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.

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Comments (27) Read through and enter the discussion with the form at the end
Phil - December 21, 2011 2:44 PM

This article is very true, though the effect is not just processed/junk foods. My understanding is that there is also a kind of opioid stimulation that is unique to wheat specifically. If people follow Dr. Fuhrman's nutritional guidelines and still have difficulty with sateity, weight loss, or cravings, it may be worthwhile to test eliminating wheat products from the diet entirely for a couple of weeks and see if any improvement occurs.

Mike Rubino - December 21, 2011 2:55 PM

Great article. Explains my actions below.

mberkovitz - December 21, 2011 3:11 PM

I believe that this dopamine release may occur even with unprocessed whole foods if they are highly palatable, such as nuts, dried fruits, sweet potatoes... even highly spiced foods that are not salty.

chris - December 21, 2011 3:38 PM

Thanks, Dr Ferreri.

This is great complimentary info to Emily's article last week. I'm water fasting currently, and I know my D2 receptors (or my beloved "tapeworm")are screaming at me to eat every time I smell food, see food, or see a picture of food. I'm holding strong.

Jennifer Minar-Jaynes - December 21, 2011 5:48 PM

Thank you! Great information, as always.

A lot of people still don't believe--or want to believe, I should say--that food can be so addictive.

I'm definitely sharing this w/ other parents on my blog.

Happy holidays!


Anita Swift - December 21, 2011 8:48 PM

Thanks so much, Deana, for this timely reminder.

So far this Christmas I have been given a box of fancy chocolates, 12 iced cupcakes and a tin of gourmet cookies. I've managed to get rid of them all without eating one bite. (Gifts from business associates who don't know me well enough to know better!)

I know that not so many years ago, had I eaten one chocolate ("just one"), I would have polished off the whole box in an afternoon. Likewise for the cakes and cookies.

I live in Australia, and we are privileged to have loads of delicious summer fruits in season for Christmas, and salads are definitely the go. I'm so excited to be planning Christmas lunch for extended family at our home full of delicious nutritarian food with no compromises. There will be absolutely nothing on Christmas Day and no leftovers on Boxing Day that I will have any regrets about eating.

What amazes me is how much more enjoyable the whole holiday season has been since I have the knowledge in advance that I'll continue to feel good, have no regrets, and I don't have the stress of deciding whether I should eat this or that, or a little bit but not too much, etc. I can look at junk food and think, "That's not food - I don't eat that," and it's so liberating!

Of course, having an arsenal of great nutritarian recipes to fill up on and the inspirational posts from all you wonderful people on disease and drfuhman .com are such a boost to success. Thank you, thank you, thank you. And Happy Christmas!

anna - December 22, 2011 4:54 AM

i know all about addiction, i have one to rolled oats, i eat some and i have to keep going back for more, it is a favourite food of mine and i say every day i am going to have a day with out them but that day never comes, i just cant do it.

Paul Daniels - December 22, 2011 2:59 PM

Great job, Dr. Ferreri!
Someone once shared with me this saying about certain foods: One is too many and a million aren't enough.
Your article is a great reminder to stay true to healthful eating over the holidays and always.

Suzy - December 23, 2011 2:22 PM

I once heard a diet guru say that she when she wanted a chocolate chip cookie, she would eat just half a cookie and save the rest for later. Not really helpful to those who struggle with food addiction.

I found out later that she had never really struggled with weight issues, so she was probably ignorant of the concept of food addiction. She was doing the best she could with what she knew, but she didn't know enough to help many who struggle with food addiction. (I can't imagine anyone saying to an alcoholic, just have half a shot and save the rest for later!)

Becky - December 23, 2011 11:59 PM

I have often said it was easier to quit smoking that to get my food addictions under control (smoke free work environment, non smoking roomate, committment for a person who died of head and neck cancer. With food I was able to detox and eat well for more than 7 years. I attribute my success to a circle of friends who were eating lots of produce, my kids were nursing or very young--ate what I fed them and hadn't been exposed to the bigger world,-- and my husband cooperated. Once the circle of friends changed, my kids learned about pizza, etc., and the husband changed his job, it got harder to stay away from the SAD foods. I remember the day I opened pandora's box. It was Christmas Eve 2001. I had a "weak" moment at the annual party at my sister-in-laws. I remember saying to myself that I was going to have a lttle "fun with food"--I was tired. Little did I know what the snowballing effect would be. Now, I feel like an alcoholic in a bar and I am responsible for getting the drinks to others in the bar!

Bonnie - December 27, 2011 3:22 PM

I like this article. It is so interesting. I can completely relate to it. I am on a downward spiral since Christmas. I have been bingeing on leftover that were left at my house. I threw away a bunch of stuff today and my husband is mad at me. There is one more bag of corn chips left that I won't throw away because he asked me not to, they are his. But, all I can think about is the chips. I can't stop. One thing I disagree with is the post above about highly palatable whole unprocessed foods. Those are not a problem for me. I don't binge on dried fruit or raw unsalted nuts or plain grains. I wish that was the stuff I was bingeing on.

Diane B - December 29, 2011 12:28 PM

Hmmm, this doesn't make sense. It's contradictory. In one part it's saying that if you don't get a dopamine response, you eat more trying to get it. But then it says that if you GET a dopamine response, it creates a "give me more!" reaction, causing over eating. This doesn't make sense to me. It is more logical that you would eat more if you GOT a dopamine response, but that would not explain why overweight people seem to have fewer receptors (do they have fewer receptors, or do they get a lower dose of dopamine released?).

Deana Ferreri, Ph.D. - December 30, 2011 10:19 AM

It is progressive. Originally, you do get a dopamine high, and then as you eat more and more of the addictive food over time, you get less of a reward response (in part because your body reduces the number of receptors) and end up eating more to achieve the same high.

Paul B - December 30, 2011 10:00 PM


Can you reconcile the article with the ETL lifeplan & the optional 10 percent low nutrient foods. Joel speaks in ETL that the optional 10 percent is just that - optional. What that suggests to me is the old Shakespeare adage, to thyneself be true. If one has a problem food (in my case starches, specifically noodles) we need to modify the general ETL advice to exclude problem foods if they are in fact addictive.


p.s. this seem in accord with the pleasure trap.

Gail - January 5, 2012 11:56 AM

This article describes me perfectly. I started the ETL program in July and have lost 50 lbs following the 90% rule. I knew that the holidays would be extremely challenging for me. I made the decision not to bake anything this year. Sounds silly, but it was a REALLY hard decision. I have a big party every Christmas Eve and I usually bake tons of wonderful cookies. Once I let go of that I was able to enjoy the event. No one seemed to care about the cookies (I had other people bring sweets). I made it through the holidays with a 4-lb weight loss! Unbelievable.

Deana Ferreri, Ph.D. - January 5, 2012 4:01 PM

Yes, that 10% is optional and a personal choice- if you find that eating even a small amount of low-nutrient foods or specific problem foods turns on the desire to overeat, then certainly it is better to abstain completely.

Kathy - January 9, 2012 7:20 PM

I am reading this blog for the first time to get helpful hints from Dr. Fuhrman as I am choosing to begin eating this way. I am finding all the photos of the Christmas cookies, etc that I am not supposed to eat tempting. I would appreciate hearing about it, but not seeing these photos, as they make me crave the item pictured. Thank you.

Audrey Harrington - January 12, 2012 4:55 AM

"Willpower, logic, and common sense are no match for addictive drives." -- How true this statement is! I have been 3 weeks now without sugar after reading David Gillespie's book "Sweet Poison" which has helped me tremendously in understanding why sugar is so destructive.
I want to go on to ETL fulltime instead of just some of the time and am finding the comments most helpful. I've no excuse, in Australia we have heaps of lovely fresh fruits and vegetables as Anita already stated.

Joanne - January 19, 2012 2:55 PM

This flies in the face of Paula Deen's belief that moderation is the key to controlling diabetes. She could completely reverse it by embracing a plant-based diet! I love sweet, salty, fatty food as much as the next person but it's like crack... easier to just stay away. I'm not saying I'm always successful at doing so, but that's my goal. This discussion hits pretty close to home for me. My mother was diagnosed as a Type II diabetic at the age of 55. At 67 she suffered a stroke that confined her to 24-hour nursing home care for the next 5-1/2 years, until she passed away at age 73. Now pass the salad, please.

Antoinette - March 30, 2012 11:30 AM

I am on day # 3 of fruits & vegetables only. I intend to juice fast for the next 4 days . I feel great and am not hungry. I have been a member and have read ETL for a few years now , but I was never willing to give up grains or sweets and therefore never lost a significant amount of weight or escaped the pleasure/ addictive trap. I am 60 and have weighed 265 for years.Fortunately I am healthy as far as I know. Now I am willing to ETL and use this site for community an support to lose some weight.

Doris - March 30, 2012 11:59 AM

This is the ey to combating eating disorders!

Stephanie - March 30, 2012 12:35 PM

I've been on ETL since last August and have so far lost about 50 lbs, but I have about 60 more to go. My loss has really slowed down lately and leveled off, and I think it's because of the 10% rule -- it has probably creeped up to 15-20%. This is mostly in allowed starches and sweets: The occasional cookie turns into 4-5, the square of dark chocolate turns into 2-3, the salt-free whole grain chips with hummus turns into the whole bag and the whole pint. You can be addicted even with food that -- in smaller quantities -- is good for you. So it is back to the book for me, time to say "no" to just one cookie!

Bob Luhrs - March 30, 2012 2:56 PM

One thing that is just purely repulsive is the proccessed food additives, like MSG, and now "" which also contains excitotoxins and are functionally = MSG. They make things taste great, which fuels appetites, but there is some evidence they destroy brain cells too. I switched from Doritos (openly says "MSG") to packaged almonds, thinking they were better since they are "whole foods"-yet they contain hydrolyzed corn and soy proteins (!) do almonds require soy and corn? It's to drive your body to consume, and in the process if you lose some nerve or brain cells, what the heck. I hate this industry.

Candice - March 30, 2012 10:10 PM

This is me to a T! I can go for months eating correctly, then I give in and I'm a maniac and can't get off the sugar and junk. It's a vicious cycle and I hate it!

Em - March 31, 2012 12:33 AM

I agree with mberkowitz completely! It's not just junk that has addictive powers! Nuts, dates, even bananas cause me to overeat. I NEVER eat junk, but cause myself blood sugar issues because of my compulsive overeating on such things! I wonder if I'll ever be rid of this affliction??

Deb - April 3, 2012 6:10 PM

This explanation for overeating seems to carry more weight in my mind than the one expounded by the just-released film "Hungry for Change." The second half of the film goes on about "loving yourself" as the answer to the problem. Seems to me that you can have a pretty healthy self-image and still struggle with a physical addiction. What do you all think?

Mary Ann - April 24, 2012 1:17 PM

My daughter and I went to Dr. Fuhrman's Weekend Excursion in Jan. 2012. We left there with the idea that we could take charge and completely change our family's eating habits.
It worked for several months, but, slowly, we reverted to our old eating habits. Now, even though we have incorporated many good eating habits from the ETL program, we have gained all the weight back that we lost. We are very discouraged. My question is-isn't there a way to basicly use the ETL plan without doing it 100% and still lose weight? One of the major problems is that our husbands just can't sustain eating all fruits/veggies.

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