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Let me introduce myself. My name is Mark Sisson. I’m 63 years young. I live and work in Malibu, California. In a past life I was a professional marathoner and triathlete. Now my life goal is to help 100 million people get healthy. I started this blog in 2006 to empower people to take full responsibility for their own health and enjoyment of life by investigating, discussing, and critically rethinking everything we’ve assumed to be true about health and wellness...

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November 09, 2009

Dear Mark: Your Brain on Junk Food

By Mark Sisson
60 Comments

Clearly, we eat not just to fill our stomachs but to satisfy a whole host of biochemical drives. The brain is built to incentivize our efforts not just with the quieting of hunger pangs but the kick-starting of an intricate hormonal “reward” system. When it comes to diet, I’ve always said what nurtures the body nurtures the brain. The proof is in the biochemical picture. And while I wholeheartedly believe that we each choose what we eat and how we treat our bodies, there’s something to the science that shows addictive properties in junk food. I occasionally get emails on this topic. Here’s a timely one from last week.

Dear Mark,

I’m wondering if you believe in junk food addiction. I’m very new to the Primal Blueprint diet and have been having some serious issues. I feel like it’s one step forward two steps back some days. For instance, I fell off the wagon entirely at Halloween, thinking a few pieces from my kids’ stash wouldn’t be a big deal for a couple days. But a few pieces turned into a whole backslide. I found myself roaming the house for days afterward craving foods I thought I was done with.  I’m finally getting back on track now, but I’ll admit I’m a little stunned. I don’t want to make excuses for myself (no one made me eat the stuff to begin with), but is there something more complicated here than I think?

I know there are those in this community who consider themselves recovering sugar addicts, so to speak. Some regularly offer their comments on the boards/forum threads, and others have written me personally about the difficulty of breaking through this first “wall” on the way to going Primal. When you’re addicted to sugar (or carbs in general), even a day’s break can make you feel like a rabid fiend scouring for your next fix. Cutting all grains in addition to sugar (since grains readily convert to glucose) will be critical for your success in this case. In fact, you probably can’t eliminate a long-term sweet-toothed sugar craving without eliminating grains.

An interesting study presented at the Society for Neuroscience conference last month gets closer to the biochemical reason for this. As researchers observed rats that were fed a steady diet of “junk food,” (chocolate, cheesecake, bacon, sausage, etc.) they found that the “’animals’ brain reward circuits became less responsive’” over time. Not surprisingly, the animals began to exhibit “compulsive overeating habits.” Even when subjected to mild shocks, the animals were undeterred as they chowed down on the junk food, and they refused to eat healthier food when it was the only feed available. In essence, the junk food dulled their pleasure centers. As a result, they kept seeking out the junk food and eating in an attempt to trip the reward trigger, but the blunted neurological response was never enough. This diminishing of pleasure center response, the researchers added (PDF), paralleled what they have witnessed in rats “’as they become addicted to cocaine or heroin.’” (Comforting, eh?)

Other studies have shown similar findings. Using human brain imaging, researchers have found lower dopamine (linked to reward and pleasure response) receptor levels in obese people compared to subjects in their recommended weight range.

By the same token, restricting food appears to increase dopamine receptor levels (through gene expression, of course). Mice whose food intake was limited showed higher dopamine D2 receptor levels than mice that were allowed to eat all they wanted. The better reward response your brain has, the more sensitive it is to pleasure. Consequently, you feel pleasure and motivation from lower intake of food or other rewards, and perhaps you simply learn to derive more pleasure from eating healthy foods – the foods your genes expect you to eat. If your response is dulled over time through junk food or overeating, it will take more to trip the pleasure response. This pattern clearly impacts more than weight; it’s one of long-term mental well-being and overall happiness.

On a side note, let me grouse and grumble for a minute about the terminology used in this and similar studies. The diet fed to these animals, as I mentioned, included chocolate, cheesecake and bacon. This, the authors exclusively label a “high fat diet” as if that’s the only defining feature of it. Unfortunately, this is standard operating procedure in these studies. The headlines and media summaries run with this “high fat” premise, and the vast majority of the unknowing public eats up the distortion (pardon the pun).

But back to the original issue: how to get the junk food monkey off your back. Early backsliding, as our good reader described, isn’t uncommon, and it definitely isn’t reason to get discouraged. The worse your diet was before, the more time and commitment it will take to make all the changes (actually, all the gene reprogramming) and, moreover, make them stick. You’ll be undoing both behavioral and biochemical patterns. Your body can and will regain homeostasis, and your hormones and neurotransmitters will recalibrate themselves.

The best thing you can do to make the transition easier on yourself is to stick to your guns when it comes to diet (possibly why some people find it easier to give up sugar/grain carbs cold turkey) and take top-notch care of yourself otherwise. It can be tempting to tackle one thing at a time in taking on a Primal lifestyle (e.g. first the diet, then add exercise, then go to bed earlier for more sleep and finally work on decreasing stress). If you’re really having trouble getting over the sugar/carb hump, that kind of pure sequential approach might not be the best choice for you. In truth, all the lifestyle elements influence physiological balance. Think about improving your lifestyle on other fronts first and/or while you simultaneously switch over your diet. Exercise, in particular, has been shown to both encourage dopamine release and increase dopamine receptors. Of course, it’s important to do the right types and amounts.

Finally, once you’ve hit your groove, I’d suggest staying the course. You might think a short-term break from the Primal diet might not have an impact, but for some people (especially early on in the transition) even a brief interlude (e.g. holiday weekend) is enough to derail the train. As much as we do talk about the 80/20 Rule, try to keep your eating as Primal as possible during this time. Resist momentary temptation, and you might save yourself a week’s worth of efforts regaining lost ground. Keep Primal snacks handy to get you through moments of temptation. Maybe have an extra piece of turkey rather than dessert!

Thanks, everybody, for your questions and comments. Let me know what you think about this week’s Dear Mark, and keep those questions coming!

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60 Comments on "Dear Mark: Your Brain on Junk Food"

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bobbylight
bobbylight
6 years 10 months ago
This is a great post. Honestly, if unhealthy foods weren’t addicting, then why is it so hard for people that are very unhealthy to quit them. Do you think that a 400 pound man feels good walking around? No, of course not. Do you think that he wishes he was skinny? Yes, for sure. So if bad foods weren’t addictive, then he would just change his diet and do it. Instead he walks around extremely uncomfortable, most likely gets dirty looks everywhere he goes, and knows that he will die earlier because of his weight…yet he does not do anything… Read more »
stephanie vincent
6 years 10 months ago

my father struggled with addictions with sex, hard drugs, ciggerattes, caffience and food. And he told me that food was by far the hardest!

WD
WD
6 years 10 months ago

Having caffeine can seem a little like defiance, so I catch your meaning.

dennis
dennis
6 years 10 months ago
The only thing I find troubling, is that lack of will power that happens to everyone from time to time and then is classified as a addiction. I have come to the understanding with myself just of late, and probably as I am getting older, there are just some things that I don’t, or my body doesn’t need for that matter. In my search for losing weight and “Staying Healthy,” I have drank so much diet soda that I am sure that I qualify as a lab rat and probably should be receiving a check for all the work that… Read more »
Agi
Agi
6 years 9 months ago
Don’t worry. The big food lobby is too powerful in Washington for any taxes to be levied against them. I don’t know enough about brain chemistry to argue whether “addiction” is the correct term (maybe dependence?) I can say from personal experience that I rarely overeat foods that are not filled with grains or sugar. I can effectively use whatever senses detect fullness and control portions easily. With refined carbs, sugars, and starches, somehow I can never have enough…my body doesn’t tell me to stop until I am bursting at the seams. Obviously we are intelligent human beings and can… Read more »
Michael
Michael
6 years 10 months ago

I am about three weeks into adhering to the Primal Blueprint. I did fall off the wagon last night. Pizza. Unbelievably, I had the worst gut wrenching stomach ache I have had in year’s for about an hour after eating. That will definitely make me think twice about falling off the wagon, again.

WD
WD
6 years 10 months ago

I used to be like that with the occasional bump, now with my bi-weekly 24 hour fasts a sharp insulin spike barely phases me.
Of course I have never been prone to pain or discomfort of any sort, I’d probably survive well in a NoKor torture chamber with nat’al secrets!

stephanie vincent
6 years 10 months ago
I know that “food” is my addiction. At my highest weight I was 420lbs and had a gastric bypass surgery. However I have never truly felt free from this addiction untill I deciding to cut out grains and sugar from my diet. I feel a kind of FREEDOM I didn’t know was possible. I am ENJOYING food and EXERSIZE. One of the most astonishing transitions for me is with my tastebuds. I am enjoying the natural taste of veggies in a way i have never before. I don’t even need to cover them with sauces or butter! Its like cutting… Read more »
dave, RN
dave, RN
6 years 10 months ago

My apple cart was upset a couple of days ago when I read that Jim Fixx died of a heart attach while running (knew that). What I didn’t know was that Winston Churchill, who was overweight, drank too much and smoked cigars, died at 91. Clearly Winston was not eating paleo and was certainly “off the wagon”. I wonder what’s up with his longevity? Ishe just an outlier?

Icarus
Icarus
6 years 10 months ago

Well, most people who live to old age have the same terrible eating/smoking/drinking habits as everyone else; they’re just lucky enough to outlast them.

I’m not surprised that a runner died of a heart attack; I wouldn’t say running is bad for you, per se, but I have my doubts about the supposed protective effects of this kind of exercise (Mark would call it chronic cardio) for the heart and other tissues.

Indiscreet
Indiscreet
6 years 10 months ago
Jim Fixx had a history of heart disease in his family. He also didn’t eat very healthily, and fact was he dropped dead during a run on a very hot day when most sensible people would have stayed indoors. Harsh as it sounds, he had it coming. People like Winston Churchill (who also suffered from depression) just beat the odds. My grandmother smoked heavily and died at 86 and I’m sure there are many examples of others who live long lives despite unhealthy habits. However, my grandmother wasn’t fat – she’d been active in her youth, had a great sense… Read more »
dave, RN
dave, RN
6 years 10 months ago

Oh, and it’s a good thing that dark chocolate isn’t really junk food, if you eat the right kind. Just buy some pure 100% cacao, Melt it, put in a little coconut oil, sweeten it some with Stevia and you have a chocolate fix that’s good for you.

TXCHLInstructor
6 years 10 months ago

Part of the explanation for why it is hard to stay the course is the non-stop 24/7 barrage of nutritional disinformation we are subjected to by all of the mainstream media.

Another part of the problem is that the food industry has done a LOT of research into how to make food hyper-palatable and addictive, as documented in Kessler’s book, The End of Overeating http://sn.im/nomoreovereating

I consider myself fortunate to be sufficiently gluten-sensitive that eating grain-based foods for two or three days causes me to have severe arthritis, so I have a powerful incentive not to do that.

Brian Fitness
Brian Fitness
6 years 10 months ago
Mark, What’s your thoughts on fruit? I feel as a hardgainer & someone who has a skinny genetic, I need some form of clean & “grokie” carb such as sweet potato or fruit to “fill me out” as I get very thin when I cut out carbs.. Plus my energy runs very low.. Is Fruit going to make me fat & provide the same insulin spike processed sweets would.. I don’t need to lose weight, & not necessarily looking to bulk, but I get very gaunt & “sickly looking” when I cut out carbs.. Seems I can’t eat enough protein… Read more »
Grok
6 years 10 months ago

You might be an ectomorph who can handle or requires a higher carb ratio. I’d eat them. Spread it out.

Be smart about it. Limit fruit at the same time as fatty foods. Don’t stuff bananas & coconut oil in your blender. You will spike insulin and get fat with practices like that.

Apples, berries, citrus 🙂

Icarus
Icarus
6 years 10 months ago
If the above suggestions don’t work, you could also try incorporating a good amount of milk into your diet – provided you’re not lactose intolerant or allergic to milk proteins. Milk has a fair amount of sugar, but also a lot of fat and protein, which (according to Gary Taubes in GCBC) will moderate insulin response. This is probably why ice cream has a fairly low GI despite being quite sugary. Also, milk naturally has growth hormones in it, being that it’s intended for growing calves, and that will probably help you to keep from looking so gaunt, but you… Read more »
Del Mar Mel
Del Mar Mel
6 years 10 months ago
Hi Mark! I’m a newbie here as of this weekend. Just got the book and am crusing thru the blog and forum. We just had a discussion about sugar cravings in the forum this morn. I’m coming from dabbling in a lot of raw foods the last few years but knowing my body needs more protein. One of my best lessons from raw foods is the green smoothie; water, a huge handful of leafy greens, a cup of berries and a good protein powder. I swear it has been the most powerful tool for smashing junk food cravings. I think… Read more »
Grok
6 years 10 months ago

Great post. Wish I’d had a few more like this when I was making the transition.

I recommend to people now to first ditch the grains. Since it makes up the bulk of most diets this is rough for people. “What do I eat” comes into play.

After grains… then go all-in. I found it extremely counterproductive to hang onto a few seemly harmless things.

Ditch the Sweetness!

I wrote a little about both transition and sweetness last week on my site.

Robert M.
Robert M.
6 years 10 months ago
Brian Fitness: Glucose is only really dangerous in people who are insulin resistant (i.e. pre-diabetic), but that statement probably describes half the American population at large (pun intended). If you are a skinny hard-gainer, then you are probably quite insulin sensitive. Now fruit is mostly Fructose, and fructose is toxic for the liver in large quantities. Soda pop is far worse than physical fruit (i.e. 1 can of pop is about 3 apples worth). The liver treats fructose in a similar fashion to ethanol, and fructose in humans gets converted to fat ASAP. That fat tends to deposit around the… Read more »
dave, RN
dave, RN
6 years 10 months ago

Hmmm… I’m a skinney hardgainer and was also pre-diabetic with a 2 hour glucose tolerance of 198. I dropped that to 100 within 4 months of going paleo, so I limit fruit to some berries, usually a handful of strawberries or blueberries once a day. I did carry 30 extra but well hidden pounds in my abdomen that I got ride of.
So it’s apparent I’m not insulin sensitive given my blood sugar history. Do I just need more protein?

Bnjmn
Bnjmn
6 years 10 months ago

sweet potatoes are loaded with nutriets and are strongly anti-inflammatory:
http://www.nutritiondata.com/facts/vegetables-and-vegetable-products/2667/2

lady_daraine
lady_daraine
6 years 10 months ago
I agree there is a difference between sugar addiction and loss of self control, but there are studies specifically for that (albeit on animals) which prove that sugar is an addiction for some mammals, and possibly for humans. I tell you right now, I would let them scan my brain to see if I have that problem, because my lack of control seems to follow a pretty specific pattern – one I am still struggling to break. Here’s a link: http://www.princeton.edu/main/news/archive/S22/88/56G31/index.xml?section=topstories And I saw a news article the other day (can’t remember the source but it was online) comparing a… Read more »
Hiit Mama - Meredith
6 years 10 months ago
I’ve just blogged about this myself. First, the sugary foods that mess with opiate receptors and dopamine alter brain chemistry in a host of other ways as well. The Food Cure by Julia Ross is a good read on this. I know that for myself, I never actually serve myself junk food. Rather I get it in slips and quick tastes from my husband’s and son’s plates (the discussion about why they are eating these foods won’t happen here!). I convince myself that these little tastes are nothing – but they are a big something. They are the impetus that… Read more »
Osita007
Osita007
6 years 10 months ago

Hmmm…what’s wrong with bacon & sausage?

As someone else pointed out – dark chocolate, or as I do – 100% cacao I cook down with a little cream, butter & throw in some raw coconut & a smidge, just a smidge of pure maple syrup…now that after dinner with a glass of red wine…what’s wrong with that?

Icarus
Icarus
6 years 10 months ago
That’s what I was wondering. Nothing wrong with bacon, sausage, or dark/bittersweet chocolate, for that matter. If the bacon is nitrite-free, especially, which isn’t that hard to find these days. Although, the study did bring up one of my personal pet peeves: ultra-sugary/starchy foods being described as “fatty” and nothing else. I love reading articles that describe fatty foods as being bad for you, while being accompanied by pictures of french fries, donuts, and chocolate cake. Oh yeah, and the fat in question is always vegetable oils – the main frying fat these days – which I thought CW says… Read more »
Osita007
Osita007
6 years 10 months ago

By the way – I wonder if vegans chowing on broccoli dull their ‘rare steak’ centers….. 🙂

Del Mar Mel
Del Mar Mel
6 years 10 months ago
Re: Jim Fixx, he died of a heart attack @ age 52 after a run. Their was a lot of heart disease in his family. His father had a heart attack at age 35 and died of a heart attack at age 42. It’s possible that Jim Fixx actually improved his length of life by running. I have no idea what his diet was like. Re: exercise, yes I run and I do believe I’m healthier than any of my sedentary friends. I think Mark’s approach makes a lot of sense because it is very functional. I’ve been around some… Read more »
Courtney
6 years 10 months ago

I love this post because there are so many people who can relate to this addiction. But like most addiction you never start by eating the whole cake. It is a slow process. I think one solution can be to realize you have this addiction so you can change it. Knowing is half the battle.

Del Mar Mel
Del Mar Mel
6 years 10 months ago

It is a fascinating article and post. I know that in trying to kick bad habits in the past it is just best for me to skip it entirely. No “I’ll just have a bite”… I have no doubt that there are all kinds of devious schemes and ingredients to get us hooked on stuff. I just try to make it easier on myself by knowing that if it didn’t just arrive out of the earth it can’t really be good for me. At the least, you can assume anything the men in labs created will give you internal whiplash.

peter
peter
6 years 10 months ago
Mark, i think you might have placed too much emphasis on the connection between junk food and dopamine. Sure, junk food can cause a release of dopamine, but so can calorie-free food and beverages, such as black coffee, and as mentioned, exercise. I think, and from the extensive research i’ve read on this subject, it is not dopamine that causes people to crave junk food, but serotonin. When people eat junk food, it stimulates the release of serotonin, which has a calming and feel-good effect, whereas dopamine generally makes people more alert and sometimes anxious. Hence the reason people are… Read more »
Marshall
Marshall
6 years 10 months ago
Don’t eat fast food or grains or high starch foods monday through thursday. You’ll feel kind of crappy by thursday but hang in there. Don’t eat breakfast on friday. Go out and binge hard on fast food on friday afternoon for lunch. Lot’s of bread, large fries, large strawberry shake. Get a desert if you want. Then see how you feel. You should feel foggy headed, almost stoned, maybe even slightly shaky. See how this afffects the rest of your day. This will give you a good indication of how your body responds to junk food (insulin spikes). It is… Read more »
Icarus
Icarus
6 years 10 months ago
I’ve got to say, as someone who survived a freshman meal plan by eating bunless cheeseburgers, oven-baked (but not fried – hard when you’re in New Orleans!) chicken, milk, cottage cheese, and salads, avoiding junk food is terribly, terribly hard when it’s placed in front of you all the time. Try avoiding the smell of free (sort of) pepperoni pizza after nearly twenty years of gorging on the stuff. But I find that now, not being forced to eat university-provided food, it’s not really very difficult at all. For me, I think the biggest point with kicking junk food (specifically… Read more »
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[…] Ditch the Treat Meal Part II – The brain on junk food. […]

dave, RN
dave, RN
6 years 10 months ago

I guess I’m one of those genetically lucky ones too. I don’t drink the grocery store stuff, but I can get raw unpasturized cow and goat milk. I have it poured over berries every night with some protein powder mixed in. Tasty!

Icarus
Icarus
6 years 10 months ago

Yup. I love raw goat milk, but as for cow’s milk there are no raw dairies in my area so I settle for pasteurized (but non-homogenized, so the cream still floats), grass-fed milk. Mmmm.

Grok
6 years 10 months ago

Goat milk is the best!

Not necessarily one of the lucky ones. People don’t have as many problems with raw, because lactase enzymes help with the lactose. Pasteurizing basically turns milk into a poison.

If I couldn’t do raw, I would no longer do dairy at all.

Lacey
Lacey
6 years 10 months ago

I used to eat way too much sugar. I found that one thing that helps me is supplementing with large doses of GTF Chromium, which I’ve found my body needs anyway. Chromium + high insulin = a headache. Therefore, chromium + too much sugar/carbs = headache. It’s a lot easier to avoid the sweets when you know they will give you a pounding headache.

I’m sure it would be optimal not to have to use such self-trickery as a fallback, but it does help me. It might help some other sugar addicts out there.

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Samantha West
Samantha West
6 years 9 months ago

One thing I think that stops some people from going primal successfully is the withdrawl one goes through when you stop eating sugars. For me it lasted 3 days and I was deathly ill. When I emerged from my headaches and chills on the 4th day, my mind and body felt great. Now I am addicted to feelikng good so I don’t eat sugar or starches.

Alan Carr
6 years 1 month ago
I still vividly recall my first experience going off the wagon from a low to zero carb stint. Was in the local equivalent to Walmart’s car park. My wife hopped into the car grinning, waving KFC French fries under my nose. I got ‘revenge’ by swiping a large bunch and munching on em. Bad idea, really bad idea… By the time we had the engine started, seat belts on and so on, I couldn’t drive. Just felt sooo sleepy, spaced out and slightly sick. Had to wait for a good 10 minutes, much of it spent with me trying to… Read more »
craig morris
craig morris
6 years 1 month ago

When I first went off sugar/refined carbs I found that my heart rate went down by about 10 beats per minute when exercizing. Has anyone else experienced this?

MARK RIFFEE
MARK RIFFEE
6 years 3 days ago

My only problem continues to be popcorn, that wonderful greasy saltiness, i don’t give a damn what you say its the snack of the gods. So I treat twice a month and only about 2 cups at a time, late at night when it’s really bad for me.

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Donnersberg
Donnersberg
5 years 5 months ago
It took me 6 good months to be completely over sugar cravings. I slipped up a few times and binged down 2 days worth of pastries. After about 6 months I didn’t slip up again and only needed fruit to satisfy the sugar craving. It’s been a year now and I could take the fruit or leave it. Although raw honey has many health benefits…I don’t ‘need’ it anymore either to get a sugar fix. No more chocolate (that was a pure mineral deficiency that I fixed taking Azomite red clay). I found that when I started taking the mineral… Read more »
Shary
Shary
4 years 3 months ago
You kick the habit by eliminating ALL sweets from your diet, and I do mean ALL. Even fresh whole fruit should be avoided for a while. Yep, you will crave sweets like crazy, but it usually only lasts a few days. Stay busy, keep your mind on other things, and watch what you put in your mouth. As a reformed sugar junkie who was headed down the road toward Type 2 Diabetes, I know what I’m talking about. It took me less than a week to lose the craving for sweets, but it took over a year to be able… Read more »
Linda
Linda
5 years 2 months ago

I know this is an old post but if your having trouble with craving carbs you absolutely must read “Lights Out, sleep, sugar and survival” – carb switch turned off! Works great for most of the year – summer was harder but still manageable.

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4 years 1 month ago

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Brenda
Brenda
3 years 5 months ago
My Lord, can I relate to this. I was a HUGE junk food junkie, especially when I was on birth control pills. My insatiable appetite for sugar and carbs and fat just never went away. Especially since I have food allergies and it’s said that the brain can get addicted to what it is allergic to, I was in pure addictive helljoy. I’d eat until I was full to bursting and then soon enough I’d need another sugar fix. I’d try to come off all junk food but could never pass day 3. There was some strange wall around day… Read more »
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