When writing for a website that focuses on the psychology of weight loss, the dopamine diet rises like the holy grail in Arthurian legend. A weight loss programme that promises great things whilst simultaneously making us happier is a veritable pot of gold at the end of a rainbow.
The celebrity chef, Tom Kerridge, appears to have had great success himself with the dopamine diet losing about 11 stone and a plethora of books are hitting the shelves promising what all diet books promise with the additional of antidepressant properties thrown in for good measure. But does it or can it work on either front, let alone both?
But first, what is Dopamine?
Dopamine is a neurotransmitter, responsible for affording the movement of signals between neurons in the brain very similar in many ways to that other ‘feel good chemical’ serotonin. Dopamine is usually associated with our reward centre; the activation of good thoughts and feelings when we achieve something such as finishing a run or even putting the last plate away after the washing up is complete. With so much being said it would be easy to begin to think that we understand dopamine but the picture remains unclear in many ways, such as does dopamine release during difficult or painful times and could dopamine even inhibit learning about aversive or potentially dangerous events? And you might have guessed that the scientists have been bringing out the lab rats and giving them electric shocks to find out. Those poor rats! An excellent article on some of the confusing elements, written by Phil Newton Ph.D. can be found here.
Those pesky scientists have also been hard at work looking at the role of dopamine in overweight people and comparing it to those maintaining a healthier weight. They have begun to suggest now that those amongst us who are more overweight may actually have somehow impaired dopamine pathways; pathways that have been inhibited by prolonged and repeated exposure to foods that most of us find delicious such as those with high sugar or fat content. This in turn leads us to seek greater ‘highs’ from our food as our reward pathways need more of a stimulus to get a kick. If these reward pathways are lacking in this way, then it is easy to see how low mood can result if our achievements and pleasure giving activities just aren’t doing it for us anymore. A quick caveat however: low mood and depression is very complex and this would only be part of the picture but it is part of the picture that we can influence so it might be unwise to dismiss.
Despite the fact that it might look like we are trying to throw a bucket of cold water onto an otherwise enjoyable party we do actually like dopamine here at Waetugo and most things that can give us a boost are usually to be embraced. So what is the diet then and can we eat more dopamine?
The blogosphere occasionally contradicts itself about what are the best ways to get dopamine from our food but a few sources we can be sure of include:
- Fruit especially apples, strawberries and watermelons but most fruits are pretty good.
- Vegetables especially beets, artichokes and broccoli but as with fruit many others are excellent.
- Almonds, walnuts in particular but other nuts do well too.
- Oily fish including mackerel and tuna
- Whites of eggs are particularly useful.
- Meat (unprocessed seems to be nearly always recommended).
Nothing too drastic there then! Writing this in the UK I would imagine many of us eat most of these foods quite regularly yet are still struggling with our weight, our mood or both. So it seems the diet will have a few other recommendations. And these include avoiding things like:
- Starchy foods
- Artificial sweeteners
Well, most effective diets require changes or sacrifices.
Dopamine formation requires building blocks from the food we eat. As serotonin is built from one of the amino acids in proteins called tryptophan so dopamine is built from one of its brothers called tyrosine. The recommended foods above are actually high in tyrosine not dopamine. Whilst our friends in the wider world of the internet are pointing out that we can eat for better mood by digesting the building blocks of neurotransmitters, it might be worth looking at how modern antidepressants work. Let us take the family of medicines known as SSRI’s. These are known for ‘boosting serotonin’ but that isn’t really what happens. No SSRI medicine boosts anything, they do not include serotonin in them and do not encourage us to make more serotonin. What they actually do is inhibit the synapses responsible for regulating serotonin movement in the four dopamine pathways in the brain – a little like putting a blindfold on a nightclub doorman so it easier for more of us to sneak past. So eating more amino acids and producing more neurotransmitters might simply be balanced out in the brain. However, a healthy diet remains essential for the production but don’t automatically assume that three steaks and six eggs will make you happier or thinner than one 6 oz sirloin and an egg white.