10. Why Food Restriction Backfires
Welcome to episode 10 of the Mindful Weight Loss Podcast. I'm stoked to get to 10 episodes and I'm so glad to see so many of you tuning in and listening over the past ten weeks, so thank you so much for hanging out with me.
Today I am talking about why food restriction backfires and to explain that I'm also going to talk about dopamine which a really amazing neurochemical that really drives so much of our behavior. Learning about dopamine has been an incredible experience for me and I want to give a shout out to my favorite book on the subject. It's called The Molecule of More: How a Single Chemical in Your Brain Drives Love, Sex, and Creativity—and Will Determine the Fate of the Human Race and it is by Daniel Z. Lieberman and Michael E. Long. And I know the title is dramatic, but both dopamine and the book totally deserve it.
Like I said, dopamine drives so much in our lives, and the authors do a fantastic job making the science engaging and understandable and I can't say enough good things about this book, and I hope I do a good job relaying some of that information here to you today. I do want to preface this by saying however that I'm definitely simplifying that information, putting my own spin on things and drawing some of my own conclusions based on the information provided.
So first, the basics. Though dopamine is highly associated pleasure, it's not the pleasure molecule, it's actually the anticipation molecule. Its function is to motivate you towards action, to create progress, and though it is often associated with and linked to satisfaction and pleasure, that is not it's function. There are a whole host of other chemicals like serotonin and oxytocin that generate feelings of satisfaction or pleasure. So in a sense you can say that Dopamine is never satisfied. Once you get what you want, dopamine is onto the next thing, whether that's more of what you just got or something else entirely, and you have to somewhat consciously deactivate dopamine and get those other neurochemicals firing in order to experience satisfaction.
Now, key to what we're talking about today, dopamine is activated when we consider what is out there and beyond our control, vs what is right here, in our immediate vicinity and within our control. And that's because the function of dopamine is survival. It wants 3 main things: food, sex, and domination over your environment.
And yes, you get a reward when you get these things, and because food is so prevalent for most of us now, its a a win that's all too easy for us to grab.
Another crucial thing to know about dopamine is that it has two different circuits. The first is the wanting circuit. This circuit is pretty simple and impulsive. It's kind of like how we stereotype the caveman. See food, want food. And it doesn't consider the long-term consequences. So this is the circuit that many of us are dealing with when we have food cravings. We see the food and we want the food regardless of the fact that we want to lose weight.
The second circuit I like to think of as the strategy circuit. This circuit is responsible for our ability to strategize and plan in pursuit of a longer term goal like losing weight. This circuit is really responsible for progress and this is the one that seeks domination over the environment. Translated to our times today, this is the circuit responsible for success.
And what's so intriguing about this and what the authors make a point to say is that when we endeavor to do something like lose weight, we are really learning to use one dopamine circuit against the other. We are using that strategic circuit against the wanting circuit. And I find this really cool because it just goes to show how powerful dopamine is, that perhaps the only thing that can stand up to dopamine is dopamine.
So what does dopamine have to do with food restriction? Well, if dopamine is concerned with what's out there and beyond your control, you are going to make food more attractive and appealing as far as dopamine is concerned when you place it out of your reach.
As the authors state, "passion deferred is passion sustained". So if you want something, like food or sex, and you tell yourself that it's off-limits, that it's bad, it literally does make you want it all the more. The authors also state that "dopamine tends to shut down once fantasy becomes reality" and so if the foods you want are always out there in fantasy land, you're always perpetuating the desire for them. If those foods are never a reality, you never give dopamine the chance to get them and shut down.
Now I'm sure some of you are going to call shenanigans on this and say, no, that's not true because I cave in and I have those off limit foods and even after I have them I still want them. In fact I want more. I can't get my dopamine to shut down, I can't get to satisfied. So is my dopamine broken or what?
And my answer to that is no. Dopamine is working exactly as it should and that there is more to be understood about what's going on here.
Now I have spoken a few times in past episodes about dopamine's reward prediction error and that plays a part here, so let me review that again here just briefly.
Dopamine is activated when we anticipate a reward, and when you get the reward and it meets your expectations, you get another shot of dopamine along with those the pleasure chemicals that help you feel satisfied. Conversely, when you get the reward and it doesn't meet your expectations, dopamine shuts down and you feel let down. And when you get the reward and it surpasses your expectations you get a big hit of dopamine and a big surge of pleasure along with it.
So back in the cave man days, you see a berry bush and you find some good-tasting berries as you expect, so your satisfied. And if you see a berry bush and you find all the berries taste bad - maybe they are diseased or something, you're disappointed. And if you see a berry bush and find that it's just prolific with tons of the best tasting fruit ever, you are thrilled.
And what's happening here with that second shot of dopamine is it's signaling to your brain to pay attention or not. It's encoding a memory into your brain using emotion. Dopamine fires when you see the first berry bush because it meets your needs and it would be a good idea to remember where that berry bush is. Conversely dopamine shuts down when the second berry bush doesn't meet those needs. You don't want to remember where the diseased berries are. And then dopamine really lights up for that third berry bush because it surpassed your needs and it would be a great idea to remember where that berry bush is.
So this reward prediction error is really useful, except that many of us have come to expect too much from food, so much so, that most of the time, food does not end up being a satisfying experience for us.
And this works in conjunction with food restriction to create a vicious cycle that I'm sure many of you have experienced.
You label a food as bad or unhealthy and tell yourself that it's off limits. But then something reminds you of that food and dopamine lights up. It wants that easy reward. But like most people, you just use willpower and tell yourself no. You resist your desire, but what you resist persists because resisting does nothing to quell dopamine. And so the desire is perpetuated.
And so here's the important part. When you finally break down and have the food two things happen. 1. You don't tune into those satisfaction chemicals and really experience the pleasure of eating it. Why, because you're feeling guilty and berating yourself. You feel bad about eating it. So really this is not a welcome, relaxing experience when you want to be in the moment. You just want to hurry up and get rid of the urge that dopamine is giving you.
The second thing that happens is that your reward prediction error kicks in, but in a way that does not yield satisfaction. And that's because you have given this food too much power, you've made it too special. Think about it. Why is the food off-limits in the first place? It's not just because it's bad or unhealthy, it's that it's bad and unhealthy AND that you desire it too much. You most likely feel that you can't control yourself around that food, that you can't simply enjoy a bite. And this is a self-fullfilling prophesy because yes, if you have really high expectations about the food. If you think that it's so good that you can't stop control yourself around it, that's a high expectation that is most likely not going to be satisfied when you actually eat it. That food won't live up to that high expectation, so dopamine won't fire again to signal your satisfaction chemicals and you are going to feel let down and empty and dopamine is still going to be looking for a reward and it's going to prompt you to seek out more - either more of the same food or some other food that it thinks will satisfy.
That in itself can be it's own vicious cycle, but I hope you're seeing the larger vicious cycle that's happening here.
You have really high expectations about a food. So you tell yourself it's off-limits. That makes you want it more but when you actually have it you don't experience satisfaction from it, because your expectations are too high and because you feel guilty about it.
And because you are unable to really experience the food, you rob yourself of the very experience that might correct your inaccurate expectations. And because your experience with the food isn't rewarding you are driven to consume more. And you have just created evidence to support your belief that you can't control yourself around this food and it should be off limits.
I really hope you have an aha here because understanding this vicious cycle is necessary in order to get out of it. And once you can see it clearly, you see that you have only one option, and it's the opposite of what you've been trying to do. You have to allow yourself to have the food AND you have to allow yourself to experience it fully. You can't be eating it while you think about how bad you are for eating it or how unhealthy it is or how it's going to push the scale up the next day or how you'll just fix it by restricting more later. You need to pay attention and turn on those satisfaction chemicals.
And when you do pay attention you allow yourself to correct the exaggerated expectation that started this whole thing. You allow yourself to see that this food is really just an 8 out of 10 and not a 15 out of 10. And the more you allow yourself to have the food and really pay attention, the more evidence you create to affirm that yes this is just an 8 out of 10 experience and after a while you're not even sure what all the fuss was about.
Except that you do know because you understand how dopamine functions in your brain. You understand that your exaggerated expectations and restriction worked in conjunction to perpetuate your desire and disallow you any evidence to correct those expectations.
So how do you apply this in your own life? Make a plan to eat one of your own trigger foods - a food that you believe you need to restrict. And ask yourself how much satisfaction you think this food will give you. Write down the thoughts you tend to have about that food. Do you love it? Is it orgasmic?
And then sit down with it mindfully. Give yourself enough time with it, get rid of any distractions, and fully experience it. Activate all of your senses and ask yourself how much satisfaction and pleasure it really gives you. Rank each bite on a 1-10 scale. And really allow that experience. Allow the pleasure and allow any disappointment that might show up too.
And do that again and again until you come to understand that food can never be a 15 on a 1-10 scale; until you understand that food is just food and there is only so much pleasure it can really give you; until your expectations about the food actually match the satisfaction it delivers.
It's a wonderful experience when your expectations and the reality of food actually match. It's a wonderful experience to be satisfied by what you eat and not feel compelled in spite of yourself to consume more. And that experience is absolutely within your reach. But that experience will remain elusive if you keep certain foods out of your reach.