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Your Brain’s Reward Center

The idea for this blog came from a syndicated column in the Sarasota Herald-Tribune by Amy Alkon, “Advice Goddess.” If you’re not acquainted with her, she offers a witty take on relationships and romance along with some darned good practical advice. In a March column, she shares her wisdom about obsession and the brain’s reward center.

Her explanation for how we become entrenched in unwanted behavior is enlightening. Responding to a reader infatuated with an unattainable lover, Alkon writes, “Every time you moon over this woman, you’re giving your brain’s motivation and reward centers a hit of the feel-good neurotransmitter dopamine. In doing that, you’re repeatedly engaging your brain in reward-seeking without reward-satisfaction, and revving an attraction into an obsession.” She goes on to quote anthropologist Helen Fisher, author of Why We Love: “When a reward is delayed, dopamine-producing cells in the brain increase their work, pumping out more of this natural stimulant to energize the brain, focus attention, and drive the pursuer to strive even harder to acquire a reward.”

Now take a minute to consider this dopamine dynamic regarding food. By constantly or even intermittently thinking about a food you crave, you get a hit of dopamine, which reinforces your obsession. It’s hard not to think about the food, of course, because you enjoy that fleeting buzz. You like thinking about food because of the buzz. But it’s the last thing you want to be doing if you’re trying not to eat a food. Why? Because by thinking about but not eating that food, your brain will keep you focused on it. Obsession without reward brings more obsession—that is, unless you change gears.

The way out is to cut off the obsessional thought about food the instant you realize you’re thinking about it. Don’t engage with the obsession for even a nano-second because you’ll get sucked into the dopamine reward cycle. Shift your mind immediately away from “the food,” find something else to do right away, yank your energy and focus away from food and glom onto something else—anything else—that will help distract you from your eating obsession. Do not get seduced into thinking about that food. Mind over matter really works in this case.

This brain retraining is hard work, but new neural pathways will eventually take hold if you’d only fight for them. Over time, your thoughts won’t drift as often or intensely to obsessional food cravings and you’ll be able to move away from these kinds of thoughts with less of a struggle. Gotta do the work if you want the real, lasting rewards.