Why food makes you happy (and why that's a good thing)

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Comfort food.

Why is it that food picks us up when we’re feeling down?

And why do we find ourselves reaching for a candy bar when we’re feeling sad, overwhelmed, or even just bored?

If you read my last post about the interplay between the hormones leptin and insulin, you’ll remember I started with a scenario - probably familiar to all of us.

You’re out at a restaurant and as you drink your soda, eat the complimentary bread, devour your pasta dish, and top it off with a chocolate brownie, you feel happier.

But then, when you get home, your mood starts to wane. You feel too full and lethargic, irritated, and a bit guilty for having indulged in such a heavy meal.

Yet, you know there’s a chocolate bar in your grocery cupboard, and it’s calling your name…

Now, in that previous post, I explained that the hormone leptin gives our bodies the important message: “Stop Eating, Start Moving.” And I also pointed out that leptin is blocked by too much insulin in the body, which gives the message: “Store fat.”

But there’s another hormone in the mix in this situation - and it also plays a major role in inhibiting the messages that leptin is sending.

The reward system

Comfort eating and emotional eating have some pretty negative associations, but they actually come from an important survival instinct, called the reward system. When we eat, we are rewarded by a good feeling.

The key neurotransmitter that stimulates the reward system is dopamine, one of your happy hormones.

So: you eat, your brain produces dopamine, you feel happy.

Nothing wrong with that, because we do have to eat to survive.

The problem comes in when you eat sugar

Sugar causes a release of excess dopamine - in fact the reward system is 10 times more intensely activated by eating sugar or processed food than by real food.

So you feel particularly happy.

But then the brain, noticing the excess level of dopamine, starts to produce less.

It’s a vicious circle after that. Next time you eat sugar, the body produces less dopamine, so you need to eat more to feel pleasure.

In the long term, you can start feeling depressed from low dopamine levels, and you’ll probably find yourself having to eat sugar just to feel normal.

And remember leptin (which tells the body to “Sop Eating, Start Moving”)? The flood of dopamine that your brain experiences shortly after eating sugar also blocks the reception of leptin’s message.

So when you limit your sugar intake, the receptors can replenish themselves, receive leptin’s message, and your cravings and need for comfort eating will go away.

Eat and be happy

It’s OK - in fact it’s by design - that eating food will make us feel happy! So you have my permission to eat and enjoy your food!

BUT eat healthy, real foods that will trigger the reward system within its natural limits. Not sugar and processed food that will have your hormone levels bouncing around in the extremes - causing weight gain and ill health.

The bottom line

Not only is sugar causing you to put on weight (by increasing your insulin levels), but it can also cause you to feel moody, and even depressed (by interfering with the normal production of dopamine).

Quitting sugar is one of the important steps I help my clients to take, and I have found that once sugar is out of the picture, then healthy eating becomes a natural next step.

Need some support as you quit sugar? Book a discovery call with me and I’ll help you take the first steps. We’ll also chat about the other ways in which I can support you on the journey.