Food for thought: Addiction, compulsive eating and fish.
The modern diet has left us with undernourished brains. The neuronal connections that are meant to keep us happy, content and motivated are de-sensitised. They are malfunctioning because we haven’t given them the right fuel. Our dopamine receptors need a bit of tender loving care. With the right nutrition they will keep us feeling happy.
When you turn to food for comfort, you are trying to stimulate dopamine release and activate the reward system in the brain. This is same area addicts are trying to activate when reaching for their preferred drug. Finding ways to stimulate the dopamine pathway is what drives addicts to abuse substances. It will drive us to smoke and drink coffee. It also drives us to become compulsive, emotional eaters.
The problem is that the reward from comfort foods and drugs is short-lived and before long you are looking to repeat the effect with more food or more drugs.
Over time this can lead to reward deficiency syndrome. Where the dopamine receptors are depleted and become less sensitive to stimuli. You will need much more of the same substance to illicit that comfort feeling. Like the habitual coffee drinker that starts out at just one expresso each morning, over time it takes three to four just to get through the day. You will need more and more ‘comfort’ food just to feel ok. That feeling of being happy, contented and motivated becomes harder to achieve.
The inevitability of reward deficiency syndrome is that we will either end up addicted or overweight. Take your pick.
Choosing certain foods can promote further changes in brain function as well by distorting the hormonal mechanisms we rely on to tell us we've had enough to eat. To further compound the problem of emotional eating, when we are stressed, the reward value of food is increased through cortisol release. This means we are more likely to feel comfort from food when we are under stress. Understandably, food can become an emotional crutch in these circumstances.
There are dietary choices you can make to help your brain function properly. This choice has been made more difficult as the food industry surrounds us with foods that damage our mental health. They are heavy with omega 6 fats, from vegetables oils and sugar-rich. Too many omega 6 fats in the diet reduces the neuronal signalling in our brain making it difficult to maintain a healthy mood without outside stimulus from food or drugs. As those reward receptors decrease so does our tendency to rely on these substances. A diet rich in omega 6 fats also increases our preference for sweet tastes.
Where there is an excess of omega 6 there will be a relative deficiency of omega 3 fats. Omega 3 fats increase your brain's capacity to regulate neuronal signalling as well as increasing their sensitivity – increasing the reward response. Leading to less reliance on foods or drugs of any description. Omega 3 fats are found in the most usable form in oily fish. Making a decision to increase oily fish is important but equally important is decreasing the foods that contain vegetables oils – margarine, crisps, fried and processed foods. This gives you the chance to allow your brain to function as it was meant to and freedom from reliance of outside stimulants.
Find a nutritionist near you
or try our advanced search