Food addiction is associated with dopamine and natural opioids in the emotion center of the brain, the limbic system. Tested therapeutic methods for overcoming addiction (such as 12-step facilitation therapy or cognitive behavioral therapy) show that the key component to lasting success is a change in self-perception, meaning the development of a better self-image. Positive feelings (about ourselves or anything else) lead to dopamine and opioid release, reducing our need for food to carry out that function. This raises the question of how to address our self-perception to overcome food (such as sugar) addiction. A first step is to scientifically define the “self” so we can figure out what parts of the brain are involved and how they interact with limbic system, where addiction resides.
There are 3 main types of self that are represented in our brain*. First, we have a proto- or physical self, made up of sensory perception and motor control. This is a rudimentary self that takes information from and interacts with the environment. It does not require consciousness. Our proto-self resides in the sensory and motor cortex, which runs from our left ear to our right ear in an arch along the outer part of our brain. Second, we have a core or mental self, which fundamentally determines who we are, meaning what is and is not a part of us. Our core self distinguishes unknown things from the house we grew up in, friends and family, and seeing ourselves (such as in a picture). Our core self resides in the cortical midline structures, running from the front straight through to the back of our brain, and has strong connections with the limbic system. We also have a narrative self that resides on the left and right sides of our frontal lobes (under the temples) where we have higher-order intellectual thought relevant to ourselves. The narrative self also has strong connections to the limbic system.
Clyde’s Thoughts: Our proto- or physical self follows the laws of cause and effect in the more classical sense, interacting with the limbic system only through the thalamus where emotions help regulate perception of things external to the mind. Our narrative self includes our conscious deliberations about what we want to do and how badly we think we want to do those things, which is our willpower. Addiction can overcome even the strongest of willpowers, so this cannot be the only target. Our core self reacts emotionally to distinguish what is part of our self and what is not. The strong emotional component makes the core self the target for overcoming addiction.
Clyde’s Advice: If your willpower is enough to overcome a food addiction, target your self-image by thinking about what contributes to and what takes away from how you see yourself. Trauma and social isolation are two of the main things that can take away from a positive sense of self. Addressing any such issues will directly address the limbic system where addiction resides. Scientific studies show that all credible types of addiction therapy are equally effective, probably because they all share the common element of raising self-image.
The Bottom Line: Eating better is not just about knowing what is healthy and having a strong willpower to follow through, because addiction can overcome both of these advantages. To fight fire with fire, overcome addiction by achieving dopamine and opioid release from having a higher self-image. Raising self-image generally means addressing issues of past trauma and/or feelings of isolation.
“Self-referential processing in our brain—A meta-analysis of imaging studies on the self”, Northoff G et al., NeuroImage 31 2006 440. Research paper quality score: A
“Psychopathology and pathophysiology of the self in depression—Neuropsychiatric hypothesis”, Northoff G, J Affective Disorders 104 2007 1. Research paper quality score: C