Help! I am A Junk Food Junkie!

October 9, 2011

This is a guest post by Derek Carroll.

Step out of your house and everywhere you turn you will see all kinds of food. Fast food restaurants are everywhere. Grocery stores are packed with aisles and aisles of junk food, and all you have to do is reach for it. Because junk food is so flavorful and delicious, we have no luck resisting it. Our inability to curb our cravings is contributing to a fast increasing obesity rate in our country.

A Sweet Tooth for Chocolate

My junk food battle began eight years ago. I am not, and had never been overweight, although I do carry around some weight ‘baggage.’ While I’m not a proponent of dieting, I have always made it a habit to keep to a healthy and balanced diet. I diligently cook my own meals, using healthy recipes, and I maintain an active lifestyle.

However, I have always had one weakness: chocolate. Well, not just chocolate per se, but any type of confectionery really, but chocolate is one food type that can bring me to my knees. Baffled by my own obsession with chocolates, I sought to find out why this is so.

The Yearning for Food

This craving for food is triggered by Dopamine, a chemical that is similar to adrenaline. Research conducted by the University of Texas reveals that dopamine affects our ability to feel pleasure and pain. When we partake in euphoric activities such as eating, drinking and sex, dopamine is released. This response can be so intense that many have no control over it, and they can’t help but binge and over-indulge.

It comes as no surprise that fatty food laden with sugar will trigger the highest level of dopamine release. The first step to overcoming the hazardous effects dopamine has on us is to recognize the problem: food addiction. Binging and overeating of unhealthy food is detrimental to our health, and can cause terminal diseases such as diabetes and heart attacks.

It Goes Round and Round and Round

In a 2011 study published by the US Department of Energy’s Brookhaven National Laboratory, it is shown that binge-eaters release a greater amount of dopamine from the mere sight or aroma of food. Earlier research by physician Gene-Jack Wang and psychiatrist Nora Volkow of Brookhaven suggest that obese people possess fewer dopamine receptors. This means they are less likely to derive pleasure from daily activities such as sunset watching compared to their non-obese counterparts. What do they do? They turn to food for a quick fix.

Herein lies the vicious cycle: because food brings us comfort, we eat it to feel pleasure. Sure indeed, dopamine is then released, but the damage is done. Our waistline grows, and we become depressed at the sight of the flabby tummy. What do we do? We turn to food for comfort once again! There is no end in sight to this cycle unless we put a stop to it.

Keep Your Diet In Good Balance

One less-known fact about junk food is that it lowers one’s energy level and leads to moodiness. Food such as apples, bananas, watermelon, cheese, beans and legumes on the other hand can increase the release of dopamine. Popular diets such as low carbohydrate diets will whittle the production of dopamine —hence explaining why those who are on the diet get so depressed— so be sure to keep clear of those.

Exercise

According to Dr. Volkow, exercising not only increases the release of dopamine but also ups the number of receptors after a period of exercising. This varies with different exercises, though. If you force yourself to workout, without really enjoying what you are doing, then your response will be less pleasurable. Also, if you adhere to the same routine, eventually you will get bored. Cross-training helps to inject excitement. Fitness programs, such as the P90x by Beachbody, works on the principle of varying the workouts and intensity to confuse the muscles. This helps you to avoid getting stuck on a plateau!

The Groove, The Rhythm

Neuroscientists at McGill University have found that music helps with the production of dopamine and also adrenaline. Pump up your exercise routines with your favorite music tracks. If you are going for high intensity interval training (HIIT) then you would want to bring on the hard-thumping music instead of the sappy ballads. This choice of music will push you harder. But of course, this isn’t an ironclad rule; whatever works for you is fine.

Engage in Activities that You Enjoy

Since the release of dopamine is triggered when we do things that bring us pleasure, we need to partake in activities that make us happy. When we are contented and happy, we will not need to turn to external triggers for comfort. I love to exercise but my busy schedule sometimes gets in the way, so I have an array of exercise DVDs that I workout to at home. I also pick up my adjustable dumbbells to get the most out of my resistance training.

What are the activities that make you happy? What are your hobbies? Is it sailing or swimming or a great karaoke session with your folks? Always allocate time every week to indulge and boost your dopamine.

The secret to making it work is to mix things around and try different combinations to get the best results. If your mood swings still come by periodically, there is much to do. Research is underway to discover new drugs that boost and control dopamine production but there are a few good years before we see them on our shelves.

Alternatively, a research study by American Journal of Clinical Nutrition reveals that vitamin B6 and amino acids, l-tyrosine and l-tryptophan can trigger a good balance of dopamine and serotonin, hence stabilizing one’s mood. l-tyrosine is responsible for the production of dopamine in the morning, and l-tryptophan affects the release of serotonin and it’s level in the evening.

A final tip that I can share with you is to maintain a journal, detailing all your daily activities and emotional being for a month. This will allow you to track your progress and see how far you have come. You will also have a clear picture of what you need to work on.

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