“I eat all the time,” she said with a nervous giggle. “I eat when I’m hungry, I eat when I’m not hungry.  I eat to celebrate, I eat when I’m sad. I eat at night.  I eat when my husband comes home.”

Sarah’s story, as described in  “The end of overeating: Taking Control Of The Insatiable American Appetite” is just one of many.  Author David A Kessler, MD, former commissioner of the US Food & Drug Administration, describes “conditioned hypereating”, which works the same way as compulsive gambling and substance abuse.

Addicted to food?  That’s ridiculous, right?  Not so fast…

The telltale sign is the inability to stop eating while remaining unsatisfied.  Different foods set off different people (Oreos, potato chips or M & Ms, anyone?) but the common element is an optimal combination of sugar, fat & salt, a combination deliberately engineered to hit our “bliss point”.  Called hyperpalatable foods, chronic exposure to them changes our brains, conditioning us to seek continued stimulation, driving us back for more and more, all the while competing with our conscious capacity to say “no”.

Hmmm.  We’ve all been there at one point or another, in my case when exposed to an open tin of Poppycock.  Can’t have the stuff in the house. In my husband’s case it’s mixed nuts.  Normally a quite restrained eater, he’ll inhale the entire tin in one evening.

Ok – we have a solution then. Just avoid the stuff and get on with it.

If only it were that simple.  Unlike other addictions of choice – alcohol, gambling, drugs – we can’t swear off food entirely.  In fact, by one estimate we make 200 food decisions a day (where, when, how much, with whom, will I/won’t I?).  And in North America, particularly, apparently we’re making a lot of poor choices.

We’ve all heard unendingly about the “obesity epidemic”, which I was surprised to hear only started in the 1980s.  Prior to that, our weight was remarkably stable over time.  What changed?  The common answer is women went out to work and stopped preparing meals at home.  While that may be part of the answer, it’s not all of it.  Yes, we eat a lot more prepared food than we used to, but we’ve developed a few more insidious habits, too.

  • Top of the list is hyperpalatable foods. High in sugar, fat & salt.  “Layered and loaded”  – engineered to hit the highest number of stimulus points and be consumed with the greatest of ease.
  • Increased portion sizes.  More, more, more.  We’ve lost sight of what constitutes a proper portion.
  • Changes in social structure. It used to be considered rude to eat on the street. Now we eat anywhere, any time. Going to an afternoon meeting? Chances are good it’ll feature cookies, candy or both.
  • Blurring of definitions between meals & snacks.  We rarely sit down at a table and eat a meal.  Instead we graze continuously.
  • Vastly increased stimulus and reinforcement about food.  Always “plugged in”, we are bombarded with images of incredibly attractive, fun-loving, and  ironically, slim people consuming high fat, sugar & salt offerings.

Well what about the feedback mechanism we have to tell us when we’re full?  Can’t we just rely on that?  For foods that are close to what one finds in nature, largely the answer is yes.  But for hyperpalatable foods, for a lot of us, sadly no.

To understand the brain mechanism behind this, we turn to the oystercatcher, a shorebird that was the subject of a study in the 1950s by Dutch ethologist Nikolaas Timbergen. These birds were offered the choice of sitting on their own nests, containing their own small eggs, or sitting on the giant egg of a much larger bird.  They chose the much larger egg – one that was impossible for them to have produced themselves.   Experiments with herring gulls and graylag geese produced the same results.  “Supernormal stimuli” is the name for the giant egg, and from some perspectives, it makes sense.  Smaller eggs are prone to be not viable, so evolution has pointed us towards choosing bigger & flashier. This not only explains our predilection for breast implants, it uncovers why we are attracted to energy dense, engineered food – food that does not occur in nature.

What to do?

  • Eat food in as close to its natural state as possible.
  • Prepare your own food whenever you can. Retrain your palate to appreciate delicious food, simply prepared.
  • Eat wonderful food, in reasonable quantities.  As the saying goes “Don’t waste your time on the cheap stuff.”
  • Eat what you enjoy.  Your food repertoire can’t be too personal.
  • Read labels.  I unwittingly purchased “organic granola” at the grocery store the other day without recourse to my reading glasses.  At home, I was not amused to find that in addition to a list of unexpected ingredients, the raisins had been sprayed with oil. Loading and layering. Sigh.
  • Reconsider chain restaurant meals.  In many cases the food has been prepared in a factory-like setting offsite, pre-fried, pre-salted, pre-everything.  It’s refried again before it hits your table.  Yuck.
  • Eat only at mealtimes, and have two additional small (100-150 calorie) snacks.
  • Learn to eyeball a proper portion rather than count calories.  A deck of cards for a portion of meat, etc.
  • Eat your calories, rather than drink them.  It seems that our body does a lousy job at recognizing liquid calories. Skip the pop and drink water instead.  Eat an orange and give the juice a miss.
  • Work your habits.  Avoid creating bad ones, and use the good ones to your advantage.
    • Case in point: I never drink tomato juice, except on a plane. For some weird reason a number of years ago I had a tomato juice with my preztels and it became my “go to” drink for aircraft journeys.  Now when I see the cart coming down the aisle toward me, my taste buds are primed for tomato juice.  Mind you, a glass of tomato juice is unlikely to lead me down the road to fat perdition, but you take my point.
    • Use smaller plates – there’s lots of evidence that we mindlessly eat our way through bigger portions when they’re served
    • Willpower is limited – stack the odds in your own favour.  Get the junk out of your house.
  • Last but not least, exercise. Not only does it release the same pleasurable neurotransmitters we derive from eating, it’s a net reduction in the calories in/out equation.  A double win.

We can wait for the world to change back to when eating was simple and easy, or we can work with what we’ve got here and now.  Even though “big food” may be stacking the odds against us, it’s up to us to make our own choices. Knowledge is power. Let’s use it.

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