The Chemistry of Temptation

By Darlene Kvist, MS, CNS, LN
December 27, 2016

article_brain-mentalhealth_handincookiejar.jpgDo you say to yourself: Every time I turn around this holiday season I see fancy cocktails, eggnog lattes, decorated frosty-the-snowman Christmas cookies, fudge, caramels, chocolate whatevers and of course, Chex® Mix? If I look at those treats too long I know I will gain ten pounds and feel tired, achy and crabby. I must glance away quickly or the “chemistry of temptation” will catch me.

Yes, sadly, we all have the chemistry of temptation, some of us more than others. The chemistry of temptation is found in the area of the brain called the pleasure center. High-sugar, processed carbohydrate foods; drugs, alcohol, nicotine, shopping, and sex can activate the pleasure center. Dopamine, a chemical in the brain, which sends messages from cell to cell, can get us hooked on everything from sugar to cigarettes to shopping. Researchers have found that dopamine teaches your brain what you want and then drives you to get it, regardless of whether it is good for you.

How Does Dopamine Create the Chemistry of Temptation?

The chemistry of temptation happens in a two-step process. First, you experience something that gives you pleasure—such as making and eating Christmas cookies with your grandma. Your pleasure center lights up and you get a dopamine surge. Some of the dopamine travels to the area of the brain where memories are formed and creates a memory connecting Christmas cookies to pleasure. Your rational self may be saying, “Pigging out on Christmas cookies will lead to weight gain and a headache.” But, the pleasure center in your brain is yelling, “We just hit the Dopamine jackpot—keep the cookies coming!”

The second step is reinforcement. The Christmas cookies turned on the pleasure center and created a good memory. Now, every time you see a plate of cookies your brain releases a surge of dopamine which drives you to reach for one cookie after another. The cookie memory is reinforced and the chemistry of temptation is increased. The more frequently you do something that is pleasurable to the brain, in this case it’s the eating of the cookies, the stronger that habit becomes.

It may surprise you that many people are not sensitive to the dopamine surges because their brains have sufficient dopamine all the time. Dopamine also controls the area of the brain that helps us make decisions and creates motivation, drive and focus. A steady supply of dopamine is beneficial, but dopamine surges can lead to addictions.

Maintaining Sufficient Levels of Dopamine

How can you maintain sufficient levels of dopamine so you are not caught in the dopamine surges or the chemistry of temptation? It can be as simple as eating two to four ounces of animal protein several times a day. Animal protein breaks down into the amino acid L-tyrosine, and L-tyrosine converts into dopamine. The chemistry of temptation only kicks in if you are deficient in dopamine and you get a rush of pleasure from a dopamine surge.

How Can I Reduce Stimulating the Pleasure Center of the Brain?

How do you break the Christmas cookie habit, the Chex Mix habit or the caramel popcorn habit? Changing habits is much more complex than making a New Year’s Resolution. We all know New Year’s Resolutions are here today and gone tomorrow. Resolutions don’t change brain chemistry. To change behavior and put a lid on the chemistry of temptation, you need to understand how to reduce stimulating the pleasure center. Let me give you an example. If you are still signing up for the cookie exchange with your friends, you are stimulating your pleasure center, and you may easily fall prey to the cookies hidden away in the freezer. Maybe it’s time to suggest to your friends that you get together to roast nuts or sing Christmas carols. I believe many habits that drive the chemistry of temptation have been created by large food companies to sell more product. Wouldn’t you agree the Chex Mix habit would probably qualify? To subdue the chemistry of temptation takes more than a New Year’s Resolution; it really takes an intellectual commitment to break the cycle of stimulating the pleasure center. It is also critical to increase your day-to-day dopamine level so your chemistry of temptation is put in remission.

During a nutrition consultation, I might suggest a client change pleasure-seeking environments. For example, I have come to realize I can’t hang out at an ice cream parlor because ice cream lights up my pleasure center, and I will eat ice cream if I am there. You can do the same. Look for situations, places and events to keep your pleasure center and your chemistry of temptation in check. It isn’t about your lack of will power or about breaking a New Year’s Resolution. It is about avoiding the places, the situations and the events that stimulate your pleasure center and eating the Weight & Wellness Way to maintain a sufficient dopamine level.

*Most people following the Nutrition 4 Weight Loss Program can expect to lose one pound or more per week, but because everyone is unique, individual results vary.

About the author

Darlene founded Nutritional Weight & Wellness. In her 25 years as a counselor and nutritionist, Darlene has helped so many people change their lives using the power of real food. She is a licensed nutritionist who earned the title Certified Nutrition Specialist from the American College of Nutrition, a prestigious association of medical and research scientists to further nutrition research. She has served on the Board of Dietetics and Nutrition Practice for the State of Minnesota.

View all posts by Darlene Kvist, MS, CNS, LN

Back To Top