Dopamine: why "just one bite" doesn't work

The science on food addiction has now established that highly palatable foods (low-nutrient, high-calorie, intensely sweet, salty, and/or fatty foods - those that make up the majority of the Standard American Diet) produces the exact biochemical effects in the brain that are characteristic of substance abuse.

Junk food is ubiquitously available, legal, cheap, and socially accepted; therefore, it becomes the drug of choice for many of us.

The following are some characteristics of addiction to a substance or behavior:1

  • Compulsive use of the substance despite negative health and social consequences
  • Tolerance - over time, progressively greater amounts of the substance are needed to reach and maintain the “high”
  • Withdrawal symptoms (toxic hunger) when the substance is discontinued
  • Activation of reward pathways (including the dopamine system) in the brain

Many of us have had the experience of tasting a junk food or dessert, and then feeling the intense demand from our brain: “MORE!” We feel a complete lack of control, and our commitment to excellent health all of a sudden doesn’t matter. These feelings originate from the dopamine reward system – dopamine is a neurochemical that regulates motivation, pleasure, and reinforcement related to certain stimuli – such as food.  The amount of pleasure we derive from eating a food correlates with the amount of dopamine released in the brain.2

Cookies. Flickr: Rochelle, just rochelle

Obese individuals have a diminished number of dopamine receptors

Obese humans are known to have fewer dopamine receptors (called D2 receptors) compared to lean individuals –their reward response from food is not as sensitive and it is thought that they compensate by overeating.1,3

Overeating blunts the dopamine reward response, encouraging more overeating

Why do obese individuals have lower numbers of dopamine receptors? In substance abuse, over time the brain adapts by downregulating dopamine receptors. It turns out the same happens in overeating.4 A 2011 study revealed that women who had gained a significant amount of weight over a 6-month period reduced their dopamine system response to palatable food over that time period. Similar reductions in the reward response to palatable foods have been reported in women with bulimia nervosa. These results suggest that overeating diminishes the reward from palatable food, driving further overeating and future weight gain.5,7

Desire for highly palatable food is intensified in obese individuals and overeaters

Although actual dopamine reward is diminished in obese individuals compared to lean individuals, dopamine release in response to pictures of palatable food is actually enhanced.4,6

In summary, recent research suggests that overeating and obesity cause greater desire for palatable food, but diminished reward from consuming palatable food - resulting in a progressively worsening addiction.

Our level of susceptibility to addictive behaviors varies by genetic predisposition and emotional state. Nevertheless, highly palatable food has physiologically addictive properties that will make almost anyone experience a lack of control.  “Just one bite” doesn’t work because that single bite activates the dopamine reward system, causing the brain to demand more.  Willpower, logic, and common sense are no match for addictive drives. As with other addictions, recovery requires abstaining from the addictive substance. An alcoholic can’t have “just one drink” without grave risk of relapse. The same is true for food addicts.

Natural plant foods are not as intensely sweet, salty, or fatty as the processed junk foods that are purposely engineered to excite our reward systems.  Eating whole, natural foods provides enjoyment of taste without activating addictive drives.  

Be vigilant this holiday season – stick to the foods that nourish you, and steer clear of any foods that cause you to lose control.   

Note: Addictive drives are powerful. If you are suffering from food addiction, make sure you read Eat to Live and take advantage of our supportive Member Center at DrFuhrman.comSupport from others can help you stay on track with your health goals and prevent relapse.



1.         Taylor VH, Curtis CM, Davis C: The obesity epidemic: the role of addiction. CMAJ 2010;182:327-328.

2.         Small DM, Jones-Gotman M, Dagher A: Feeding-induced dopamine release in dorsal striatum correlates with meal pleasantness ratings in healthy human volunteers. Neuroimage 2003;19:1709-1715.

3.         Volkow ND, Wang GJ, Telang F, et al: Low dopamine striatal D2 receptors are associated with prefrontal metabolism in obese subjects: possible contributing factors. Neuroimage 2008;42:1537-1543.

4.         Gearhardt AN, Yokum S, Orr PT, et al: Neural correlates of food addiction. Arch Gen Psychiatry 2011;68:808-816.

5.         Stice E, Yokum S, Blum K, et al: Weight gain is associated with reduced striatal response to palatable food. J Neurosci 2010;30:13105-13109.

6.         Stoeckel LE, Weller RE, Cook EW, 3rd, et al: Widespread reward-system activation in obese women in response to pictures of high-calorie foods. Neuroimage 2008;41:636-647.

7.         Bohon C, Stice E: Reward abnormalities among women with full and subthreshold bulimia nervosa: a functional magnetic resonance imaging study. Int J Eat Disord 2011;44:585-595.

Food bullies

At Dr. Fuhrman's Weekend Immersion in Princeton, New Jersey last month, sharing scrumptious meals together with others was a highlight for me. That’s when I had the awesome opportunity to step away from my computer screen and interact with so many wonderful people from all over the country! I loved listening to the heartbeat of what’s happening in the day-to-day lives of those who’ve committed to a lifetime of eating for health, and especially those who were making the commitment to eat for health over the holidays. 

Unfortunately, pushy in-laws and overbearing relatives and friends were a topic of discussion for many in overcoming obstacles during the upcoming holidays.

Hmmm, shall I be so bold to call these pushy relatives and friends, “Food bullies?”

Bullies have a strong need to control and dominate, and usually envy and resentment are at the root of their behaviors. 

If a food bully’s intended target exhibits a “defeated attitude” in response to the pushiness, then the bullying is likely to continue. 

However, as in most all cases with bona fide bullies, if the intended target responds with a clear attitude of self-confidence and a strong boundary line, the bully’s attempt to dominate will quickly diminish. 


Recently I asked Dr. Fuhrman about food bullies, and the following was his response:


"One has to tell relatives and friends now, not later at the dinner table, that he/she is on a special, healthy diet prescribed by Dr. Fuhrman to lose weight and prevent cancer so don’t be offended that conventional foods will not be eaten at the holiday get-togethers. 

Giving into food bullies is just another dysfunctional excuse to continue in food addiction. The inability to speak one’s feelings for fear of a reprimand is also toxic and may be cancer causing. By not addressing it, and by not taking a stand with pushy relatives and friends, giving into food bullies is ill-will and selfish; because one is not giving loved ones a chance to learn what they should be considering for their lives also; whether they do it or not."  


How about you? Do you have a tangible plan of action to deal with the food bullies in your life this holiday season?


Related post:

Is pleasing Grandma ruining your health?







image credit:  flickr by Dinner Series

New research to investigate the power of a high-nutrient diet

by Jerry Deutsch, President, Nutritional Research Project

The Nutritional Research Project and Joel Fuhrman, MD are teaming up with top researchers throughout the US to show that chronic disease can be prevented and reversed with the Eat to Live (nutritarian) lifestyle!

We want you to be among the first to know about this groundbreaking research. Rather than focusing on drugs as most researchers are doing, we are examining the power of a high nutrient density diet to reverse obesity, heart disease and cancer! 

These studies are supported by people like you who are interested in the benefits of a healthful lifestyle and want to be part of the solution to most, if not all, of our planetary problems.  The Nutritional Research Project of the National Health Association is the oldest health promoting 501(c)3 nonprofit in the United States, providing healthy lifestyle education and research for over 60 years!  We are thrilled to be working with Dr. Fuhrman to pursue his and your research interests.

The Vitamix Company has given us a wonderful challenge.  Donate today and you will be have a chance to win a reconditioned Vitamix.  These come with the full Vitamix 7 year guarantee.  Every $10 you donate gets you one entry ($100 = 10 entries).  Vitamix will be giving away one vitamix for every $1000 in donations to the NRP through December 31, 2011.   Click here to donate. 


The day after this year's Immersion in Princeton, N.J., Dr. Fuhrman came to North Carolina to meet with researchers from The University of North Carolina and the Director of the Nutrition Research Institute (founded by David Murdoch and located in Kannapolis, North Carolina).  Dr. Fuhrman, the NRP and the NRI have agreed to collaborate on a 2-year obesity study, to discover how successful his high nutrient diet will be when taught to overweight subjects. Although most diets will produce weight loss initially, weight loss is typically not sustained beyond about 6 months.  If we can demonstrate 2 years of statistically significant results we should be on CNN and in the NY Times and Wall Street Journal! 

Please help us bring this study to the next level with a small (or large) donation. Every donation of any size will help.

DHA Study

Our DHA study has received approval from the University of San Diego Institutional Review Board and we will begin recruiting subjects soon.  We are determining blood levels of omega-3 fatty acids (EPA and DHA) in vegans and examining associations with dietary intake.  Perhaps you can help us get the word out?  We need at least 250 subjects who have been vegan for at least 3 years and have not supplemented with DHA during the last 3 years. 

To learn more, read a summary of the study and sign up for email updates. Please support this study with a small (or large) donation


Our Cardiovascular study will be in conjunction with the University of Colorado.  Dr. Fuhrman will be working with cardiologists at the University hospital.  Dr. Fuhrman's nutritional protocol will be utilized with serious cardiac patients.  This study will show that his nutritional intervention can reverse heart disease and is more effective than surgery! 

Please help us bring this study to the next level with a small (or large) donation. Every donation of any size will help.


Dr. Fuhrman has made a loud and clear call for cancer prevention.  We all know someone that has been afflicted with cancer, so awareness is not the problem.  We need a solution now.  The NRP will soon begin a study to support women to avoid breast cancer and live cancer free.  As the national averages are well known, we plan to show that women who follow the ETL lifestyle are far less likely get breast cancer and women already diagnosed with cancer will dramatically enhance their longevity. 

Please help us establish this study and other studies mentioned above with a tax deductible donation.  Your donation of any size will help Dr. Fuhrman and the NRP implement the scientific research to have a huge impact on the world.

Please donate whatever amount you can.  We really appreciate your tax deductible contribution! Remember to donate today and you will have a chance to win a reconditioned Vitamix.  These come with the full Vitamix 7 year guarantee.  Every $10 you donate gets you one entry ($100 = 10 entries).  Vitamix will be giving away one Vitamix for every $1000 in donations to the NRP through December 31, 2011. 

Healthy Inside and Out

Congratulations to all who have committed to following Dr. Fuhrman’s Holiday Challenge! We tend to think of giving tangible gifts and purchasing presents for others this time of year, but if you have been sticking to the pledge to eat only healthful foods and avoid junk foods, you have been granting yourself the greatest gift of all: the gift of health. That is something to be proud of. The gift of health will stay with you for the rest of your life, a life that will be set free from the waves of chronic diseases and health problems that beset most Americans.  

Most whom embark on Dr. Fuhrman’s Holiday Challenge probably do not contemplate how eating heaping salads, hearty vegetable and bean dishes, and other satisfying natural plant foods effects our skin. Hence, this post is a reminder that following this powerfully disease preventative and figure slimming lifestyle enhances the beauty and clarity of our skin as well.    

In a blog post I wrote last year, I explained the science behind how food is an enormous contributor to whether or not we will attain healthy, blemish free complexions. Here I will summarize that article as a reminder of why politely declining that homemade, yet sugar loaded cookie your co-worker urges you to sample or resisting the saturated fat laden eggnog at a holiday party will result in gorgeous skin and prepare you for any spontaneous holiday picture taking that comes your way. 

The beauty of our skin is remarkably influenced by the amount of hormones circulating inside of our bodies. Insulin, in particular, is associated with the health of our skin. Insulin is most commonly known as the hormone for regulating blood sugar and is associated with diabetes, yet it also happens to increase oils that appear on the surface of our skin. Insulin levels fluctuate based on what we eat, and these fluctuations can affect other hormones such as testosterone that also promote acne and dull skin.


Processed foods made with white flour and sugar lead to blood sugar spikes, causing insulin levels to go into the dreaded “pimple-producing zone”. Sugar and processed foods are awful for our skin!


Dairy products are just as noxious skin foes as processed foods and sugar.  Research conducted at Harvard University School of Public Health showed that milk contains bioactive molecules that act on the glands where blackheads are formed. William Danby MD, a dermatologist at Dartmouth, noted in an editorial accompanying this study that 70 to 90 percent of all milk comes from pregnant cows and that the milk contains hormones such as progesterone, testosterone precursors and insulin-like growth factor releasing hormones, all linked to acne. High levels of these hormones are linked to breast cancer and prostate cancer so avoiding foods that lead to breakouts and dull skin also helps us prevent these cancers.


The foods you should eat for radiant skin? Green vegetables, fruit, beans, nuts, seeds, avocadoes, starchy vegetables, and whole grains- all of the foods that are associated with longevity, disease prevention and succeeding on Dr. Fuhrman’s Holiday Challenge. These foods are loaded with thousands of potent phytochemicals like carotenoids and lycopene, substances that help our skin repair damage and remove and detoxify waste products and toxic compounds.  Skin damage occurs due to exposure to free radicals, which results in oxidative damage to our cells. By eating plenty of antioxidant loaded fruits and vegetables, our body becomes equipped with tiny chemical warriors that continuously fight free radical damage. The result is glowing, healthy looking skin. Now that is something worth being jolly about. 


Cheers to good health and I wish you much success and joy into the New Year!


The image at the top of the post is Talia a few years ago.  The second picture is Talia with her mother, Lisa Fuhrman, taken this past Thanksgiving. 

Holiday fun

Have a holly, jolly season

It’s the best time of the year

Grab yourself some Metformin

And give yourself some cheer

Have a holly jolly season

And when you eat up all the fudge

Say hello to plus size clothes

To cover all the pudge

Have a holly jolly season

And in case you didn’t hear

Oh by golly have a holly jolly

Binge-fest this year!





Winter Wonderland


Sleigh bells ring, are you listening, 
On the table, treats are glistening
A beautiful sight, we're happy tonight
Bingeing in a winter wonderland.

Later on, we'll perspire, as we sweat by the fire
To face unafraid, the mistakes that we've made
Bingeing in a winter wonderland.

When it snows, ain't it thrillin’,
Though your nose gets a chillin’
We'll frolic and play, the Eskimo way
Bingeing in a winter wonderland.




Songs adapted by Emily Boller, a formerly depressed, food addict; and holiday binge eater, big time. 





image credit:  penguin, flickr by Kelp1966





The picture below of Dr. Ferreri and I was taken at Dr. Fuhrman's recent Health Immersion Weekend in Princeton, N.J.


Contending is required now more than ever!

Okay, it’s time to get to the nitty-gritty of Dr. Fuhrman’s Holiday Challenge. It’s time to bring out a word that no one wants to talk about over the holidays. 

Based on my own experiences and interacting with others, the next couple of weeks will be some of the hardest weeks of the entire year to fight through!

Yes, “Fight.” 

To be successful in getting one’s health back, and to remain in optimal health, it takes contending. Contending involves a struggle with opposition in order to achieve a goal. And let’s be honest, the opposition facing us to eat sweets and junk food in the next couple of weeks will be at an all-time high! 

Platters of homemade cookies and candies will be suddenly and unexpectedly delivered to our front door by kind and thoughtful neighbors. With just the ring of a doorbell we will have multiple temptations at our fingertips. 

The office break room will have large bowls of chocolate covered Chex mix, salted peanuts and pretzels; or lovely cheese balls surrounded by cocktail crackers and creamy spreads.

Spouses will bring gift baskets of specialty cheeses and salami home from work.

After all it’s December! It’s time for everyone to celebrate . . . there’s always January to mop up the messes!

The most carefully thought-through strategies will be challenged right now, big time.   

If we become apathetic and passive anytime in the next couple of weeks, our best intentions will get bulldozed over. All the hard work and success up to this point will go straight down the drain. It happens all the time. 

One compromise will lead to two or three, and before one knows it the towel will be thrown in, high-nutrient foods will be replaced by disease-promoting foods, weight will be gained back, and poor health and suffering will abound once again.

So what does contending look like?

Yesterday three containers of a variety of Christmas cookies were delivered to our home. I was caught totally off-guard. I hadn’t planned for the sudden deposit of decadent treats. At first I ignored them. However, curiosity got the best of me, and eventually I opened the lids for a peak. Then I snuck a taste test. Instantly I knew I was in hot water and flirting with danger if I didn’t stop immediately. 

In northeastern Indiana yesterday we had below freezing temps. The sun was hiding beneath bleak skies and the landscape had turned gray. I had a table full of clean laundry to fold and a stack of shirts to iron. BUT I knew I had to contend. I had to fight. I quickly bundled up in my winter coat, threw on some gloves, snapped on a helmet, and hopped on my bike. I pedaled into a rural, adjoining county for a twenty-mile ride. My nose dripped and my eyes watered from the bone chilling air, but I had to ride away from the temptations in order to devise a specific plan of action. 

By the time I returned home I was fine. The fresh air had cleaned out the cobwebs in my brain and I had a practical strategy in place. (Btw, I still got the laundry folded, the shirts ironed, and I even had time to go to the grocery and stock up on my favorite vegetables and fruits for the days ahead.) 

I struggled and contended with the sudden opposition until I achieved victory.

That’s what it means to contend and earn great health; one victory at a time.


The holidays provide ample opportunity for extra practice that is so necessary for a lifetime of success. Let’s all get in the habit of contending for excellent health, because it’s not a matter of if temptations will come, but when.

If we can successfully overcome temptations during the holidays, we can be victorious anytime! 

How about you?

Are you contending?



image credit:  cookies by Esther Boller; cheese by flickr D.A.K. Photography

Sharing the Gift of Health This Holiday Season with Healthy Cooking



As a young twenty-something girl, my life would be near perfect if all my friends were just as enthusiastic about following a plant-based diet as I am. It would be easier when we went out to dinner and all wanted to go to the same healthy vegetarian restaurant, during potluck dinners and lunch dates. We could talk about nutrient-dense cooking and baking and our latest favorite healthy recipes with the same overflowing enthusiasm (these conversations are so enjoyable to me- I’m like a little girl talking about her favorite girl scout cookie). I am drawn to other people who share the same passion for health and wellness and its sidekick, healthy cooking. Yet, while I do have some friends I can share my passion for nutrition with, I certainly have many friends who are not as healthy-eating inclined. Therefore, I view the holiday season as the perfect opportunity to share the wealth of health with my currently not so health-inclined friends, a mission I nicknamed “operation undercover- convert friends with irresistible cooking”.

I prepare foods like cashew creamed kale, avocado banana brownies, and black bean pesto dip (all tasty, I promise!) in the hopes of luring my friends into wanting to learn more about my healthy eating lifestyle. It is a fun mission, that’s for sure. I’ve learned that preparing delicious foods gets conversation flowing and we talk about how taking care of our bodies doesn’t mean depriving oneself of delicious foods. On the contrary, I think I enjoy the tastiest foods! I tell my friends about why I used some of the ingredients I use, like flaxseeds in my pumpkin bread and black beans in my brownies. It’s an educational opportunity as well as an enjoyable one.  

Therefore, instead of shopping for presents like clothing and jewelry during the holidays, I continue to prepare my friends healthy but delicious goodies throughout finals week. They are most grateful. I get more joy from feeding my friends healthy foods than I would from providing them with something store-bought. I feel that there is no better present than helping people improve their health. Healthy eating really can be contagious if we make an effort to show the people we care about that itis not difficult and can be mouth-wateringly enjoyable. The holidays are the perfect time to do this. We can provide a healthy and delicious nudge to get them headed in the right direction. Without further ado, I will share a recipe inspired by Emily Boller that works wonders on this mission:


Heavenly Holiday Fudge



1 can (15oz) of black beans

½ cup of dark cocoa powder

1 cup medjool dates pitted and chopped

3 apples chopped

1/4 c. water

1 banana

2 t. vanilla

1-2 cups walnuts

Place all ingredients (except walnuts) in a vitamix or high power blender. Process until very smooth.  Then stir in by hand walnuts (not finely chopped) and bake in a 9 x 13 pan at 350 degrees for an hour until the top has a crust and the middle remains gooey.  Transfer the batter into a rectangular plastic container and pack in tightly and put into the refrigerator overnight.  Afterwards cut into 1 inch squares. 

Store cut up fudge in-between layers of wax paper in an airtight container in the refrigerator or freezer and enjoy!




image credit:  Emily Boller