How to Use the Double Dopamine Effect to Reduce Cravings

How to Use the Double Dopamine Effect to Reduce Cravings

Why are certain foods so easy to overeat? Some foods we can enjoy in a reasonable amount and feel satisfied. But with other foods, it’s like we’re a bottomless pit. We just want to keep going—even though we know we’re overindulging.

Registered dietitian nutritionist Natalie Stephens joins me to talk about some new research on how our brains and bodies respond to pleasurable foods and how we can avoid overeating without having to avoid foods that we enjoy.   

Natalie Stephens: This is a great time to have this conversation because we’re in the holiday season and there are so many more opportunities to overindulge. It’s tempting to take one of two approaches. 

First: Live it up. Which really means, eat as much as yummy food as you can. And why not? There are so many delicious foods you don’t want to miss out on. 

Then there is the more virtuous route. You limit yourself because you don’t want to suffer the consequences. You don’t want to see the scale number go up. If you don’t run out of willpower, you will feel very proud of yourself. 

Monica Reinagel: And both strategies have drawbacks. If you decide to just abandon all restraint and “live it up,” you’ll probably have some damage to undo when it’s all over. 

But when we focus on limiting or restricting, it can create a sort of psychological hunger that builds up until we fall off the bandwagon. And then … well, we all know what happens. 

So, what are we to do? Can we still win in what feels like a lose-lose scenario between health and happiness?

The double dopamine effect

Natalie:  The pleasure that we experience when we eat is a result of a dopamine release. And there is some newer research on how our bodies produce dopamine in response to eating. 

There is a second release that is triggered when food reaches the stomach. This dopamine release is more related to the nutritional value of the food.

You might assume that all the pleasure comes from taste because that’s all we get excited about. Indeed, our brains produce dopamine when we taste food—especially sweet, salty or high-fat foods. But that isn’t the only source of dopamine (or pleasure) we get from eating. There is a second release that is triggered when the food reaches the stomach. This dopamine release is more related to the nutritional value of the food. 

Monica: This was research conducted at the Max Plank Institute. In the study, subjects were given either a milkshake or a nutritious but tasteless solution to drink. Then they used a functional MRI and PET scans to monitor dopamine release in the brain.

Not surprisingly, there was a big dopamine spike when the subjects tasted the milkshake—and this dopamine was active in the reward centers of the brain. That’s the part of the brain that tells you to eat more. 

Then, about 20 minutes later, there was a second dopamine spike, triggered by the stomach. This dopamine was active in the higher cognitive areas of the brain. This is what gives you that feeling of well-being or satisfaction after a good meal. 

At the end of the day, are we really getting more pleasure from satisfying all those cravings? I believe the answer is no.

Natalie: Interestingly, the bigger the first dopamine release was, the smaller the second dopamine release was. So, the more immediate pleasure you get from the taste of a food, the less pleasure you are going to experience after you eat. 

At the end of the day, are we really getting more pleasure from satisfying all those cravings? I believe the answer is no. 

Monica: Maybe your “happy foods” aren’t making you as happy as you think. 

Natalie: Especially because eating healthy is also associated with better mental health and less depression. Improving diet quality has been shown to improve depressive symptoms. 

Monica: So maybe part of the trick is to pay more attention to how we feel after we eat? 

Natalie: Definitely! In overcoming my own addictive eating tendencies and practicing mindfulness, I learned to cue into my stomach after eating. That became my criteria for a successful meal. I was fascinated to see that there is biology behind why this works. 

Improving diet quality has been shown to improve depressive symptoms.

Monica: Can you explain what you mean by “cue into your stomach?” What sort of sensations are you paying attention to?  

Natalie:  The first is pressure. This probably correlates with the literal fullness of your stomach. Have you ever noticed how a bag of potato chips doesn’t ever leave you feeling very full? But if you drink 24 oz of water quickly and you will feel the pressure on your stomach.

The other sensation I pay attention to is how heavy or light I feel during and after a meal. Sometimes it only takes a few bites of something really rich for your stomach to tell you “whoa.” Heavy meals make you want to sit on the couch or take a nap, but a light meal leaves you feeling energized, ready to go do something.

At meals I aim to feel moderate pressure combined with that light energetic feeling. In addition, the whole time I’m eating I also focus in on the flavors I enjoy and I chew thoroughly so I don’t swallow big chunks of food.

Monica: This sounds like mindful eating.

Natalie:  Yes, but many use the term mindful to mean being conscientious about health. Mindful eating is not worrying about or analyzing what you are eating. Mindful eating is being aware of the experience of eating. Nothing more or less. 

As you key into the experience of eating you regain two innate skills. First, you learn to enjoy your food more while you’re eating it. Second, you begin to recognize exactly how much food and what types leave you feeling energized or heavy.

Mindful eating is being aware of the experience of eating. Nothing more or less.

Monica:  In other words, mindful eating can help us exploit the double dopamine effect? 

Natalie: Exactly! Paying more attention helps you get plenty of pleasure from tasting your food in the moment, while still noticing when your stomach is saying, “Maybe later, I’m full” or it might even say “Can I have another serving of vegetables?”

Monica:  So, as we said at the beginning, foods that contain a lot of sugar and fat trigger a big dopamine release. That’s why they can be so compelling. Our “mindless brain” will just go for the quick hit—the tastebud dopamine. But our “mindful brain” has the capacity to choose foods that will deliver more pleasure from that second wave of dopamine that is triggered in the stomach. 

NatalieYes! Now I don’t have intense cravings and I feel so much better for hours after eating. I eat for that double dopamine release!

MonicaConsciously going for foods that offer that double dopamine release can steer us toward healthier foods and also enhance our enjoyment of them. But it is the holidays, after all. And there are a lot of extra temptations around. Does this approach also make it easier to occasionally indulge in some of those special treats without falling into that bottomless pit phenomenon where we overindulge? 

Enjoy the miracle of nature bringing you this food. Appreciate your ability to taste.

Natalie:  Yes! This approach helps us use our natural brake system when it comes to eating. And that is really helpful this time of year. It gives you permission to put food down because want to feel good, not because you “should.” It is much more motivating. Although my favorite discovery about mindful eating is that my food literally tastes yummier when I’m a little hungry. There is a reason that it has been said “hunger is the best seasoning.” You better believe I’m going to grab a slice of pumpkin pie, and maybe some ice cream, too, this holiday. But I’m going to wait until I’m a little hungry, because then I’ll enjoy it the most.

You can also learn to find pleasure as you sit and enjoy the sounds, smells, decorations, beautiful food, good conversation. Enjoy the miracle of nature bringing you this food. Appreciate your ability to taste. Then, this holiday season, see if you can discover your ability to feel good after you eat. That will get you on the path to a restriction-free and nourishing diet.

Monica:  Thanks so much for bringing this interesting research to my attention and sharing your approach to building healthy habits and balancing enjoyment with health. Because we don’t want to have to sacrifice either one for the other.

Natalie:  I couldn’t agree more! Thank you, Monica.

Monica: If you’d like to learn more about embracing your appetite as a way to get healthy and happy, check out Natalie’s website at www.dietingdifferently.com. She’s got some great free resources to help you start building this skill. 

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