You may never have heard about RDS but it may be critical to understanding why your food and body image issues are so difficult to heal from. If you have binge eating, food addiction or emotional eating, you may have a genetic risk for RDS or early childhood trauma may have increased your risk for RDS.


In this podcast, you will learn:

1. What is reward deficiency syndrome?
2. How can I tell if I have RDS?
3. How does RDS cause food cravings, food obsessions and unwanted binging behaviors?


Mentioned in podcast:

Do you have RDS? Take the Quiz Below:

1. Playing poker is more fun for me than playing chess.
2. I enjoy high-risk or adventurous activities.
3. Given the choice between getting a small reward now or waiting for a larger reward, I prefer not to wait. I want it now.
4. Most people describe me as having an excitable personality.
5. At work, I could not get my job done without coffee.

If you answered “yes” to 1 or 2 or these questions, you may have a mild form of RDS. If you answered “yes” to 3 or more of the questions, it is highly likely you have RDS.


Don’t miss the next Anchor Program – beginning soon! Schedule a free consult to discuss your food and body image issues:

Get a free copy of The Food Addiction Recovery Workbook” (I pay for the book, you pay for postage/ handling)

Use this link to get your free e-book of “The Food Addiction Recovery Workbook.” (you pay for handling charge only),


Hi everyone. It’s Dr. Carolyn here, I’m bringing you episode number 112, what is reward deficiency syndrome and what does it have to do with food addiction, binge eating or emotional eating? You may not have heard about it before, but it is a strong contributing factor to why people with food and body image issues struggle for so long with things that seem to be so easy for other people. So stay tune.

Okay. Well, as we know food is the source of pleasure for most people, right? And the source of pleasurable sensations originates in part of the brain called the dopamine reward center. And I’m sure many of you have heard that dopamine is the brain chemical responsible for these feel good feelings and feeling of reward. Anything that gives us pleasure will have effect on dopamine reward center and cause release of the brain chemical dopamine. Normally the brain’s hardwiring works in our favor, motivating us to repeat activities that are life sustaining by linking those activities to feelings of pleasure or reward. So it makes sense. In other words, if something feels good, you wanna do it more. And this explains why sex and eating are generally pleasurable because they perpetuate the survival of the human species.

However, the mechanism can go awry. Firstly, for people without food addiction, binge eating, emotional eating, eating normal amounts of food provides enough pleasure and overeating occurs only on occasion. So for example, whatever your favorite holiday is, but for me it’s Thanksgiving. But if you have a food or eating addiction, you may not feel the same amount of pleasure when you eat normal amounts of food. And when you eat foods that are not what I call your food fixes, that is those foods that you crave and have difficulty controlling. So food addiction may be explained at least in part, by changes in the function of the dopamine reward center as can binge eating and emotional eating.

Secondly, even eating that isn’t really about survival at all. So in other words, just normal eating to nourish your body can be driven by a reward equal survival dynamic. When you use food to provide comfort or to numb yourself from emotional pain, this behavior locks into the same mechanism that drives you towards life sustaining behaviors. But in these instances, it’s a need for comfort or relief from emotional pain that drives you to overeat. You may feel like you’re craving a certain food when in fact you are craving a certain feeling or a lack of feeling, numbness that you’re using food to provide. This is really, really important to understand. So I’m just gonna say it one more time you may think that you’re craving chocolate or chips or any other food that you crave, sweets cookies, but in fact, what you are really craving is a certain feeling or lack of feeling that you’re using food to provide. So once again, the result is that you become obsessed with eating and you may binge on foods that help you change your emotional state.

Now researcher, Ken Blum described the syndrome, he called reward deficiency syndrome way back in 1996. And it was defined by difficulty experiencing feelings of pleasure or satisfaction. Reward deficiency syndrome then involves a failure in the brain dopamine reward system. Specifically people with RDS have abnormally low levels of dopamine d2 receptors. If you have RDS, your brain has a harder time detecting the pleasure signal carried by dopamine leading you to wanna turn up the volume. By doing more of the things you hope will bring you pleasure. So these low D2 receptors in the brain, they make you more prone to emotional eating and binging and food addiction. Interestingly, the number of dopamine D two receptors goes down as your weight goes up, reinforcing the tendency to overeat.

Now low levels of dopamine receptors may result not only in food addiction, but a whole list of other disorders that involve addictive behaviors, impulsivity, and compulsivity so RDS can implicate it not just in, for example, bingeing eating food addiction, or emotional eating, but also in alcohol use disorder, other substance use disorders, smoking, attention deficit disorder, compulsive sexual behavior and pathological gambling. I could say gaming as well because we know that there’s many young people have an addiction to gaming, online gaming. It can even be related to antisocial personality disorder, conduct disorder, and oppression.

Underlying dopamine regulation issues may explain why many people with binge  type behaviors and food addiction have a higher risk for a crossover addiction. And so you have one like eating addiction/food addiction and then when maybe you get better from that, another addiction may pop up. So this propensity is related to specific genes, common to both of you know, eating addiction and also for example, substance use disorders and other addictive type or compulsive type behaviors. So you may quit drinking only find yourself binge eating and obsessing about food. And some people who have, you know, the surgery, weight, loss surgery, bariatric surgery, and then they develop alcohol use disorder or substance use disorders or gambling or sex addiction. So, if you are struggling with these issues, RDS maybe the root cause of your cravings and compulsive behaviors until you address it you will have a hard time staying away from those unwanted behaviors

So let’s look a little bit more closely at how RDS can develop into full blown food addiction for example. Dopamine is important in our motivation and also in our choices of what we choose to eat or over eat. So the sense of pleasure associated with our food fixes is directly related to how much dopamine is released when you think about that food fix. So let’s just imagine it being chocolate. When you think about chocolate, you smell chocolate, or you eat chocolate. That’s when you get that sense of pleasure and dopamine is released in the brain. So just notice that I, I didn’t say you have to eat the food in order to get that dopamine released. Cause studies have been done for example, on a person who goes and gets ice cream, they taste the ice cream, they get that dopamine release. But then the next time they go to get ice cream, just thinking about the ice cream can cause a dopamine release that may be a, a unique way to start working on our food problems. Just think about the food don’t eat it. I’m just kidding.

Certain types of food are especially rewarding. And typically those are the ones that are high in sugar, salt, or fat, or all three. Now, these foods are called highly palatable foods and they cause a big stimulation of the dopamine reward center. So if you think your love of certain foods is all in your head, it is it’s in the pleasure molecules of dopamine released by your brain. If you have RDS your brain’s response to those food fixes may be different than the response of someone without the low levels of dopamine present in RDS. So these foods affect you more strongly. If you create chocolate, for example, your brain will light up like I said, at the thought of chocolate at the taste of chocolate. If you see a picture of chocolate, if you smell chocolate, your brain is on fayah, as they said. This response is not as strong. And those who don’t have RDS. So people who have food addiction, binge eating and emotional eating are predisposed to find more pleasure than those without those conditions when they eat those highly palatable foods, which you remember are, you know, well, actually they’re just all of the foods we call junk foods, fast foods, processed foods they basically are high in sugar, salt and fat and this predisposition can lead to binging cravings, etc.

Now binge eating behavior also stimulate the release of dopamine in the brain. So again, whenever you see your food fixed, smell it or eat it dopamine is released. Make you wanna eat it more and get more pleasure and this dopamine hit just perpetuates compulsive overeating. In animal studies overeating of those highly palatable foods is what triggers food addiction or eating addiction behaviors. Even the expectation of eating one of these highly palatable foods can cause dopamine to be released. So we’re talking about, if you have RDS, just driving to the grocery store or walking down the cookie aisle and thinking about getting your favorite cookies will activate dopamine release. Even before the cookie goes into your mouth. Now once dopamine is released, it may be much more difficult to interrupt your desire to eat these highly palatable foods. The brain changes in response to those foods I mentioned the highly palatable foods. They mimic brain changes, seen in people with substance use disorders.

All right. So I know that’s a lot to digest, but I wanna just go on and talk a little bit about cravings and how those can masquerade as hunger. So the same events in the brain also link to cravings, when dopamine is released, you experience a desire for that you interpret as hunger when in fact you are not physically hungry at all.

So people without RDS usually eat when they’re hungry, stop eating when they’re full their brains and bodies work together to give them feedback about physical hunger. And that’s why this last thing I said to you, the brains and bodies working together to give them feedback about physical hunger is why I’m so, you know, hammer in on the anchor program participants on reconnecting with your body and being able to access your body’s wisdom. But when you have RDS those highly palatable foods lead to the desire, not to need but the desire to eat when you’re not physically hungry. Simply because the brain is craving, it’s dopamine hits.

So over time, use the food to help produce more dopamine backfires in the same way as use of any chronic use of any substance, whether it be alcohol, cocaine, heroin, et cetera. And that then means to uncontrollable cravings. So just think about that for a moment if you think about how someone who becomes addicted to a substance, let’s just say heroin in the beginning, taking heroin gives them a huge sense of pleasure and reward. But over time, that sense of pleasure and reward requires more and more and more heroin to get even close to the initial, hit that reward from dopamine in the brain. And eventually they’re just using heroin. So they don’t have these uncontrollable cravings or go into withdrawals.

Now there’ve been, you know, I don’t how many books on how addictive certain foods are. I think the most recent one was a focus on sugar and it’s important to recognize that addiction isn’t really caused by the food itself, but by RDS, RDS reward difficiency syndrome makes your brain more likely to react to these particular, highly palatable foods, foods high in sugar, salt, and in an addictive way. So you’re reacting to the foods in an addictive way, causing cravings, obsessive thoughts, and loss of control. So the tendency to gain weight is yet another important difference between people who have RDS and those who don’t. Animals with low numbers of dopamine receptors, gain more weight than animals with normal numbers of receptors in the brain, even when they’re fed the same high fat diet.

So this finding what it tells you is that people with RDS are more likely to gain weight, even when they have the same diets as those without. Perhaps you’ve had the experience of watching your best friend, eat a large piece of chocolate cake and knowing she’s not gonna gain a pound while you will. Some people can’t eat anything they want and not gain weight while others can’t. That reality is explained by differences in how their brains function.

So in the exercise, see if you can determine whether you have RDS and I’m gonna put the exercise also in the show notes. So you will be able to see it in writing and take the quiz. So the question is, do you have RDS? And here are the here’s the quiz. Number one, playing poker is more fun for you than playing chess. Number two, you enjoy high risk or adventurous activities. Number three, given the choice between getting a small reward now or waiting for a larger reward I prefer not to wait I want now. Number four, most people describe you as ex personality. Number five at work, you couldn’t get your job done without coffee. Now, if you answered yes to one or two of these questions, you may have a mild form of RDS. If you answered yes to three or more, you are likely, highly likely to have reward difficiency syndrome.

Okay. In the next podcast, I will be talking about the causes of RDS and what you can do about them. You know it’s just important to understand all the layers that are  going on when we talk about solving problems with body issues. That’s why the simplistic solution of just find the best, you know, the next fad diet is so not gonna work. So I’m hoping you’re starting to compile the evidence to recognize that good body image issues have many layers and a diet is gonna fix any one of those layers.

All right. So I would appreciate you passing this podcast along to anyone you think might benefit or be interested in it. Help us get the word out. Thank you.

I hope that was helpful to you. I know it’s a little bit technical, so you may need to listen to it more than once, but I think it’s important to have a clear picture, as I said earlier of what goes on in our bodies, in our brains, in our spirits, when we have food and body image issues, because it’s a complex problem, there are so many different contributing causes. And there are so many different biological and genetic issues that a one stop fad diet isn’t gonna fix. So please, as I mentioned earlier, please feel free to pass this along. Also, I would hope that you could give us a five star review and I wanted to let you know again, that the next podcast is what causes RDS and what you can do about it.

I’m gonna put in the show notes, the information, the link to the, getting a free copy of the Food Addiction Recovery Workbook. We’re still offering that and I pay for the book and you pay a small shipping or handling fee. And finally, just a reminder that the anchor program has a new group starting soon. The anchor program starts with a 12 week intensive and that 12 week intensive sets the foundation for the remainder of the program, which is a six month program in the 12 week intensive we get to help you get to the root cause of what is the real reason why you continue to struggle with food and body image issues. After the 12 week program, you go into a six month program. And during that part of the program, you learn new skills for dealing with your emotions and stress and life situations without always defaulting to food. So the 12 week program meets once a week on zoom and the six month part of the program meets every two weeks on zoom. We have a new program starting soon. Again, if you have good addiction, binge eating or emotional eating, the anchor program may be for you. Just see the link in the show notes and set up your free consult to discuss further. Okay, this is Dr. Carolyn signing off. See you next time.