There’s a scene in an episode of “Sex and the City,” where Miranda Hobbes has shamelessly salvaged a cupcake from the trash and, half of the thing in her mouth, leaves a voicemail with Carrie admitting her weak moment in case her friend needs that evidence when she admits her into the Betty Ford clinic. Katie Couric played the clip before introducing her guest, Dr. Pam Peeke, internationally recognized expert, physician, and author in the fields of nutrition, stress, fitness, and public health, on the “Katie” show. Peeke’s latest book, “The Hunger Fix” (a New York Times bestseller), lays out the science to prove that fatty, sugary, salty processed foods produce in a food addict’s brain the same chemical reaction as addictions to crack cocaine and alcoholism. Peeke uses neuroscience to explain how, with repeated exposure coupled with life stresses, any food can become a “false fix” and ensnare you in a vicious cycle of food obsession, overeating, and addiction. The dopamine rushes in the body work the same way with food as with drugs like cocaine.
The good news is that, while we can’t change our genes, we can most definitely influence how our genes communicate and collaborate with the rest of our mind and bodies, what is called our gene expression, so that the addictive behavior is dampened. In other words, our biology isn’t destiny. Epigenetics – epi meaning “above” or “outside” – is a new science and we’re only beginning to understand how it works and what it means for human health. “If you can change certain key choices – your diet, how you handle stress, your physical activity – it’s like writing notes in the margin of your genome, and you can flip the switch to support and protect your health,” says Peeke.
For example, in December of 2013 a new study by researchers in Wisconsin, Spain, and France reported the first evidence of specific molecular changes in the body following a period of mindfulness meditation. Richard J. Davidson, founder of the Center for Investigating Health Minds and the William James and Vilas Professor of Psychology and Psychiatry at the University of Wisconsin-Madison, said it was the first paper that showed rapid alterations in gene expression with subjects associated with mindfulness meditation practice.
We can apply this kind of gene expression – not only via meditation, but also through healthy eating, physical activity, stress management – to tackle our food addiction. Peeke says that even if we have the FTO gene (the obesity gene), that doesn’t dictate a life of obesity. We are not condemned to that metabolic system.
While this all sounds great, I asked Dr. Peeke if, as a recovering alcoholic and lifetime sugar addict, I would ever be able to eat cake in a way that my husband and certain friends do: not wearing it on my face, leaving a few crumbs, not ready to tackle anyone and anything who gets in my way of getting another piece. I’m right there with Miranda, digging the goodies out of the trash.
She explained the three levels of rewards. Normal people eat a piece of cake and they may get the pleasure of, say, eating an apple. “Wow, that was good.” Another group of people eat the same cake and experience it as maybe some grapes, or a really juicy sweet peach. “That was REALLY good.” The addict experiences what she calls the “uber” level of pleasure, an over-the-top feeling of gratification. Because of my genetic make-up, I am programmed to get to that uber level and try like heck to sustain it. This is even more complex because, as the brain’s primal mechanism is to correct overstimulation—the kind I get when I drink or eat cake—it reduces the amount of dopamine receptors, which explains a person’s tolerance and why I need to drink more and more glasses of wine, or eat 10 cupcakes to get the same kind of relief and dopamine high. The addictive process, then, becomes about avoiding withdrawal even more that seeking pleasure.
So can I eat that piece of cake as a sugar addict?
Every person has to experiment and find that out for himself. This is not a conquest, Peeke explains, but an exercise of managing and training. Most people, Peeke asserts, can stay off sugary, salty, starchy foods for a period of time and reintroduce them slowly, presuming the person has incorporated positive lifestyle changes: healthy diet, exercise program, stress management. Those steps ensure that we are changing our gene expression, like the example of mindfulness meditation. There are folks like me that carry a genetic load that make it difficult to do anything in moderation. Peeke suggests we transfer the addictive experience of eating cake or drinking vodka to healthy uber experiences, like competing in triathlons, writing a blog, hiking in the mountains. For me, that’s training to swim across the Chesapeake Bay every summer. It gives me a high similar to that of cake and booze.
“No matter what the past, you can define your destiny right now,” says Peeke. “The fact that you can change your gene expression – literally alter the script of your life is so empowering.”