So many of my patients struggle with cravings, weight issues, and late night snack binges. Knowing that certain chemicals in foods, called exorphins, can act as addictive drugs may help to develop strategies to improve health.
You need to know a little bit about exorphins because the makers of processed food, Big Food, know all about these chemicals. In fact, they manipulate ingredients to stimulate our appetites and initiate an addictive cycle of overeating and subsequent disease states.
Knowing about these foods can help you control overeating. (And to learn more about how Big Food gets you hooked on junk foods, check out The End of Overeating by former commissioner of the FDA Dr. David Kessler and Salt, Sugar, Fat by journalist Michael Moss.)
No food group has been studied more for opioid activity than dairy, particularly milk and cheese. The protein in dairy, casein, is digested into smaller peptides and there are a family of active agents called casomorphins. The desire for cheese can be blocked by the same medicines used to reverse drug overdoses in emergency rooms!
We eat five times as much cheese as a few decades ago, often with every meal of the day. Big Food knows that dairy drives the desire for more dairy and larger sales. My patients who are trying to be vegan tell me that the hardest food to give up is cheese; weaning slowly off this food group like a drug may improve success rates.
The blood in meat contains albumin, hemoglobin and gamma globulin and all of these chemicals activate opioid receptors. When meat eaters were treated with a drug used to block opiate receptors, ham consumption fell by 10%, salami by 25% and tuna by 50%!
Wheat and rice
Gliadin is a protein in wheat that has opiate activity and is sometimes referred to as gliadorphin. There is also a protein in rice that produces similar effects. If you can't stop reaching for the bread bowl, it's most likely because of this feel-good chemical trap.
Sugar and fat
Headlines worldwide last fall reported on a study in rats showing a preference for Oreo cookies, used for their high sugar and fat content, that was similar to providing the rats cocaine and morphine. Actually, prior studies in humans had already shown the opioid like effects of mixing sugar and fat (think: donut) that could be reversed with narcotic blockers.
Over a decade ago researchers studied what happened when you gave a three-month-old baby a sugary treat while staring in their eyes. When a group of people entered the room including the adult who fed the baby sugar water, the baby scanned and focused only on the “sugar dealer,” demonstrating how early in life sugar addiction can be identified.
Sugar and fat may be the reason that chocolate is a food that has been described to have addictive potential.
So what can you do?
Avoid temptation by not having so many items at home or in the office loaded with dairy, meat, refined wheat, sugar, and fat.
Replace them with blood sugar stabilizing foods like beans, nuts, seeds, whole fruits, and whole grains.
Start the day with a healthy breakfast (with foods low in exorphins).
Rely on support from friends and family to not bring “crack” like foods over can help. As Michael Pollan said, “eat food, not too much, mostly plants.”
Focus on getting endorphins. A glorious sunset, tender family moments, Kirtan music, my dogs licking my face, and a challenging workout are some of the feel good things that I seek out for a natural high. Science has demonstrated that we can produce narcotic-like chemicals in our brain at these moments, called endorphins.