We all have one. At least one. A little darling. A best friend. A helper, a life raft. An entrenched habit that's so comfortable, it feels like a hug or an island of calm. A fix.
A fix starts simply enough. You think about doing something that you like to do—drink a mojito or check your iPhone—and that thought lights up an entire dopamine-driven reward pathway in your brain. You try, but you just can't get that urge out of your head. You give in. And then, as soon as you satisfy the raging hunger, bingo: You feel another rush. Your brain says, "Yeah! This is amazing. I want more." You need your fix. So why are you always hungry for more?
This Is Your Brain On Food
Most of the time, this neurological process is a good thing. This same reward system drives us to learn, to create, to innovate, to pursue our goals. But as a medical doctor specializing in metabolism and weight management, I've seen firsthand how the rush of dopamine—a brain chemical that makes us feel a brief burst of pleasure and satisfaction—cuts both ways. (Learn more about dopamine.) That healthy high you get from, say, a run in the park occupies the same pathways as, and can easily become confused with, the dopamine hit from a snort of cocaine or a puff of a cigarette.
Why You Can't Eat Just One
See if this sounds familiar: Stay up too late; get rotten sleep. Feel like hell in the morning. Reach for sugary, caffeinated foods to stay awake. Seek the numbing of just one more candy, chip, or cookie. Have a glass—or three—of wine at dinner.
Without fully realizing it, many people create a life of continuous opportunities to "dope up" in front of the computer and fridge and on the couch. They are driven to repeatedly score hits of what I call False Fixes—anything (like food) that leads to short-term reward in association with self-destructive behavior, followed by feelings of guilt, shame, and defeat. (Learn the warning signs of overeating in How to Prevent Your Next Binge.)
In contrast, Healthy Fixes are productive, positive habits associated with feelings of pride, happiness, and achievement: enjoying delicious whole foods; gardening on a sunny day; walking with your best friend. When False Fixes prevail, Healthy Fixes are tossed aside, you set up bingeing rituals—and voila, you're ensnared in an endless, vicious, False Fix-seeking cycle.
The sad irony is, the more you feed the craving with False Fixes, the less satisfaction you feel—because each time you flood the brain with dopamine, the brain attempts to compensate by battening down the hatches, decreasing the total number of dopamine receptors to lessen the amount of dopamine absorbed.
In 2008, Nora Volkow, MD, director of the National Institute on Drug Abuse, published a study in which her team found that obese people who have fewer dopamine receptors also have less activity in their prefrontal cortex (PFC)—the grown-up, responsible part of your brain that gets you to work on time and brushes your teeth and pulls your hand back from the dessert tray. The PFC gets cut off from the action in the mesolimbic pathway, which reaches into brain areas associated with reward, pleasure, and addiction, as well as emotions and memory. It's a double whammy: You have to eat more to experience pleasure, plus you have a tougher time stopping once you do eat.
Seeking The Solution
Now before you throw your hands up in despair, I'm not saying that we can't outsmart our False Fixes. I did—I was once 50 pounds overweight—and I know that you can too. The solution relies on exactly the same brain mechanisms that got us into this mess. We will be looking for our fixes for the rest of our lives, but we have the ability to choose which fixes.