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Dopamine and Your Diet: What's the Link?

Can you raise your dopamine levels with diet? Do low dopamine levels cause cravings? Will dopamine fasting help you kick food addiction? Monica talks with neuroscientist Darya Rose about the complex connections between mood, food, and your brain. 

By
Monica Reinagel, MS, LD/N, CNS
9-minute read
Episode #617
The Quick And Dirty
  • Improving the quality of your diet could improve your mood, but that probably has little to do with dopamine.
  • Dopamine helps your brain remember which activities are rewarding and motivates you to repeat them.
  • The primary feeling state associated with dopamine is not satisfaction but wanting.
  • If you want to feel contentment, seek out activities that increase serotonin.

Leilla writes:

Recently I've been reading a bit about l-dopa in foods and supplements. There’s also something called the Dopamine Diet. However, I'm struggling to make sense of the information. Can either of these boost your mood? Or is this just another fad?

The reason Leilla may be struggling to make sense of the information is that a lot of what’s circulating around the internet about diet and dopamine doesn’t actually make a lot of sense.

Let’s start with the idea that foods or supplements that provide L-dopa can improve your mood.

Will foods or supplements containing L-dopa boost your mood?

One of dopamine’s primary functions in the brain is to control and coordinate muscle movements. The tremors and jerky movements that are typical of Parkinson’s disease, for example, are caused by low dopamine production in the brain. A drug called Levodopa (or L-dopa) can help reduce Parkinson’s symptoms by increasing dopamine levels in the brain.

I would not recommend adding velvet beans or L-dopa supplements to your diet. For one thing, L-dopa (whether from the bean or a lab) can be neurotoxic and cause significant side effects.

A natural form of L-dopa is also found in a tropical legume called the velvet bean. In fact, extracts from the velvet bean have been used in traditional Ayurvedic medicine to treat Parkinson’s disease. However, I would not recommend adding velvet beans or L-dopa supplements to your diet in an effort to raise your dopamine levels. For one thing, L-dopa (whether from the velvet bean or a lab) can be neurotoxic and cause significant side effects.

Can you boost your dopamine levels with diet?

The Dopamine Diet, a popular book by British chef Tom Kerridge, doesn’t include any recipes for velvet beans. But it does claim to boost your mood by increasing dopamine levels in the brain.

The idea that boosting your dopamine levels will lift your mood seems to be based on a misunderstanding about how dopamine works in the brain.

Diets that are low in refined carbohydrates and other highly processed foods have been correlated with a lower risk of depression. And the Dopamine Diet does focus on whole and minimally processed foods. But there’s very little evidence that we can change our dopamine levels by manipulating our diet.

More to the point, the idea that boosting your dopamine levels will lift your mood seems to be based on a misunderstanding about how dopamine works in the brain.

Joining me to help sort all of this out is Darya Rose. Darya is a neuroscientist by training with a deep interest in food, nutrition, and behavior. I first got to know Darya through her Summer Tomato blog. She then wrote a terrific book called Foodist and launched a popular podcast under the same name. Her new podcast, The Darya Rose show, is due to launch later this year.

Below are a few highlights from our conversation, but please click on the audio player to hear our entire conversation.

Monica Reinagel

What is the relationship between dopamine and mood?

Darya Rose

Mood isn't associated very strongly with dopamine. Dopamine helps you understand how much reward there is in a behavior.

Monica

So, when your brain recognizes that something is rewarding, dopamine says, "Let's remember this; let's do this again." But the actual feeling of reward is not created by the dopamine.

Darya

For a long time, we actually did think that dopamine must be associated with feeling good. Because if you give a rat cocaine, for instance, it will just push the cocaine lever to the exclusion of food and water until it dies. So the idea was "Oh, this must feel so good that it is ignoring these other important things."

Actually, it's not a good feeling to crave something.

But actually, it's not a good feeling to crave something. There are other molecules in the brain that are associated with feeling satisfied and content, and it's the opposite of dopamine. So when I think I want to feel good, I would never think "I want more dopamine." To me, dopamine is saying "you're unsatisfied, you need more." That's not a comfortable feeling.

I do think that somebody will feel better if they're eating fewer processed foods and more whole real intact foods. But the mechanism is not because there's more dopamine. If anything, there would be less. But I don't think that we can control that with food.

Does low dopamine cause cravings?

Monica

Another thing that we see on the internet is that low dopamine levels in the brain lead to food cravings or other cravings. Therefore, raising our dopamine levels could reduce these cravings.

Darya

Yeah. It's the opposite. If you are firing those pathways over and over again, the downstream neurons that activate in response to dopamine will start decreasing their response. So that means you would need more dopamine to get the same amount of activation in those neurons.

If what you're trying to do is feel more content, you don't want to be focused on dopamine pathways at all.

But again, if what you're trying to do is feel more content, you don't want to be focused on dopamine pathways at all. If anything, you want to focus more on serotonin pathways, things that build this sense of contentment and feeling satisfied and having enough and having gratitude for what you actually have. Because that's going to lead to less compulsive behavior and more feeling of calm and satisfaction.

Monica

It's almost like overexposure to those chemicals causes the cells to put their little cellular hands over their tiny little cellular ears and say, "You're hurting me, so I’m turning down the volume."

Darya

Exactly. Our bodies don't like it when we try to change how they respond to things. When we do, it'll adjust so that it goes back to where it wants to be. So, it's an uphill battle to try to manipulate these sorts of things in the brain.

Our bodies don't like it when we try to change how they respond to things. When we do, it'll adjust so that it goes back to where it wants to be.

Monica

When we are trying to control our behavior around food, or maybe failing to control our behavior around food, it's so tempting to blame our neurochemistry or blame the food that hijacks our neurochemistry. I think that's at the expense of focusing enough on those cognitive-behavioral aspects. Such as: How can I limit my exposure to these sorts of foods so that I don't have to resist them or waste a lot of energy thinking about whether I am going to have them or not? On the cognitive level, we need to look at our beliefs about whether or not we have control over our responses. If we're convinced that the food is in charge, because it has this power over our neurochemistry that nobody can control, that really does take us out of the equation.

Darya

Absolutely. The behavior drives whether or not your dopamine neurons are firing not the other way around.

What is dopamine fasting?

Monica

Another trend that we've seen over this last year is dopamine fasting. It's based on this idea that if you limit your exposure to rewarding activities and you don't give your brain that reward, that it will somehow reset your dopamine responses, and that this will then reduce your dependence on those stimulating activities. Does that kind of line up with the actual neuroscience?

Darya

From what I understand, people are going so far as to stop engaging with other people and completely isolating themselves from anything pleasurable at all. And I think that's a bad approach.  

Human interaction is one of the strongest things that increases your serotonin and helps you stabilize your mood and not feel like you have to go pound a lot of chocolate because you're depressed. So you don't want to be eliminating those. You want to be replacing the compulsive activities that don't serve you well with ones that are healthy and sustainable and that do serve you really well in the long term.

Monica

So it's not about removing all the rewards from your life. It's about choosing more constructive rewards.

Does dopamine drive food addiction?

Monica

As we’ve mentioned, dopamine is involved in both habit formation and in addiction. We have all of this data from functional MRI machines that show that certain foods light up the reward centers of the brain. And foods that combine sweet, salty, and fat light up the reward centers of the brain more dramatically than fresh fruits and vegetables. Some people then interpret that to mean that we can become addicted to those foods in the same way that we've become addicted to heroin.

There's a lot of debate in the nutrition community and in the neuroscience community about whether that's accurate. But my question is whether it's helpful. I think that it can be really defeating if it reinforces the notion that we have no control over our responses to food,

But at the same time, I have also observed both personally and in folks that I work with that when we overindulge in hyper-palatable foods, it can definitely make other foods less appealing. So if we were to reduce our consumption, or avoid those foods for a time, it actually can help us increase our appreciation of healthier foods.

Darya

I've definitely experienced that personally. As I did my own personal health journey,  foods that used to be really appealing to me have become really not appealing. But it was definitely a process and it takes time. This is why in my work, I focus so much on habits. Because habits are very powerful and the dopamine system is a hundred percent working in those habits.

You're always getting some kind of reward when you're overindulging in food. The question is whether it's the rewards you think it is.

You're always getting some kind of reward when you're overindulging in food. The question is whether it's the rewards you think it is. A lot of the time it's like you're really just procrastinating, or you're really just feeling bad about yourself, or you're avoiding some other thing that's making you uncomfortable. And you've taught your brain that bingeing on sugar right now will make it go away for a few minutes. It's not because the food is so good and that you're enjoying it so much. If you ever talked to somebody who does binge eat, they don't enjoy it.

There's something going on there with the dopamine pathway, but I wouldn't necessarily approach it like I would approach an addiction to cigarettes or something like that.

Monica

Viewing compulsive eating as a chemical addiction really does close off a lot of really valuable tools that we can pull in if we acknowledge: Yes, I have control here. I have agency. I can make some choices. I can change my environment in ways that are going to help me make better choices.

But I think it's also reassuring to know that if I can get some distance from these things that maybe are creating that dopamine tolerance, it can increase my enjoyment of foods that right now don't feel completely appealing to me.

I see this all the time with people who over-consume sugar or artificial sweeteners. Something like a piece of fresh fruit has no appeal. It brings very little reward until they get some distance from those other foods.

Darya

I want to bring up serotonin again. When I'm trying to get people to change how they eat and feel better about how they eat, I always focus on foods that are really in season and delicious because you do need a reward. When you start switching to very nutritious foods, and especially when they are in season, it's a different kind of reward and, but it is there. And then you can form a new habit on top of it.

And then, when you eat something really, really sweet fake sugar or something like that, the contrast will suddenly hit you. The satisfaction that I feel after eating this other food is a very different sort of motivation than that fast hit of sugar. That whole cycle feels so different. And, to me, that pretty much encapsulates the difference between how it feels to have a dopamine-driven response versus a serotonin-driven response.

When you start switching to very nutritious foods, and especially when they are in season, it's a different kind of reward and, but it is there. And then you can form a new habit on top of it.

But that difference between those really fresh, delicious, nutritious foods may not be apparent on your very first salad after a steady diet of fast food. It may take a little training for your brain and your body, not to mention your palette to adjust to that.

Monica

Yes, we have to be patient with ourselves. But I love the distinction that you've made throughout our conversation between the role of dopamine and the role of serotonin and how we can leverage those things. And also this balance between trying to understand our brain chemistry a little bit, but then operating in that cognitive and behavioral realm, which is where we actually have a lot more agency.

Darya

That's right. The main place we can have power is by changing our habits.

To learn more about the fascinating connections between the brain, habits, and happiness, be sure to watch for Darya's new podcast, The Darya Rose Show, premiering later this year. And please also check out my Change Academy podcast with Brock Armstrong, in which we focus on creating lasting behavior change. 

About the Author

Monica Reinagel, MS, LD/N, CNS

Monica Reinagel is a board-certified licensed nutritionist, author, and the creator of one of iTunes' most highly ranked health and fitness podcasts. Her advice is regularly featured on the TODAY show, Dr. Oz, NPR, and in the nation's leading newspapers, magazines, and websites. Do you have a nutrition question? Call the Nutrition Diva listener line at 443-961-6206. Your question could be featured on the show.