highly palatable foods can create a vicious, addictive cycle.  When you eat them they activate your reward centre and this makes you feel good so to feel good again, you eat them.  Food companies know this well and spend millions annually creating just the right balance in foods to maximise the effect the food has on our reward centre. On top of this, as a society we then attach the labels of “good” or “bad” onto food which just serves to increase the emotion associated with food, and adds guilt and shame to an already volatile cocktail of feelings.  So, long story short, we start to lose control; eating foods that psychologically make us feel terrible and make us physiologically feel good (for a short amount of time).

We do not advocate restrictive dieting at Verve so we are not suggesting that these foods be excluded from your diet completely; that is simply unrealistic and unsustainable.  We also understand that emotional eating has many factors influencing it, however, we do believe that knowledge is power and this is the first step towards positive change.  Knowing how food will impact your health can influence your choice of food.  This is an integral part of nutritional education, which we deliver in all of our treatment plans.  

Understanding what foods do to our health is the basis of making positive change in the kitchen, which then bleeds into all other areas of our life.  Our acknowledgement of this is leading us down an exciting path to deliver online courses and workshops around nutritional education for health.  We look forward to giving you more information on these as they get released!  Until then, my suggestion is this – focus on how you feel five to ten minutes after you eat processed food.  Are there uncomfortable feelings in your brain or body?  Do you crave it again later in the day or the next day?  Maybe it’s time to give us a call.

By Wendy Burke (Naturopath, Nutritionist, Personal Trainer)

P.S - stay tuned for my next blog; an ode to fitspo selfies...