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The Science Behind Why We Overeat

It’s an alarming fact that two out of every three American adults are now either overweight or obese. There’s no question that this is the true “health care crisis” our nation faces.

We don’t need a government run health care program as much as we need consumer awareness and education. The food industry in this country has been leading people to overeat with clever tactics for decades and it’s about time their dirty little secrets are exposed.

I recently read a very eye-opening article in the July/August issue of the Nutrition Action Newsletter that addressed this very issue. It contained an interview with Dr. David Kessler, the former commissioner of the U.S. Food and Drug Administration.

Dr. Kessler is now at the University of California, San Francisco School of Medicine, where he’s researching human behavior with foods.

What The Food Industry Knows And Wants To Keep You From Figuring Out…

Americans spend billions on weight loss schemes yet continue to struggle because they don’t fully understand how eating certain foods can have a drug like effect on your body. The food industry knows this inside-out and uses the information to keep you coming back for more and more of their products.

Dr. Kessler started out his quest to find answers with a simple observance of people’s habits. The fundamental mystery he wanted to understand was why is it so hard for many of us to resist eating, even if we’re not hungry? In short, why do certain foods have so much power over us and lead us to engage in behavior we know is not good for us?

Why Is It So Hard To Resist That Chocolate Chip Cookie?

Fortunately, we now have science to help answer these questions. It’s not your fault that you’ve been “conditioned” to overeat and consume unhealthy foods. There is a way to fight back and it all starts with understanding how certain foods work in your body.

The main culprits are sugar, fat, and salt. For years we labeled sugar as being the primary addictive component in foods but it’s now understood that the combination of sugar and fat together to be the real dynamo. When you eat foods that have both sugar and fat it stimulates brain activation similar to that of addictive drugs.

You see there’s more going on here than meets the eye. Why does that chocolate chip cookie have the ability to capture your attention so strongly? It’s not just because it tastes good. That chocolate chip cookie has a drug like effect because of recall by your brain of stimulation from eating it in the past.

The Hidden Triggers That Make You Eat Certain Foods…Even When You’re Not Hungry!

There are numerous factors that can create a “trigger” in your brain to desire food, just like it would an addictive drug.

You could be walking downtown and just start thinking about chocolate covered pretzels because six months earlier you went into a store on that same street and had chocolate covered pretzels.

The recall stimulates brain activation and creates arousal. It’s part of your subconscious working memory. You’re thinking about that food and you want it bad even though you may not even be hungry.

An interesting fact is the more a food is “multi-sensory” the more addictive it becomes. For example, ice cream combines sugar and fat and cold. But if you add Heath bars, crumbled cookies, and hot fudge, that adds texture, aroma, and another temperature.

This just makes it more reinforcing and causes you to crave it more in the future.

You’re Being Taken On One Big Roller-Coaster Ride…

The repeat cycle of cue-activation to arousal to release is commonly referred to as the “roller coaster effect.” You get cued by sights, sounds, smells, time of day, location, etc.

The brain circuits get activated and there’s your arousal. Then you either distract yourself with something that’s more important to you, or you eat it and there’s your release. Eating foods with sugar and fat becomes in essence a “thrill ride.”

Dr. Kessler gives a good example of how this works. He states that if someone gave you a packet of sugar and said “Go have a good time,” you’d look at them and say, “What are you talking about?”

But if you add some fat to that sugar along with texture, color, temperature, smell, and the emotional gloss of advertising that says you can eat it with your friends and have a good time you’ll be hooked.

There’s plenty of scientific evidence to show how foods with fat and sugar stimulate brain activation. If you expose someone fond of chocolate to pictures of chocolate and scan their brain you’d see elevated activation in the amygdala region. T

hat’s where you process and store memories of emotions. When people who aren’t “conditioned” hyper-eaters start to consume chocolate the activation shuts off. But in “conditioned” people the activation remains elevated and doesn’t stop until they’ve stopped eating the chocolate.

Conditioning Our Children To Be Fat!

The mechanisms that are supposed to make you stop eating are simply over-ridden. Dr. Kessler states that if you look at children around the age of two-three, they compensate. Meaning if you give them more calories in one meal, they’ll eat less later in the day.

However, once they’re exposed to sugar, fat, and salt repeatedly for a couple of years they lose the ability to compensate. By age four or five, they’re eating all the time. If that isn’t enough evidence to keep your children away from these foods I don’t know what is.

Childhood obesity isn’t the fault of the child; it’s the fault of the parents! They’re simply programmed to want these foods like it was a drug and their normal mechanisms that allow them to compensate are turned off. They’ll stumble into adulthood fighting their weight, illness, and poor health having been shackled to addictive foods from the start.

Eating For Nutrition, Or Eating For Stimulation And Release?

The bottom line on all this is the food industry knows how to push your buttons. They’ve got you right where they want you knowing you’ll keep coming back for more. In today’s society most people don’t eat for nutrition, they eat for stimulation. The food isn’t really satisfying you but rather taking you on a roller coaster ride.

So how do you fight back? I wish it was as simple as saying stop eating these addictive foods. But that’s like telling a smoker they should just give up nicotine. It’s not that easy. Remember, there are strong emotional cues and triggers that cause you to crave sugary and fat foods. You have to change the triggers.

Your circuitry is wired from past experiences to seek pleasure, or a release, from these foods. As long as you associate these foods with a positive, feel good experience, you’ll keep coming back.

When you associate a negative feeling from eating these foods you’ll change the triggers. Ever eat too much of something and gotten sick? You don’t go back to that food for some time because of the negative mental association.

You may have gotten the flu and the last thing you ate was a cheeseburger. The cheeseburger wasn’t the reason you got sick, the flu virus was, but that won’t keep you from avoiding cheeseburgers like the plague for a while.

The mind is a powerful thing and it’s the real control center that decides what you’ll eat and when.

Changing The Mental Associations And Triggers

I don’t drink sodas at all, gave them up years ago. So if I were to drink a full fledged Coca-Cola right now I’d feel lousy in an hour. The sugar rush would create such a hormonal crash that I’d have no problem quickly putting a negative mental association to it.

It’s easy to steer clear of sugary foods once you have the right mental associations. Does this happen overnight? Of course not, but your beginning steps are to simply replace these foods with natural foods that make you feel better.

Over time and with repetition you’ll begin to associate the natural foods with a positive mental association and unhealthy foods with a negative mental association. Yes, there is a point when a Big Mac will no longer provide you with a “release.” You just have to give your mind and body time to reset the triggers.

If nothing else I hope this article helps you better understand the psychological triggers of food and that it’s not just a matter of will-power. You’ll lose that battle every time if you’re trying to resist certain foods without changing the triggers.

Dr. Kessler wrote an excellent book on this subject if you’d like additional reading. It’s called “The End Of Overeating: Taking Control of the Insatiable American Appetite” and is available from You can get a copy by clicking on the link above.


Shane Doll is a certified Charleston Personal Trainer, fat loss expert, speaker, and founder of Shaping Concepts Personal Training Studios. Receive a FREE no-obligations trial of his Charleston Personal Training Programs and experience the Shaping Concepts difference for yourself.

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Category: Nutrition.