Many people claim that there are weight-loss and mental health benefits to adding more foods that increase dopamine in the diet. In this article, we will explore whether foods like good-quality meat, fresh fruit and veggies, full-fat dairy, fatty fish, nuts and dark chocolate can make you happier, healthier and aid with weight management.
What is dopamine?
Dopamine is an essential hormone and neurotransmitter that is responsible for regulating mood, motivation, body movement and managing the reward and pleasure centres in the brain. You know that warm fuzzy feeling you get when you eat your favourite treat? That’s your brain releasing dopamine to the rest of the body, and it encourages you to keep the good times going by reaching for more, sometime even if you’re already feeling full.
Foods rich in fat and sugar act potently on the rewards centre in the brain, promoting you to eat more of them. This is also the neurotransmitter and area of the brain that are responsible for addiction. While this process may seem detrimental, we need it. Human bodies are always looking to store energy just in case you need it later on when resources may be scarce. Nowadays, we have an abundance of food that is easily available to us as close as around the corner from where we live.
But this is only one function of dopamine. While it may not be essential to increase dopamine, what we eat plays an important role in mental health, and dopamine is a critical component in many mental-health processes.
What foods increase dopamine
Foods that can help increase dopamine include high-quality protein, fresh fruit and vegetables and full-fat dairy. This particularly includes milk, cheese, yoghurt, eggs, unprocessed meats, omega-3-rich fish, bananas, almonds, walnuts and dark chocolate.
Can you increase dopamine production through diet?
Many of the neurotransmitters in our brains are made from amino acids, dopamine in particular. We know that amino acids are the building blocks of life. As many as 12 of the amino acids we need are manufactured by the body itself. The other 8, called essential amino acids, have to be supplied through the diet by protein. A diet that is high in high-quality protein should contain all 8 of these essential amino acids. These include lean meats, dairy products and milk. Protein from plant foods such as beans, peas and grains can be low in one or two of these essential amino acids, and may need to be supplemented with the help of a medical professional or accredited dietitian.
How exactly does eating protein affect mental health and dopamine? Dopamine is made from an amino acid called tyrosine. A lack of this amino acid means that there will be a lack of dopamine produced by the body. This can be associated with low mood and depression. Beyond dopamine, deficiencies in other neurotransmitters like serotonin, norepinephrine and GABA are strongly associated with depression. Studies have shown that the relevant amino acids used to make these neurotransmitters can often be helpful in treating many mood disorders, including depression.
SUGAR AND FAT
Foods rich in both the above are potent rewards and dopamine can lead you to eat more and more of them, even if you don’t need them as an energy requirement in the moment. Over time, your body learns that when you eat them, you will get a reward by feeling good, and can find yourself craving them more and more outside of meal times. Therefore, limiting these foods can help break down this reward system. Having a small treat every now and again though, is completely healthy, we just don’t want to use food as a reward.
Unfortunately, this tends to precipitate depression. This is because the production of serotonin and tryptophan (feel good brain chemicals) is triggered by carbohydrates. Low-GI foods produce a moderate effect, but it is long lasting. When you get High-GI carbs, on the other hand, the production of dopamine is also triggered, which provides a stronger immediate reaction, but it is very short-lived.
So, your diet can help increase dopamine production, but can that lead to improved mental health and weight loss?
Many studies have shown that there is a link between good nutrition and improved mental health, but how does dopamine fit in?
The SMILES Trial (2012-2015) was the first study in the world to demonstrate that dietary changes can improve symptoms in people with clinically-diagnosed depression. In this study, 32% of participants met criteria for remission of major depression after a 12-week period following a modified Mediterranean diet with the help of an accredited dietitian.
Another study in 2017 (HELFIMED) found that participants with self-reported depression who were prescribed omega-3 supplements and attended cooking classes for the Mediterranean diet reported a significant reduction in symptoms after 6 months.
The Mediterranean diet contains many of the foods we mentioned above, especially in terms of good-quality protein and healthy sources of fat. This may show that foods which increase dopamine do have an impact on improved mental health, but more research is needed.
We know that when dopamine is produced, the rewards centre in the brain is activated. Many people who are trying to lose weight struggle with a restrictive diet that doesn’t make them feel great. The argument for a ‘dopamine diet’ is that you are eating healthy foods that will activate your rewards and pleasure centres in the brain. The idea here is that you will look forward to eating healthy foods and find more enjoyment in them, making it easier to lose weight.
Opting for a diet that is focused on including more wholefoods which increase dopamine as it involves eating more healthy fats and dairy products, along with less processed meat and sugar. However, the fact that the popular version of this ‘diet’ encourages you to cut back on carbohydrates isn’t recommended by dietitians. Carbs are an important macronutrient and the brain’s preferred energy source. It is also essential for good gut health, which can play an important role in mental health and weight management.
If you’re looking to improve your mental health with nutrition or want to lose or better manage your weight, book a consultation with an accredited dietitian.