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The Dopamine Value of Food

Part Two

written by Loretta Graziano Breuning, PhD September 29, 2020
The Dopamine Value of Food

The joy of food is one of your first experiences in life. A newborn baby enjoys a surge of dopamine when it first tastes milk. The baby doesn’t know what milk is, or what nutritional needs are, but the brain releases dopamine when milk relieves low blood sugar. That builds a pathway that says, “This is the way to feel good! Get me more of this!” But a baby doesn’t know how to get it. The next time it is hungry, it surges with cortisol and crying is its only way to “do something.” Then it hears a sound. Suddenly, its dopamine is triggered because that sound was heard during a prior dopamine release. So, at one day of age, a brain is already drawing on past experience to feel good.

A baby expects to feel good when it hears its mother’s voice, though it doesn’t know why. Whenever a bad feeling suddenly changes to a good feeling, it means you have relieved a threat and met a need at the same time. That builds a huge pathway because it’s a huge survival boost. Huge pathways create the expectation that food will relieve your woes. If you fall and hurt yourself and someone gives you a cookie, it feels like cookies have magic powers.

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