The Discomfort behind Comfort Foods
Have you ever eaten a high fat, high carbohydrate meal and felt almost immediately like the world was a better place?
Now, what if I told you to give all of those things up?
Even though you know that avoiding a cheesecake binge is healthier for you, I bet that you had an immediate defense response when I suggested taking it all away. Maybe you felt angry, maybe sad, but likely you felt that it would be impossible, or that you wouldn’t be capable of succeeding in the long term.
This is a perfect demonstration of how insulin, and other metabolic hormones can interact with your brain!
Over the course of the last few years my own personal journey, and the journeys of my patients, has taken me down the path of researching insulin, metabolic hormones and how they interact with other systems in the body. I find it fascinating how the composition of our diets can have such a huge impact on our brain, how we think, what we are motivated by, and also why we want to make diet and lifestyle changes but feel incapable of success.
What Does Insulin Do?
If you have read any of the work by our lovely, Dr. Fiona, then you have likely heard that elevated insulin levels, and insulin resistance can contribute to many women’s health conditions, PCOS being a primary example. You may have also have learned that insulin is an anabolic hormone, meaning that it is involved in the process of storing fat in our fat cells and building muscle.
In addition to these roles, insulin is also involved in our feelings of fullness and the sense reward & pleasure that we get from eating a meal1. A recent article has outlined that when insulin levels rise after a meal, or stay high in the case of insulin resistance, it interacts with an area of our brain known as the nucleus accumbens (part of the hypothalamus)2. When this happens a release of Dopamine occurs, rewarding us for our meal and giving us a sense of pleasure. What is wrong with that you may be wondering? Well, dopamine is the same neurotransmitter that is involved with the ‘high’ and addiction associated with some illicit drug use. Whether we are flooded with dopamine through drug use, or splashed with it from insulin release, it still triggers the same sense of reward & strong desire and this changes your behavior.
Insulin Resistance and the Brain
Have you ever walked into a room that smelled awful, only to notice moments later that the smell seemed to have disappeared? This is analogous to what happens when our body is flooded with insulin. The insulin receptors stop responding to insulin in the same way and therefore we don’t have proper cellular function. This is also true in the brain and studies have confirmed that brain insulin resistance can lead to a decreased sensation of fullness with meals, permits over eating and also triggers us to crave more and more of the carb rich comfort foods to satisfy that same reward system1,2. (So you now need 3 chocolates whereas 1 did the trick before! Ugh, the cravings!)
Which Foods Triggers Insulin Release?
In essence, comfort foods! If it is high in carbohydrates, AKA sugars, or the type of food that is high in sugar, and in fat, then it will increase your insulin levels. Examples of this would be donuts, cookies, milk chocolate, chips, pasta, French fries etc. Another big category of foods to avoid, due to both the insulin response and the inflammatory response, is dairy. I was even shocked when I first saw how much milk products and whey can trigger this lovely fat storing hormone! Just think about what cheesecake could do!
For a more detailed list on how much individual foods can trigger your insulin response (and cravings!) check out Dr. Fiona’s post here.
Why Does This All Matter?
Although research studies are interesting I don’t think anyone needs a study to know that high carb, high fat foods can send you on a cravings, mood and blood sugar roller coaster.
The reality is that for many people there exists a very vicious cycle between the psychological desire for comfort foods and the physiological response. The more you eat- the more you want- the more ‘addicted’ you feel- the more insulin resistant you are- the less your brain signals satiety.
The first step in this process is to break the cycle of insulin resistance and chronically elevated insulin levels. There is no magic pill for this, and I am not going to pretend that there is. It all comes down to the right diet composition, eaten at the right times, with the proper supportive nutrients. This combination is also going to change with the individual- for example someone starting their journey to break this cycle will eat differently then someone who is trying to break through a weight loss plateau, or someone who simply has a genetic predisposition to insulin resistance.
Here is a general construct to start out with. An example day in the life:
- Breakfast: two egg omelet with spinach and sprouts, 1 cup of berries
- Lunch: chicken salad with green goddess dressing and nuts
- Dinner: garlic and herb salmon on wilted greens with butter nut squash.
Overall, the goal is to focus on anti-inflammatory foods, fill up on veggies and fats and add a side of protein and carbohydrates.
As you go through this process of contemplation, wondering if this is something that you are ready for, just remember, you can do it! Breaking the cycle of cravings and hanger can be liberating, and delicious!
- Anthony, K. et al. Attenuation of Insulin-Evoked Responses in Brain Networks Controlling Appetite and Reward in Insulin Resistance. Diabetes 55, 2986 LP – 2992 (2006).
- Stouffer, M. A. et al. Insulin enhances striatal dopamine release by activating cholinergic interneurons and thereby signals reward. Nat. Commun. 6, 8543 (2015).