Mood, focus, energy levels and cravings can all affect your diet efforts. One thing is certain: high or low levels of neurotransmitters—chemical messengers that transmits nerve impulses across the cells—definitely have an impact.
Studies show the link between high-fat and high-sugar food and the increase in the activation of reward pathways in the brain, particularly, dopamine receptors, says Erin Macdonald, R.D.
Dopamine is a neurotransmitter that impacts energy, attention, and alertness. Next time you’re dragging during a mid afternoon meeting, you might blame your dopamine levels.
Dopamine Resistance
According to Macdonald, foods like cookies, chips, and French fries provide a feeling of euphoria. The more you eat them, the more you crave.
The same way that eating too much sugar may lead to insulin resistance—in which the body fails to lower blood sugar in spite of the over hormone production—some people may experience dopamine resistance, where the body has to produce more of this neurotransmitter to create an energized feeling.
Barry Sears, Ph.D., author of "The Zone Diet," explains that hormone resistance usually happens because the hormone does not bind to the receptor correctly, or because there is some type of disruption in the cell communication process to produce the proper response.
“I suspect dopamine resistance is similar to insulin resistance, but even more complex,” says Sears. He points out that the overall cellular inflammation—mainly caused by excess of saturated fats and omega-6 fatty acids—may disrupt the entire signaling mechanism, thus increasing other powerful hunger-inducing hormones.
Food Addiction. Really?
If one cookie used to satisfy your sugar cravings, now you may need two or more to get the same feeling of contentment. In addition, Macdonald says, there are many people who have fewer dopamine receptors in their brain, so they will need to eat more to get the equal rush.
Indeed, a study in American Journal of Clinical Nutrition where three energy-dense snacks foods (hazelnut, chocolate and potato chips) were consumed for 12 weeks showed that habitual consumption of these snacks results in a decrease in the sensory-specific satiety. This could lead to a higher intake to feel satisfied..
The Right Balance
Keep in mind that too little dopamine decreases energy levels, which makes you reach for quick pick-me-up food choices high in sugar and caffeine.
Dopamine is associated with motivation and alertness, so certain foods are better than others to include in your diet as a means to keep you focused and energized in the right way, says Shari Portnoy, MPH, RD, CFT.
Portnoy suggests that a trick to generate the adequate response is to add protein to a meal or snack; Foods rich in the amino-acid tyrosine also aids in the production of dopamine, such as chicken, legumes, avocado, low-fat dairy and fish.
In fact, a paper published in the journal Neuron shows protein, not sugar, activates the cells that keep us awake and burning calories.
Know How to Withdraw
When treating a dopamine resistant state, Macdonald advises to quit sugar right away. “Just like someone who wants to quit drugs, smoking, or alcohol, you can’t be successful if you try to slowly wean yourself off of it because your brain is constantly being ‘lit up’ every time you eat sugar,” she says.
Sears suggests following an anti-inflammatory diet rich in omega-3 fatty acids from fish and fish oils to increase the signal transmission as well as the levels of dopamine and dopamine receptors.
Having mini-meals about every three to four hours, including a source of protein, a small amount of whole grain and veggies and/or fruit, also will help keep sugar and neurotransmitter levels in control, adds Macdonald.
Check for Other Suspects
Notice that when dopamine gets out of whack, chances are other chemicals are affected as well. Jade Teta, ND, CSCS, author of the New Me Diet, recommends looking for these three neurotransmitters:
  • Having frequently “senior moments” even though you’re in your 30s? You may be running low in acetylcholine, which can make you crave for fat food. Eat more eggs, soybeans, and wheat germ. Pair this with vitamin C to support acetylcholine production like sweet peppers, kale, tomatoes and broccoli.
  • Feeling the blues in summer? Blame the serotonin unbalance. It is why you crave pasta, bread and starches. Even though low carbohydrate diets have proven to aid in weight loss, your diet still needs food high in the amino-acid tryptophan, which assists in this neurotransmitter production. Have some brown rice, and cottage cheese, sesame seeds, and peanuts.
  • Are you wired all the time? If you’re not able to relax, this may due to low gammaaminobutyric acid (GABA) levels. GABA helps you rest and wind down. If you feel like you have to eat at all time, or eat too fast and too much, look to increase this neurotransmitter by eating more egg yolks and whole wheat.

Marta Montenegro is an exercise physiologist, certified strength and conditioning coach and master trainer, who teaches as an adjunct professor at Florida International University. Marta has developed her own system of exercises used by professional athletes. Her personal website,, combines fitness, nutrition and health tips, exercise routines, recipes and the latest news to help you change your life but not your lifestyle. She was the founder of nationally awarded SOBeFiT magazine and the fitness DVD series Montenegro Method.
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