Do you ever feel like you just can’t stop eating, even though you’re not really that hungry? It may not be your fault! Recent studies have shown that certain foods, including dairy and wheat products, contain molecules that can make you feel addicted to them.
These molecules, called casomorphin and gliadomorphin, are proteins derived from milk and wheat gluten. They bind to the same receptors in your brain as opioid drugs like morphine, making it difficult to resist overeating them. So if you’ve been struggling with weight gain or processed food addiction, it may be time to give up dairy and wheat products altogether.
Luckily, there are plenty of healthy alternatives available.
1. What are casomorphin and gliadomorphin, and how are they created?
Casomorphin is a peptide opioid produced from the digestion of casein, a milk protein. This peptide is formed when enzymes in the stomach break down the casein molecule into smaller pieces. One of these pieces is called an amino acid, and one particular amino acid, glutamic acid, can be converted into casomorphin.
Gliadomorphin is a morphine-like compound that is created during the milling of wheat. The milling process separates the endosperm from the bran and the germ of the wheat kernel. The endosperm is ground into flour, and the bran and germ are used as ingredients in other foods. Gliadomorphin is created when the endosperm is ground into flour.
Casomorphin and gliadomorphin bind to the same receptors in the brain as other opioids, like heroin and morphine, which is why they are so addictive.
2. The effects of these substances on the brain and appetite
Casomorphin and gliadomorphin bind to opioid receptors in the brain, and this binding causes the release of dopamine.
Dopamine is a neurotransmitter responsible for feelings of pleasure and reward, and caso/gliadomorphin’s ability to release dopamine helps explain why it is addictive. Casomorphin also has other effects on the brain, including sedation and respiratory depression.
Both are appetite stimulants.
Caso/gliadomorphin has been shown to have appetite-stimulating effects, and it is believed that this is because it acts on the same areas of the brain as other opioids, like morphine.
These peptides can increase feelings of pleasure and satisfaction, leading to overeating and weight gain.
Glutamate is a neurotransmitter that activates the brain’s pleasure centers, and it is thought that gliadomorphin produces its appetite-stimulating effects by activating these same pleasure centers. This peptide may also increase the production of gastrointestinal hormones like ghrelin, which stimulate hunger.
Tolerance and Neuroadaptation
The problem with consuming too many morphine-like substances has to do with neuro-adaptation in the brain and constantly needing more.
As mentioned above, dopamine is a neurotransmitter related to the brain’s reward pathway (pleasure and pain), but it is more critical for wanting versus liking or getting.
In the brain, pleasure and pain are co-located and processed in overlapping areas; therefore, they work like a balance scale.
In her book “Dopamine Nation: Finding Balance in the Age of Indulgence,” Anna Lembke, MD, explains that when we seek that second handful of chips, for example, we need more to try and recreate those good feelings or try not to let them fade. However, with repeated exposure to the same pleasure stimulus, “the initial deviation to the side of pleasure gets weaker and shorter, and the after-response to the side of pain gets stronger and longer, a process called neuroadaptation.”
The more we consume, the more we need and needing more of a substance to feel better is called tolerance. Lembke explains that tolerance is an essential part of understanding the addiction process. With prolonged use of an addictive substance, the pleasure-pain balance of the substance gets weighted on the pain side. So our pleasure set point loses equilibrium; our capacity to experience pleasure goes down, and our vulnerability to pain increases. When we have more pain, we need more of the feel-good substance, and the vicious cycle is created.
An extremely challenging issue we face in modern society is that we live in a time of overwhelming abundance: processed food 24/7, internet and social media 24/7, and entertainment 24/7.
Our precious dopamine reward pathway is constantly on overdrive making it more challenging to enjoy a walk in the park, a sunset or eating food that doesn’t light up our brain to that sought-after bliss point like sugar, wheat, and dairy do.
But don’t despair; understanding this process is half the battle. Now that you know what’s happening in the brain, making minor changes to food choices will significantly impact your pain/pleasure balance.
3. The benefits of reducing or eliminating dairy and wheat from your diet
There are many benefits to reducing or eliminating dairy and wheat from your diet that go beyond the reward pathway in the brain.
- First, as mentioned above, dairy products are highly addictive and can cause health problems and weight gain.
- Second, dairy products can increase the risk of prostate cancer, ovarian cancer, and breast cancer.
- Third, dairy products can aggravate acne and other skin conditions. A 2010 study published in Clinics in Dermatology showed that milk contains anabolic steroids and growth hormones that add to the potency of milk as a stimulant of acne.
- Finally, eliminating or reducing wheat can help improve digestive problems, joint pain, and other health conditions.
4. How to reduce your intake of dairy and wheat products
Reducing the intake of dairy and wheat products can be challenging for many people. Dairy and wheat are staples in the Western diet and are often used in processed foods that are super convenient. However, there are a few simple steps that you can take to reduce your intake of these products.
First, try to cook more fresh meals using whole, unprocessed ingredients. This will help you to avoid processed foods that often contain dairy and wheat. Please don’t make it complicated either; otherwise, that’s a surefire way to quit cooking from scratch.
Make one protein and one veg with a healthy fat like extra virgin olive oil and seasoning. That’s it!
Don’t worry about consuming a variety of vegetables in one day or getting in all the recommended daily servings. Instead, look at what you ate over an entire week. If 80% of the time it came directly from nature, you’re on the right track.
Second, pay attention to food labels and look for dairy-free or gluten-free options. But don’t go crazy on dairy-free or gluten-free packaged goods; after all, they are overpriced and heavily processed food-like substances that don’t offer the same benefits as whole foods.
Third, batch cook. It’s the only way to survive and maintain the habit of cooking fresh meals in our fast-paced modern lifestyle.
Finally, don’t be afraid to experiment with new ingredients and recipes. There are many delicious and nutritious options, so you don’t need to feel like you’re missing out on anything by avoiding dairy and wheat and their convenience.
If you can get a little creative in the kitchen and have fun with it, you’ll be less likely to feel bad that you are missing out. Of course, you won’t be missing anything other than the potential for chronic illness, so play your favourite music and enjoy your time in the kitchen!
Swaps to slowly wean off of wheat and dairy:
Swap wheat products for starchy vegetables like sweet potatoes or regular mini potatoes that are easier to cook. Squash and anything from the root vegetable family is also great in place of wheat.
Swap cow milk for oat milk, as this is a big favourite these days since it has a naturally sweet flavour and is more environmentally friendly.
Be careful about non-dairy yogurt because it can be high in sugar. If you’re eating yogurt to get more protein, try a handful of mixed nuts instead.
Vegan “cheese” products are also worth avoiding as they are highly processed and don’t contain anything found in nature but rather chemical lab-created substances that don’t offer any real nutritional value. Suppose you need to have a little cheese; opt for hard cheese like Parmiggiano Reggiano. It is fermented and, therefore, a higher quality product with little to no lactose making it less likely to contain casomorphins.
But that’s not all! Check out my list below and get more help transitioning to a wheat and dairy-free lifestyle.
5. My top 10 resources to help you on your wheat and dairy-free journey
I curated a list of my favourite go-to websites for all your wheat and dairy-free meals.
- Meghan Telpner is not only an excellent resource for delicious recipes, but she has an online cooking school too! I attended her school, which gave me the confidence to get in the kitchen and cook things I never thought I could or would. Of course, I’m not the type of person who wants to spend hours in the kitchen, but with a few culinary tips, I feel like it’s so easy now to get clean and tasty food on the table in a short time with minimal effort, and that’s my style.
- If you have a hankering for baking and would love to learn how to bake dairy and gluten-free, then check out this online baking academy.
- Dr. Josh Axe is your go-to resource if you’re up for learning new recipes, health information, and nutrition science without becoming a nutritionist along your dairy and wheat-free journey.
- Danielle Walker transitioned to wheat and dairy-free lifestyle to reverse her chronic health condition, and now she has a beautiful website with delicious recipes and cookbooks.
- If you’re a foodie, then you’ve probably heard of Oh She Glows; Angela’s blog is my got-to-clean vegan resource when I want to cook with plant-based ingredients that aren’t chock-full of synthetic food-like chemical substances.
- Joy McCarthy is the founder of Joyous Health, a fantastic resource with delicious recipes, cookbooks, a clean beauty line, and health podcasts too!
- Dr. Mark Hyman is your trusted Medical Doctor regarding nutritional science and delicious wheat and dairy-free recipes.
- Dr. William Davis is also a medical doctor specializing in the cardiovascular system and gut health and has delicious recipes and cookbooks. He wrote the bible on wheat – you may remember his book Wheat Belly. Check out his website if you’re like me and want to get into the weeds on the wheat debate or need guidance on detoxing from wheat.
- If you want to try a wheat and dairy-free challenge, check out the Whole 30 Plan. Melissa Urban, the founder of Whole 30, blogged years ago about a 30-day dietary experiment that transformed her health, habits, and emotional relationship with food. Since then, millions of people have successfully tried her 30-day challenge of clean, whole foods eating.
- Julie Daniluk, nutritionist and TV host, has been creating recipes on her blog for years and has a lineup of mouthwatering cookbooks to keep you on track. Her fun personality, compassionate approach, and personal story with food inspire us to get honest about our habits and how we can finally thrive regarding our health.
While it may seem daunting, eliminating wheat and dairy from your diet can benefit your health and is worth the effort. If you’re struggling to give them up completely, work with a nutritionist like me who can help develop a plan that works for you. With a little effort, you could be on your way to better health and reduced cravings that addictive foods can cause. Give one or more of these ideas a try, and see how you feel!