When you are stressed and irritable your brain cries out for mac-n-cheese and pizza, not leafy greens and cauliflower. Here’s why comfort food addiction blocks your weight loss, and how you can defeat the cookie monster…
It is Friday night and you just got done with a very long week.
Monday started with your car stopping on the side of the road.
Tuesday you got a call from your son’s school about his grades.
Wednesday and Thursday you found yourself trapped in overtime with your boss breathing down your neck.
You are feeling irritable and tired, partly because of your crazy week and partly because you are on a diet that has eliminated your usual coping mechanism – comfort food.
Losing weight would be so much easier if life didn’t get in the way.
When you are feeling stressed and overwhelmed, your brain can cry out for food as loudly as your stomach.
And what does your brain want?
Well, it’s not leafy greens and cucumbers. Your brain wants comfort foods.
For your brain, relief comes in the form of mac-n-cheese, burgers and fries and a big bowl of chocolate chip cookie dough ice cream.
Why are comfort foods so comforting?
As it turns out comfort food addiction is something many of us struggle with. Junk foods provide the perfect snugly blanket of comfort your brain needs to feel good. This blanket is woven out of three ingredients: Sugar (S), Oil (O) and Salt (S).
Comfort foods containing sugar, oil (i.e. fat), and salt can be addictive. Think of the full bag of potato chips that you begin eating at the start of your favorite TV sitcom, and the empty bag of potato chips that sit in your lap 30 minutes later.
Your body and brain are wired to crave comfort foods and eat as much of them as possible.
According to research gathered by Dr. Mark Hyman, there are many scientific findings that explain why comfort food addiction is real:
1. Sugar stimulates the brain’s reward centers through the neurotransmitter dopamine exactly like other addictive drugs.
2. Brain imagining (PET scans) shows that high-sugar and high-fat foods work just like heroin, opium, or morphine in the brain.
3. Brain imaging (PET scans) shows that obese people and drug addicts have lower numbers of dopamine receptors, making them more likely to crave things that boost dopamine.
In other words, comfort foods create fireworks in your brain’s reward center by causing a sudden increase in the substance called dopamine.
Your brain on dope (uh, I mean dopamine)
Not surprisingly, fatty sugary foods with just the right mix of salt cause the highest level of dopamine release in the brain.
This dopamine rush is addictive and you instantly crave more. Like a thrill seeker after his first adrenaline rush, once you start eating comfort foods, you just gotta get some more.
Unfortunately, foods that are pumped full of sugar, fat, and salt are also pumped full of calories.
Think about this for a moment. When you eat a 350 calories bowl of ice cream, does your craving stop there, or is it more likely to lead to a couple of 150 calorie cookies and end with a handful of 100 calorie salty crackers just to satisfy that little something that’s missing?
Giving in to the cookie monster can easily add 600 calories to your diet a day. Eat this way every day and that would equal 219,000 calories or about 63 pounds of added weight a year.
Defeating the cookie monster
If you need to lose weight, understanding the hidden pull of comfort food is a step in the right direction. However, knowledge is of little help if it is not paired with action.
The best place to start taking action is with your sugar consumption. Of the three ingredients (sugar, fat, and salt) sugar has the most impact on dopamine.
The most effective way to defeat the pull of comfort food is to eliminate sugar from your diet by setting boundaries around your sugar intake.
I call them “No Exception Rules”. In other words, sugar is out of my diet, no exception. (Check out my Free Video Series to learn more about how to use these rules to lose weight.)
Will this be hard? Yes, at first.
And, it is not just your brain’s love for dopamine that is working against you; it’s also the food manufacturers.
The research into comfort food addiction and more specifically the addictive pull of sugar is not some secret I am revealing for the first time.
Food manufacturers are well aware of this research and spend millions of dollars a year perfecting the “Bliss Point” of foods to make you crave more and buy more of their products.
While this is the cruel reality of the processed food world we live in, I don’t want you to lose any sleep over it.
You cannot change the way foods are made, but you can change what you choose to eat.
Moving Past Comfort Food Addiction: How to get the sugar out of your diet
Trying to completely eliminate sugar for the rest of your life is pretty scary; too scary, in fact, to be successful. However, could you do it for one week, two weeks or a full month? By setting a short goal and telling yourself that at the end of that time period you will be free to reevaluate and set a new goal, you greatly improve your odds of success.
2. Plan ahead
Make it a habit to think about events scheduled for the next day. Is the office having a retirement party for Joe? Will there be cake? How will you handle yourself when a piece of cake is offered to you? Just a few minutes of planning will help you prevent giving in at that moment of weakness.
3. Enjoy healthy eating
You cannot force yourself to love Brussel sprouts, but when you learn that they are a great source of vitamin C and that they contain lots of fat-fighting fiber, you can build a healthy respect for them and love the benefits they bring into your life. When you do, the choice to eat veggies at each meal and cut out sugar becomes a no brainer.
These safeguards allow you to stick to your rule of no sugar. And, the great thing is that after a few weeks of avoiding sugar your brain pushes the reset button on dopamine.
Staying away from sugar causes dopamine receptors to replenish, which means that your sugar cravings go down the longer you stick to a healthy eating plan.
Check out my Free Video Series to learn more about comfort food addiction and moving past it.
Using No Exception Rules and Safeguards can be your game-changer in weight loss. I spell out all of the details for you in the following posts that explain:
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About the Author
Dr. Becky Gillaspy, DC graduated Summa Cum Laude with research honors from Palmer College of Chiropractic in 1991.