What is the dopamine diet?
Famed as the Tom Kerridge diet, the 'happy' weight loss plan is making headlines. But does the dopamine diet work? Our dietitian investigates
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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. Celebrities such as TV chef Tom Kerridge have supported this diet’s popularity in recent years. There are several different versions of the plan, but all are based around foods that are thought to boost levels of dopamine.
What is dopamine?
Dopamine is a brain chemical (neurotransmitter) that is responsible for transmitting signals between nerve cells in the brain, as well as other functions. In this way, it directly affects our brain’s reward and pleasure centres, which in turn affects our mood. The activation of dopamine occurs for a number of reasons, including the sudden availability of food.
How does the dopamine diet work?
There is emerging evidence to suggest that people who are overweight may have disruptions in how dopamine works. This may be because the mechanism 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, although we need more research to support this theory. Currently, we know that all acts of eating increase dopamine, especially the intake of high-fat and high-sugar foods. Interestingly, these foods appear to lead to an increase in appetite, overeating and weight gain in the longer term.
What can I eat on the dopamine diet?
The diet includes a wide selection of foods, such as:
• Dairy foods including milk, cheese and yogurt
• Unprocessed meats like 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 (70% cocoa)
What foods to avoid on the dopamine diet?
Most versions of the diet recommend avoiding alcohol, caffeine and processed sugar. Some versions also recommend cutting out or restricting carbohydrates. However, it is important to remember that carbohydrates are important components of a balanced diet, so ensure you include starchy, wholegrain varieties in most meals. Aim for low-GI carbohydrates such as rye bread or oats – both will stabilise blood glucose levels and have a positive effect on appetite.
How should I follow the dopamine diet?
Keep things simple and look at the quality of the 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.
- Eat regular meals. This will prevent a sudden swing in hormones and help 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.
- Choose healthy fats such as monounsaturated and polyunsaturated fats found in olive, sesame or rapeseed oils in addition to avocado, walnuts, flaxseeds and oily fish like herring, fresh tuna and trout.
- Include lean protein sources at lunch and dinner such as chicken, lentils, pulses, fish or lean beef.
- In addition to dietary choices, some lifestyle practices, including yoga nidra, also appear to influence your dopamine levels.
What’s the evidence for the dopamine diet?
Amino acids are essential to the production of brain chemicals like dopamine. As protein foods are made up 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, while also increasing dopamine levels.
Further research on animals suggests compulsive eating patterns may be triggered by the over-consumption of highly palatable foods, which appear to disrupt the brain’s reward circuit as well as the ability to regulate food intake.
Does the dopamine diet work?
The dopamine diet is essentially a low carb, high-protein eating plan. Eating in this way may lead to short-term weight loss because by cutting carbs you’ll experience a reduction in glycogen stores in your muscles and with it some water loss. This is of course encouraging when you look at the reading on your bathroom scales, but this weight is easily regained once you bring back carbs and resume your normal eating patterns.
It is also important to note that, to date, there have been no human studies that have shown eating more protein results in greater levels of dopamine in the brain. Furthermore, the motivation to eat certain foods is complex and influenced by many different factors including our genes, psychology, environment and culture. So, although increasing the protein contribution of your diet may improve appetite and fullness, it may not be enough to reduce your carb and fat intakes, especially if you are exposed to highly palatable foods. For this reason, if you attempt the dopamine diet with weight loss as your goal and you know you have a weakness for certain high-fat, high-sugar foods, you may need to limit your exposure to them.
A nutritionist’s view
The popularised version of the dopamine diet limits carbohydrates and promotes the intake of lean proteins from unprocessed meat, eggs, dairy and other tyrosine-rich foods. Reducing key food groups, such as those rich in carbs, may make it difficult to achieve a balanced, nutritionally-rich diet and may make meeting your recommended fibre intake difficult.
Furthermore, the amount of protein we each need is unique to us and depends on factors such as our age, health status and how active we are. As well as how much protein we eat, we should also consider when we eat it. Including protein foods at each meal or snack throughout the day is thought to be more effective than having the majority of our protein intake in one meal.
Although you may experience some weight loss following the dopamine diet, it may be easily regained once you resume your normal eating patterns.
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If you are considering any form of diet, please consult your GP or a registered dietician first to ensure you can do so without risk to health.
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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