Addicted to Food

Written by
Michael Wells

Addicted to Food

Written by
Michael Wells

Addicted to Food

Written by
Michael Wells
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QUESTION
"Why were people in the ‘50s, ‘60s and ‘70s so skinny? It seems like average Americans were rail thin compared to today."

The Drug of Desire

Meet dopamine.

Dopamine is a neurotransmitter which, in your brain, regulates aspects of your emotions, behaviors, alertness and impulsivity.

One of dopamine’s primary functions is to motivate you by drawing your attention aggressively towards something your brain perceives as “good for you.”

This is why you are instantly distracted by that slice of chocolate cake, or that smell of pizza, or that hot bikini-clad model.

The thing about dopamine is that the more your brain gets, the more it wants.

This aspect of dopamine is the basis of most drug addictions, and our cravings for alcohol, caffeine, sugar, nicotine and much more.

How Your Brain Measures Opportunity

Things that trigger dopamine are referred to as dopaminergic.

When your brain perceives something as "good for you," it generates dopamine at a level relative to how highly it rates that opportunity.

If you look at two different things on a restaurant menu, or in a shopping catalog, or on your Facebook feed, chances are that you will want one of them more.

When you look at a catalogue, your brain is continually calculating which things will give you the most "benefit," and it wants those things the most.

Scan a porn site, or your Facebook feed, and the same thing happens.

And that "perceived benefit" varies with your current situation.

That slice of cake sounds extra amazing when your blood sugar is low. A cigarette sounds extra tempting when you're feeling stressed. Women are more interested in sex when they're ovulating.

Look at a restaurant menu. When you're not that hungry, a salad might look pretty good. But when you're feeling hungry, that burger and fries, or that almond croissant will probably speak louder.

This is another aspect of dopamine, known as salience. It means your brain identifies this thing as relevant and important to you, right now.

Why it Measures Wrongly

Dopamine is generated in the basal ganglia, which is one of the more primitive parts of your brain, often referred to as the "reptile brain."

This is important because things that happen in this part of your mind are purely emotional, and therefore largely subconscious. They happen automatically, before you're even consciously aware of them.

This is also important because as you may have observed, reptiles aren't that smart.

Their brain design is built around basic survival and it encourages very basic behaviors- eat, drink, sleep, run away, reproduce...

That's about it.

But that lack of intelligence can be a problem.

Consider the sea turtle, which for millions of years has happily eaten nutritious jellyfish. Now suddenly our oceans are full of plastic bags and to the sea turtle's reptile brain, they look awfully similar.

When a plastic ziploc floats by, the sea turtle's dopamine center fires up in a big way, and they gobble them up, often with disastrous consequences.

Sadly, your own "reptile brain" isn't much smarter.

It makes very simplistic calculations of the world around you, and will push you hard towards things that just might not be that healthy.

Are you struggling with that diet?

The reason is that your reptile brain is completely unaware of your fitness goals and your desire to see your abs. It is programmed for an entirely different purpose- stay alive, at all costs.

Speaking of which, have you ever wondered why fat tastes so good?

It's because your brain knows that fat has 9 calories per gram, which makes it an excellent energy source. Sugar is great too. While it offers only 4 calories per gram, it requires very little effort to digest.

Protein also has 4 calories per gram, but it is much harder to digest, and consumes nearly 30% of its own calories in the digestion process alone.

Yep. Reptile wisdom is everywhere. It even affects your taste buds.

The 3 Big Miscalculations

Here are 3 miscalculations your reptile brain makes every day.

"This is real"

We may not eat plastic bags, but our brains misidentify "wins" in much the same way the sea turtle's brain does.

For example...

  • Porn is not real sex, with a real person. You cannot possibly reproduce with PornHub but to your reptile brain... "go get her!"
  • Video games are not "real" adventure, discovery, and progress in life.
  • Junk food is not "real" food.

"It can't wait"

The reptile brain focuses on immediate opportunities, and most of us find it a struggle to develop and maintain our focus on long-term wins.

Particularly if it means passing up the "immediate opportunities."

Sure you want abs, but sometimes... you want french fries more.

To your reptile brain, a small win now is better than a big win later, and if you don't eat them, those french fries will probably get eaten by someone else.

Have you ever had something tasty in the kitchen, and tried to pretend it wasn't there. Most likely, you couldn't stop thinking about that ice cream... chocolate bar... peanut butter... or whatever, until it was entirely gone.

"Never enough"

Your reptile brain also doesn't really get the concept of moderation.

Remember, it was designed for a world in which...

  • Every resource is scarce
  • Everyone wants to take what you have
  • Food goes bad quickly

If you've ever felt yourself wanting to eat more of something even when you're no longer hungry, you've observed the impact of dopamine.

Pimps & Pushers Everywhere

From a marketing perspective, dopamine is a goldmine.

Triggering your dopamine is the easiest way to get you to open your wallet. If a marketer can trigger enough dopamine, you will want what they are selling so badly that you will perceive it as a need.

At that point, that feeling of wanting something is no longer a simple desire, or a craving, or even a choice... with enough dopamine, you literally cannot sleep until you've satisfied that craving.

If you have enough willpower, you might be able to clench your jaw and hold on tight, tossed about wildly until the wave of dopamine subsides.

But it's tough, and it's a wild, wild ride.

Anyone who has ever struggled with impulse control, tried to quit a smoking habit, a drinking habit, social media or porn can tell you how little rational self-control they feel when the dopamine waves begin.

And the intensity of those dopamine waves depends on what you're confronted with.

Marketing 101

Marketers absolutely know this, and a marketer's job is to make things more dopaminergic.

These are the major ways marketers push your dopamine.

Chemical triggers

This is the direct manipulation of products, to directly stimulate dopamine production.

  • Add sugar.
  • Add fat.
  • Add caffeine.
  • Add alcohol.
  • Add nicotine.

Think about the products you consume regularly. What was added to make you "like" them more?

Psychological triggers

Indirectly, your dopamine can also be triggered through psychological means.

  • Sex sells. Put a sexy model on the cover, and you'll get more purchases.
  • Money, fame, fortune, beauty. What triggers you to buy stuff?
  • Social triggers. Your neighbor has a new iPhone. Now you want one. How did that happen? Marketers know that the people around us have a big impact on our dopamine as well.
  • Associations. Set alerts, bells, buzzers, that trigger frequently throughout the day to program your responses. Pavlov knew. So does Facebook.
  • Identify and trigger an individual's interests. Give you more interesting posts in your Instagram feed, so that you're wanting to check it more often.

Look at the engineering of a casino every single aspect of it, from the way it works, looks, sounds, and even smells, is about dopamine.

So, What About Food?

Here's how all of this translates into what you eat.

Most of us are pretty aware of the hazards of eating too much candy and cake... heart-disease, strokes and diabetes aren't topping our bucket lists.

However over the past 50ish years, new food processing techniques meant that businesses could design foods that trigger a far higher level of dopamine-release. Typically this is done through the addition of sugar & caffeine.

For example…

  • Low-fat foods, and yogurts. Like many other low fat products, low fat yogurts have sugar added to them to enhance flavor. For example, a single cup (245 grams) of low fat yogurt can contain over 45 grams of sugar, which is about 11 teaspoons. This is more than the daily limit for men and women in just a single cup of “healthy” yogurt.
  • Sauces & dressings are often among the worst culprits. Around 33% of the weight of ketchup and BBQ sauces may be pure sugar. Fat-free dressings can be the worst- 1.5 ounces of one popular fat-free raspberry vinaigrette dressing packs nine grams of sugar.
  • Fruit juices. Thought they were healthy, eh? An eight-ounce serving of juice and cola both contain about 30 grams of sugar on average — that's almost eight teaspoons.
  • Peanut butter often has added sugar, sometimes quite a lot in cheaper brands. Other spreads like chocolate, hazelnut and Nutella spreads have a lot of sugar.
You might think it’s easy to figure out whether the food manufacturer added sugar to your food, but it isn’t always so. While some foods include “sugar” in their ingredients, many use different words for products that are nutritionally similar.

Here are some of the words on nutrition labels that mean added sugar...

Agave juice, agave nectar, agave sap, agave syrup, apple juice concentrate, beet sugar, brown rice syrup, brown sugar, cane juice, cane sugar, cane syrup, clintose, confectioners powdered sugar, confectioners sugar, corn glucose syrup, corn sweet, corn sweetener, corn syrup, date sugar, dextrose, drimol, dri mol, dri-mol, drisweet, dri sweet, dri-sweet, dried raisin sweetener, edible lactose, flo malt, flo-malt, flomalt, fructose, fructose sweetener, glaze and icing sugar, glaze icing sugar, golden syrup, gomme, granular sweetener, granulated sugar, hi-fructose corn syrup, high fructose corn syrup, honey, honibake, honi bake, honi-bake, honi flake, honi-flake, invert sugar, inverted sugar, isoglucose, isomaltulose, kona ame, kona-ame, lactose, liquid sweetener, malt, malt sweetener, malt syrup, maltose, maple, maple sugar, maple syrup, mizu ame, mizu-ame, mizuame, molasses, nulomoline, powdered sugar, rice syrup, sorghum, sorghum syrup, starch sweetener, sucanat, sucrose, sucrovert, sugar beet, sugar invert, sweet n neat, table sugar, treacle, trehalose, tru sweet, turbinado sugar, and versatose.

How well does this work? Look at today’s largest food companies, shown in the centre of this graphic.

How many of them focus on processed foods?

Yeegs, So It's Safer to Eat Out, Right?

Unfortunately, the sugar problem is not limited to packaged foods either.

Fast food is often dosed with a lot of sugar. Despite McDonald’s promises to make healthier products, the amount of sugar in their hamburgers is more than three times greater compared to what it was in 1989.

Even that "healthy" salad you're ordering can have a sneaky surprise.

How Dopamine Affects Us

Have you ever craved a whole pizza, or a whole pint of Ben & Jerry’s ice cream, even when you weren’t hungry?

Have you ever really wanted to finish that tasty meal, even though you were stuffed to the point of pain?

That’s dopamine, not hunger.

Most of us first-worlders aren't familiar with the physical sensation of hunger, because we encounter it quite rarely- and when we do it's very brief. But we sure understand the feeling of a food craving.

It's an entirely different thing, driven by dopamine.

It’s no coincidence that America, which has the largest processed-food companies, and the most advanced marketing techniques, also has the highest rates of obesity.

Heck, we invented junk food.

And yes portion sizes are much larger, but that’s more in response to cheap food production and dopamine-driven consumer demand…

Today when we eat, we don’t stop once we’re no longer hungry. We stop when we’re FULL.

And sometimes, not even then.

Making Healthier Choices

Food affects us in a ton of ways, not just our health and lifespan, but how much energy we have, and how we feel on a daily basis.

When I started paying attention to what I eat, my whole world improved.

Here's how I approach eating now, which has worked exceptionally well for me.

  • Cook at home as much as possible
  • Avoid processed crap pretty much entirely. That means fresh, whole ingredients, very little that's canned or frozen. Your body is a temple, feed it real food.
  • Learn what food contains in terms of calories and macros (protein, fats, and carbs)

I do enjoy eating out as well, and when I do...

  • Choose the healthier dishes that I can estimate the calories and macros on, e.g. a protein with a lot of greens.
  • Get any dressings on the side, so I can choose what I want to add.
  • Same for glazes, sauces, etc. that might be added to a dish.
  • Swap out less-healthy options like french fries / chips for salad with dressing on the side.
  • Avoid desserts, except for very special occasions.

I love eating, but primarily, 6 days a week, food is fuel. I eat to live, and improve my life, rather than as a source of pleasure.

There are a lot of healthier ways to jazz up your day.

Choose those instead.

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First published on 
September 12, 2018
. Last updated on 
July 29, 2021

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    Addendum

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      Addendum

      Stressed out people eat (a lot) to relieve stress. This country has a lot of stressed out people.

      Add in the American obsession with “getting a bargain”. We want that plate to be overflowing, even if it’s far too much to actually eat at one sitting, because otherwise we don’t feel like we’re “getting our money’s worth”. That is also the cause of much of the food waste we see today.

      Originally answered on Quora.

      “Sweetening of the Global Diet, Particularly Beverages: Patterns, Trends, and Policy Responses” by Barry M. Popkin and Corinna Hawkes

      We're All Different

      Some things like sugar, sex, caffeine, and recreational drugs will affect pretty much all of us... but I see an astonishing degree of individuality in how different dopaminergics affect different people.

      • You might struggle to avoid late night pizza at Domino's
      • Mary in HR has a sugar addiction
      • Your brother Seb struggles with a porn addiction
      • Your neighbor Bob can't stop betting on basketball games
      • Your dad's trying to quit cigarettes for the 4th time, and
      • Your girlfriend Janette is always on Instagram

      On the surface, these things might look wildly different- but they are all about dopamine.

      Here's the difference.

      Your brain is wired to perceives different things as providing different levels of benefit- so the amount of dopamine triggered is unique to each individual.

      Compound Effect

      Often, marketers use multiple strategies to maximize dopamine. It’s why things like sodas & coffee are so addictive ( caffeine + sugar ).