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What is the dopamine diet?
Billed as the weight-loss regime that boosts mood, too, this diet is all about increasing levels of the ‘happy hormone’, dopamine, and at the same time shedding pounds. Certain celebrities such as TV chef Tom Kerridge have supported this diet’s popularity in recent years. There are several different versions of the eating plan, but all are based around foods that are thought to boost dopamine.
These can include:
- Dairy foods such as milk, cheese and yogurt
- Unprocessed meats such as beef, chicken and turkey
- Omega-3-rich fish such as salmon and mackerel
- Fruit and vegetables, in particular bananas
- Nuts such as almonds and walnuts
- Dark chocolate
Most versions of the diet recommend avoiding alcohol, caffeine and processed sugar, while some also recommend cutting out or restricting carbohydrates.
So, what is the science behind the dopamine diet? Dietitian Emer Delaney explains…
What is dopamine and how does food affect it?
Dopamine is a neurotransmitter – a chemical that is responsible for transmitting signals between nerve cells in the brain. Dopamine directly affects the reward and pleasure centres in the brain, which in turn affects mood. Its activation occurs for a number of reasons, including the sudden availability of food.
There is emerging evidence to show that people who are overweight may have impairments in dopamine pathways which may have been blunted through constant exposure to highly palatable (sugary and fatty) foods. This blunted response may potentially lead to increased reward-seeking behaviour, including over-eating – however, this is an area that needs more research. Currently, we do know that all eating increases dopamine, especially the intake of high-fat and high-sugar foods, both of which may lead to an increase in appetite, overeating and weight gain in the longer term.
How do you boost dopamine without resorting to high-fat and sugary foods?
Amino acids are essential to the production of brain chemicals like dopamine. As protein foods are made from the building blocks of amino acids (the most notable in this instance being tyrosine), it has been suggested that upping your protein intake may support dopamine production without increasing appetite. A recent study looked at this theory and concluded that eating a high-protein breakfast including eggs, lean meats and dairy was best at reducing mid-morning cravings whilst also increasing dopamine levels.
Tips for following the dopamine diet
– Eat regular meals. This will prevent a sudden swing in hormones and help to regulate your appetite. It also reduces the chance of overeating in the evening.
– Try eating more lean protein at breakfast such as eggs, smoked salmon, mackerel or yogurt with added nuts, seeds or fruit. Have a look at our high-protein recipes for breakfast, lunch and dinner ideas.
– Some versions of this diet ask you to completely restrict carbohydrates, which I wouldn’t recommend. Carbohydrates are important components of the diet, so ensure you include some at every meal. Aim for low-GI carbohydrates such as rye bread or porridge. Both will encourage blood glucose levels to remain steady, which will have a positive effect on appetite.
– Choose healthy fats such as monounsaturated and polyunsaturated fats found in olive, sunflower, sesame or rapeseed oils in addition to avocado, walnuts, flaxseeds and oily fish such as herring, fresh tuna and trout.
– Practices such as yoga nidra may also increase dopamine levels.
– Keep things simple and look at the quality of foods you eat: reduce processed, salty foods, keep sugary treats to a minimum and make sure you’re eating a minimum of five-a-day.
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Emer Delaney BSc (Hons), RD has an honours degree in human nutrition and dietetics from the University of Ulster. She has worked as a dietitian in some of London’s top teaching hospitals and is currently based in Chelsea.
Kerry Torrens is a qualified Nutritionist (MBANT) with a postgraduate diploma in personalised nutrition & nutritional therapy. She is a member of the British Association for Nutrition and Lifestyle Medicine (BANT) and a member of the Guild of Food Writers. Over the last two decades she has been a contributing author to a number of nutritional and cookery publications including BBC Good Food.
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