Last week, we discussed the brain’s role in food addiction. As noted, there is a category of food that seems to be more addictive than others called hyperpalatables. Is sugar as addictive as heroin or cocaine? Animal studies say yes. So how do we withdraw from these foods? The key is something called EPIGENETICS.
Researchers at the Washington University School of Medicine in St. Louis first performed a study on almost 40,000 people in the early 1990s. They found that addictive genes had NO impact on body weight. People were just as likely to be obese whether they came from a family with addiction or not. But when a follow-up study of 40,000 other subjects 10 years later was done, the picture was very different. Subjects were 30%-40% more likely to be obese if they had addiction in the family. And for women, the chance was 50% greater. So, what changed?
Our genes didn’t change in 10 years. But there were changes in our environment that switched on individual genes. This is known as epigenetics.
The basis of epigenetics is environmental cues. For instance, if you live in a community where there is opportunity for consumption of fresh foods and people exercise, the genes that control your weight operate as they should, and you can enjoy a fit and healthy body.
But let’s look at the opposite example: You start your day with a disagreement with someone, and then you run out the door without breakfast, drive to your destination, arriving hungry. You sit down at your desk. At this point, levels of acetylcholine and cortisol, both stress hormones that trigger hunger, reach very high levels. To undo the “pain” of your disagreement and now, pressing hunger, you go for a quick fix of some food that is generally fatty, sugary or salty. The more this cycle repeats itself, the more it reinforces itself.
You can’t change the genes you are born with, but you can change the genetic expression. According to Dr. Pamela Peeke, M.D., lifestyle choices powerfully influence genetic expression – and most important, they are passed on to children. We can use these principles to recover from food addiction by using an integrative mind-body approach. Dr. Peeke recommends the “3 Ms”: Mind, Mouth, and Muscle.
MIND. Stress can have a significant impact on the prefrontal cortex (PFC) of your brain. Reducing stress returns the PFC to normal function. Reducing radical stress is a key element in this process, and is a top priority. This will regulate the amount of dopamine released in your brain.
By using mindfulness-based stress reduction techniques, we increase the size of the regions of the brain that help us learn, remember, stay calm and understand other people’s perspectives. By engaging in these techiques, we can reclaim a hijacked reward system and sustain our recovery from food addiction.
A strong and well-trained PFC has a better chance of helping us make the right choices, steer clear of hyperpalatables and select fresh, whole, life-promoting foods.
MOUTH. Choose the right foods. In order to do that, our brain needs an abundance of omega-3s. These fatty acids ensure that cell membranes will be flexible enough to let in other nutrients.
An animal study in 2010 by Davis (et al) found that rats fed a diet low in omega-3s had reduced density of the dopamine receptors in the ventral striatal section of the brain, an area closely associated with impulsivity. Consuming more omega-3s will give you a stronger PFC. We recommend getting them from whole foods as much as possible, such as salmon, tuna, walnuts and flax seed.
MUSCLE. Regular physical activity increases the body’s production of BDNF, and this brings a higher functioning PFC. For someone trying to withdraw from food addiction, or any other addiction, this is the most important component. Even 5-minute walks or 30 jumping jacks reduce the intensity of withdrawal symptoms.
Researchers now believe that exercise alters the reward circuits in the brain to the point that treadmill walking has been able to substitute for certain drugs. It also decreases cravings, compulsiveness and emotional ups and downs.
One study showed that after a year of taking 40-minute walks times a week, the hippocampus–the part of the brain that converts short-term memory into long-term memory and controls spatial navigation in the brains of older adults–grew by 2%, reversing their brains’ aging process by almost 2 years. Those who were sedentary experienced brain shrinkage by approximately the same percentage.
As Yale University professor Dr. Kelly Brownell states: “Food can act on the brain as an addictive substance. Certain constituents of food, sugar in particular, may hijack the brain and override will, judgment and personal responsibility.”
Food addiction is real, but it’s not an excuse. We cannot blame poor habits on addiction. We need to take responsibility for our health at any cost. The basic weight loss formula of fewer calories consumed and more calories expended still applies. The need for exercise goes beyond conquering food addiction–it’s needed for our health in general. And our exercise needs to be both aerobic and muscle-building. Reducing and managing stress is vital to all aspects of our health and weight loss.
Overcoming food addictions is hard work. It will probably require help from the proper professionals. By eradicating and withdrawing from food addictions, you will dramatically change your life for the better.
Alan Freishtat is an A.C.E. certified personal trainer and a lifestyle fitness coach with over 17 years of professional experience. He is the co-director of the Jerusalem-based weight loss and stress reduction center Lose It!, now offering free testing for FOOD ADDICTIONS. Visit Lose It!‘s website at www.loseit.co.il or contact Alan at firstname.lastname@example.org.