Addicted to Junk Food? 6 Ways to Hack Your Brain for Freedom from Cravings

As some of you may know, I dabbled in brain sciences during my college years; it’s truly fascinating stuff. What we’ll talk about today is something that is a bit controversial, a bit wacky, and surprisingly true: “bad” foods are addictive. When people say they are addicted to junk food – although they may be stretching the truth a bit – they are also kind of correct.

<—- A side note… this is actually a picture of my brain. When I was a poor college student, I gladly guinea-pigged myself out for research studies for 5-10 bucks a pop. After which, I was poked, prodded, shocked, and brainphotographed… This was a souvenir. 

Recent research suggests that food addictions engage similar brain pathways as drugs and alcohol. Last year, the Scripps Research Institute released a study showing that rats fed a diet of sausage, chocolate, cheesecake, and bacon (ummm… why was I not in THIS study?) encountered dramatic rises in dopamine and serotonin, both neurochemicals that affect the brain’s pleasure centers.

When the researchers later withheld these foods (pure evil) and shifted the rats’ diets to more nutritious foods, the rats simply refused to eat – nearly to the point of starvation. Further, the rats even “chose” to subject themselves to painful shocks (more evil) to get access to sweet and fatty foods. It took a full two weeks for the rats’ brains to return to normal (although I’m sure the jolts of electricity surging through their little ratbodies helped nothing).

Other studies show that rats recover normal brain function from cocaine use (?!?!) in two days.  Some people use these sorts of studies as ammunition to argue that “food addiction” can be harder to overcome than drug addiction.

Really? Cheetos are more addictive than crack?

I doubt it. But clearly, unhealthy foods have a real and sinister effect on the way our brains work. In a viscous cycle, junk food addicts may actually be eating too much junk as a self-medication to balance levels of the chemicals that are disrupted by… eating too much junk food. Thanks Monsanto!

Here is a bit about the neurochemicals involved…

Dopamine produces high-energy feelings and excitement. When you eat foods that are high in fat (even – and especially – processed fat), you encounter a spike in dopamine. Unfortunately, the high is quite temporary.

Serotonin has a calming effect and promotes feelings of hope and optimism. Most antidepressants tinker with serotonin. Eating sugar and refined carbs from white flour (crackers, white bread, pasta, etc.) have increases in serotonin. This, however, is followed by the infamous sugar crash which actually has mini-depression-like effects.

Most traditional diets fail because they are based on calorie-restriction and do not address the mechanism of addiction that leads people to overeat in the first place.

How to Hack Your Brain to Free Yourself from Junk Food Addiction

  • Naturally boost dopamine levels. Being active and social increases levels of dopamine, as do new and pleasurable experiences such as hitting the local watering hole, whipping  up a new recipe, or jamming to music.
  • Naturally boost serotonin levels. Altruistic activities such as helping others, giving compliments, and playing with pets up your serotonin considerably.
  • Baby steps. If you can’t go cold turkey, swap one junk food for a healthy food at a time. It’s really not that difficult – just stop buying Oreos and buy an apple instead. You crave what is around you.
  • Expose yourself to healthy foods. (And by “expose yourself,” I’m talking about eating foods, not flashing them.) Pro tip – it takes at least 10 exposures to a healthy food before you begin to crave it in the same way that you craved junk foods. That’s why I crave kale while many crave Krispy Kreme.
  • Eliminate mindless eating. Don’t eat in front of the TV, reading, driving, or anything else. Not only will you overeat because your brain is distracted, you will also begin to associate activities with foods (such as soda with driving, candy with talking on the phone, or popcorn with TV) which increases cravings.
  • Indulge occasionally – guilt-free. We all want to be perfect, but we’re all human. As long as you are making good choices the vast majority of the time, give yourself permission to indulge in foods you truly love on occasion. A fellow blogger and muscle rockstar, Martin of Leangains, refers to this as “cheesecake mastery.”

Hey, it’s cheat day. I think I’ll go upregulate my dopamine and serotonin by achieving some cheesecake mastery myself…


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