You Are What You Eat: How Chemicals in Food Affect Your Mood

By Dorri Olds 05/07/19

Low-nutrient foods, plentiful in the American diet, are made of ingredients which can cause the same effects in the brain as mind-altering substances.

Woman's face and fingers moving toward diet soda, addicted to chemicals in food
“Our bodies weren’t meant to eat artificially sweetened shakes, diet soda, sugar-free Jell-O, pudding or protein bars.”

Lifestyle diseases include diabetes, obesity, stroke, heart disease, smoking, and substance use disorder. According to the CDC, heart disease, cancer, and diabetes are the leading causes of death and disability in the U.S.

Trying to Quit Everything in Sobriety

When I finally quit rum and cocaine, I wanted to change everything about my lifestyle immediately. With close to no impulse control and without alcohol and drugs to distance me from my feelings, I was a revved up raw nerve of angst. My original plan was to quit smoking, lose ten pounds, and quit picking the wrong guys. Thankfully, when I was newly sober I made a new friend, let’s call her “Anne.”

“I’m getting fat,” I told Anne two weeks after we met. “I need to go on a strict diet. I can’t let myself put on even more weight now that I’m quitting cigarettes.”

Anne said, “Crash diets rarely work and smoking is one of the toughest habits to break. The way to get healthy is to tackle one problem at a time. For now, maybe putting down drinking and drugging is enough.”

Anne gave me that excellent advice decades ago. We’re still friends and it’s been educational watching her change over the years. Unlike me, she preferred living at a thoughtful and slower pace. Many of her great habits like meditation, mindfulness, and exercise rubbed off on me.

After two years clean, I met a woman who’d had throat cancer. She had a huge scar across her neck and talked like a frog. I ran home that night, threw out my brand-new carton of Newports and quit cigs cold turkey. I began going to the gym. Two years after that big change, I went to Weight Watchers and lost 12 pounds and I’ve kept it off. But I was still in love with sugar and picked up compulsively chewing Bazooka Joe. Anne didn’t like sweets, which I could never understand. She said they made her feel like she’d had too many cups of coffee. She also drank decaf.

Addicted to Sugar

I’d been a sugar addict since childhood; I used to sell my lunches to kids on line in the cafeteria and sneak to the corner store for Milky Ways and Snickers. Due to the high cost of dentists, I finally switched to sugar-free gums like Extra and Trident but when an old filling was pulled loose, I was done with gum.

Everyone knows that sugar isn’t good for you, right? I'd read Sugar Blues as a teen while dating a health nut. And I knew that diet soda wasn’t full of vitamins and nutrients, but I didn’t want to dig too deeply into its ingredients. Anne mentioned it a few times so I’d glanced at articles about aspartame here and there but the truth is, I avoided learning about it because I didn’t want to know. I love soda. I’ve tried to give it up many times without success. Based on Anne’s suggestion, I switched to water but couldn’t keep it going after a few short spurts. The longest I ever went was two weeks — water was boring. I always gleefully ran back to Diet Coke and Diet Cherry Pepsi.

In 2017, Donald Trump announced “We’re going to be cutting regulations at a level that nobody’s ever seen before.” Since then, I’ve wondered who is approving what and if anyone is checking anything anymore. For all we know, big companies are paying big amounts of money to keep us eating crap. That’s when it first hit me that I should become a more informed consumer; I knew it was stupid to keep ignoring what I was ingesting. But by that time, I was in the habit of making changes slowly and not in the informed way Anne did. I was putting off quitting anything else but it was starting to gnaw at me.

The Diet Soda Trap

At a recent work conference, I met a handful of health and wellness experts. While chatting I asked, “How bad is it that I’ve been addicted to diet soda for-like-ever?” Talking stopped, heads whirled toward me, jaws fell slack and I felt like an idiot.

“It’s full of toxic chemicals,” one said, finally breaking the silence.

“Aspartame is the worst,” said another.

A third woman chimed in with sarcasm. “It’s great if you love mood swings and gaining weight.”

That evening I googled articles about aspartame and additional sugar substitutes. The more I read, the more it reminded me of the immutable hold that cocaine had had on me. When I was in rehab I’d learned that my addiction had nothing to do with me being a “bad” person or having weak, wimpy willpower and everything to do with brain pathways and ingrained habits. By the time I left treatment, I had a newfound understanding that no matter how many times I’d tried to quit snorting sparkly white powder, my brain was as trained as any of Pavlov’s dogs. Through the repetition over many years, my brain had developed deep grooves and these ingrained patterns became triggers for my Pavlovian compulsion to sniff out and snort up rewards.

So here I am with all this knowledge that any self-destructive habit I want to break is going to take work. It means changing my lifestyle until I build new brain pathways or at least block off the old ones.

Soon after reading more about aspartame, I received a timely email from Jaya Jaya Myra (née Myra Godfrey), with a link to her new TEDx talk. I remembered Myra’s strong background in neuroscience, which gave her opinion more weight in my mind. I knew she looked for solutions to her problems by studying her own brain, and that she sometimes found life-changing answers. Myra became a nutritionist, healer, Tedx-talker, and bestselling author of the book Vibrational Healing: Attain Balance & Wholeness. Understand Your Energetic Type, which I’d already read.

I was impressed by the new talk, so I asked her to meet me for lunch.

The Connection Between Trauma and Illness

“I cured myself of debilitating fibromyalgia,” she said as we sat in a diner. “Doctors couldn’t help me. The pain was debilitating and I lost everything—my job, my marriage, the bank foreclosed on my home, I couldn’t take care of myself or my three kids. When I was at my lowest point, I knew I had to figure out how I went from being totally healthy to completely debilitated.”

She described a long road to self-discovery that included meeting a Native American healer and Eastern medicine practitioners. “In Western medicine,” she said, “they focus on treating the symptoms, but fibromyalgia is a mysterious illness with no known causes or cures. Doctor after doctor treated me like I was an emotional female and it was all in my head.”

The only way to get better was to pinpoint the source of the problem. She went into therapy, worked hard, and found out she had repressed traumatic childhood memories. Her mother was an alcoholic who couldn’t take care of herself or of her daughter. Myra was neglected and traumatized and had developed self-destructive habits that made things worse.

I told her about my recent research. “Diet stuff can cause many more problems because of chemical sweeteners,” she said. “Aspartame is used in diet soda, sugar-free gum, yogurts, and so much more. It’s one of the worst sugar substitutes because it tricks your brain into thinking, ‘Ooh, sweet taste. I’m going to get a reward. But diet sodas don’t do that, they inhibit good hormones and neurotransmitters like dopamine, norepinephrine, serotonin. So you’re not satiated and it makes you crave more. It actually increases your appetite and wreaks havoc with your moods—depression, anxiety.”

Next I reached out to Emily Boller, author of Starved to Obesity, a self-help book about her journey out of food addiction. “Modern-day foods are completely abnormal,” she said. “They promote disease. I never chose depression. I didn’t want an addiction to food.”

Like Myra, Boller believes that eating disorders are symptoms of underlying conditions “like depression and post-traumatic stress disorder.” And, like Myra, Boller had experienced her own trauma. “My son Daniel died by suicide in 2012, in part it was due to his addiction to artificial and processed foods. He had type 1 Diabetes.”

If Daniel’s blood sugar got too high, the avalanche of brain-damaging spikes would create a medical delirium called metabolic encephalopathy, with symptoms like psychosis. He was only 21 when he died. Losing her son sent her into shock, then a “suffocating depression.” She’d struggled with food since childhood—first with binge eating and weight gain which brought on cruel teasing in school. In her teens, she swung the other way, dangerously into anorexia. As an adult she became obese.

Craving Low-Nutrient Foods

“You know that you’re addicted to a certain food if you try to give it up but the cravings are so strong you cave,” said Boller. “Our bodies weren’t meant to eat artificially sweetened shakes, diet soda, sugar-free Jell-O, pudding or protein bars.”

Boller raves about her doctor, Joel Fuhrman, MD, a six-time bestselling author and president of the Nutritional Research Foundation who specializes in preventing and reversing diseases through nutrition. Boller credits Dr. Fuhrman for teaching her a whole new lifestyle. What she shared was in keeping with what Jaya Jaya Myra had said about aspartame, chemicals and nutrition.

Dr. Fuhrman taught Boller about addictive substances. “They activate the reward system and cause the brain to demand more and more.” Boller learned that willpower is no match for addictive drives and that low-nutrient foods — high in calories, intensely sweet, salty, or fatty — make up the majority of the standard American diet. “The ingredients cause the same effects in the brain that mind-altering substances do.”

Here’s one way to think of addiction: Imagine walking in a field of grass. When you walk to one spot, you make a connection that gives your brain a good feeling, just like when an opioid floods your brain with a rush of dopamine. Now, imagine going back to that spot so you can have that pleasurable experience again. With each repetition you have matted down the grass in the field into a pathway. It would be odd to walk any other way than along the pathway that directly leads to the brain’s reward. When your brain doesn’t get the expected reward, it keeps craving it and looking for it.

“That’s why whenever you want to change a habit,” said Myra, “you need to replace it with something positive until you build a new pathway.”

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Dorri Olds is an award-winning writer whose work has appeared in many publications including The New York Times, Marie Claire, Woman’s Day and several book anthologies. Find Dorri on Twitter, Facebook, and LinkedIn.