24 Jun Your Brain Is Being Tricked! Why You Can’t Stop Overeating
You know the feeling: You just wanted one bite of that birthday cake someone brought in the office and all of the sudden you’v eaten half of and you’re going “What’s wrong with me?”
It’s actually normal to feel like you can’t stop overeating certain things. Today’s hyperpalatable food is creating a modern-day food crisis — one that’s leaving us feeling sick, out of control, and constantly craving more.
Here’s how it works…
Processed foods are scientifically engineered to be irresistible and easy to nosh in large quantities. If you can’t stop, the chips are doing their job.
That’s why, in this article, we’ll explain exactly how junk food is designed to make us respond with compulsive, manic, gotta-have-more snack sessions.
Because, if you feel out of control around certain foods, you’re not crazy.
Even healthy eaters feel out of control around food sometimes. Even if we value nutrition and want to take care of ourselves, some foods can make us feel… kinda possessed.
If you’ve felt this, you’re not alone (and you’re not broken).
Certain foods are actually designed to make us overeat.
If you’re overeating, it’s not because there’s something wrong with you or your willpower.
Here’s the truth: There’s a whole industry dedicated to creating food that’s hyperpalatable — food that’s so tasty it’s nearly irresistible.
Your body and brain are responding exactly as they’re supposed to. It’s supposed to feel almost unnatural to stop eating these foods!
But we’re not talking about food like celery sticks, whole brown rice, or baked salmon filets.
(How often do you hear yourself say, “I ate sooo much steamed asparagus! I just couldn’t stop myself!” That’s right. You’ve never heard yourself say that.)
We’re talking about processed foods.
Processed foods are foods that have been modified from their original, whole-food form in order to change their flavor, texture, or shelf-life. Often, they’re altered so that they hit as many pleasure centers as in our nervous system as possible.
Processed foods are highly cravable, immediately gratifying, fun to eat, and easy to over-consume quickly (and often cheaply).
Processed foods will also look and feel different from their whole food counterparts, depending on the degree that they’re processed.
Let’s take corn as an example.
Boiled and eaten off the cob it’s pale yellow, kinda fibrous, but chewy and delicious.
Corn that’s a bit processed — ground into a meal and shaped into a flat disk — turns into a soft corn tortilla. A tortilla has a nice corny flavor and a soft, pliable texture that makes it easy to eat and digest.
But what if you ultra-process that corn? You remove all the fiber, isolate the starch, and then use that starch to make little ring-shaped chips, which are fried and dusted with sweet and salty barbecue powder. They’re freaking delicious.
That corn on the cob is yummy. But those corn-derived ring chips? They’re… well they’re gone because someone ate them all.
How processed foods trick us into eating more than we meant to.
There are four sneaky ways processed food can make you overeat. Often, we’re not even aware of how much these factors affect us.
That’s why, awareness = power.
Here are some things to start being aware of…
1. Marketing convinces us that processed foods are “healthy”.
Processed foods come in packages with bright colors, cartoon characters, celebrity endorsements, and powerful words that triggers all kinds of positive associations.
Take, for example, “health halo” foods.
“Health halo” foods are processed foods that contain health buzzwords like organic, vegan, and gluten-free on their label to create an illusion, or halo, of health around them.
Companies come out with organic versions of their boxed macaroni and cheese, gluten-free versions of their glazed pastries, and vegan versions of their icing-filled cookies.
You’ll see chips “prepared with avocado oil,” sugary cereal “made with flaxseeds,” or creamy chip dip with “real spinach.”
The nutrient content of those foods isn’t particularly impressive, but the addition of nutrition buzzwords and trendy ingredients make us perceive them as healthier.
Marketers also choose words that relate more broadly to self-care.
Ever notice how many processed food slogans sound like this?
“Have a break.”
“Take some time for yourself.”
“You deserve it.”
Words like “break” and “deserve” distract us from our physical sensations and tap into our feelings — a place where we just want to be understood, supported, soothed, and perhaps just escape for a moment.
Health buzzwords and emotional appeals can make us perceive a food as “good for me”; it seems like a wise and caring choice to put them in our shopping carts, then in our mouths.
And if a food is “healthy” or “we deserve it,” we don’t feel so bad eating as much as we want.
2. Big portions make us think we’re getting a “good deal”.
People get mixed up about food and value.
We’re taught to save money and not waste food.
We’re taught to buy more for less.
Given the choice between a small juice for two dollars, and a pop with endless refills for the same price, the pop seems like better value.
What we don’t calculate into this equation is something I like to call the “health tax.”
The “health tax” is the toll you pay for eating low-nutrient, highly processed foods. If you eat them consistently over time, eventually you’ll pay the price with your health.
When companies use cheap, poor quality ingredients, they can sell bigger quantities without raising the price.
But what’s the deal?
Sure, you’ll save a buck in the short term, but you’ll pay the health tax — through poor health — in the long term.
3. Variety makes us hungrier.
Choice excites us.
Think of a self-serve frozen yogurt topping bar:
“Ooh! Sprinkles! And beer nuts! Oh, and they have those mini peanut butter cups! And granola clusters! Wait, are those crushed cookies?? And cheesecake chunks??! YES! Now on to the drizzles…”
Before you know it, there‘s a leaning tower of frozen dessert in front of you.
Or think of those “party mixes” — pretzels and corn chips and cheesy puffs and barbeque rings — all in one bag! The fun never ends because there’s a variety of flavors and textures to amuse you forever!
When we have lots of variety, we have lots of appetite.
It’s hard to overeat tons of one thing, with one flavor, like apples.
How many apples can you eat before, frankly, you get bored?
Reduce the variety and you also reduce distraction from your body’s built-in self-regulating signals. When we’re not so giddy with choice and stimuli, we’re more likely to slow down, eat mindfully, and eat less.
4. Multiple flavors at once are irresistible.
If there’s a party in your mouth, you can guarantee that at least two out of three of the following guests will be there:
These three flavors — the sweetness of sugar, the luxurious mouthfeel of fat, and the sharp savory of salt — are favorites among those of us with mouths.
I never hear my clients say that they love eating spoonfuls of sugar or salt, or that they want to chug a bottle of oil.
However, when you combine these flavors, they become ultra delicious and hard-to-resist. This is called stimuli stacking — combining two or more flavors to create a hyperpalatable food.
The satisfying combination of fat and salt, found in chips, fries, nachos, cheesy things, etc.
The comforting combination of fat and sugar, found in baked goods, fudge, ice cream, cookies, chocolate, etc.
The irresistible combination of all three — heaven forbid you stumble on a combo of fat, salt, and sugar — a salted chocolate brownie, or caramel corn with candied nuts, or fries with ketchup!
Food manufacturers know: When it comes to encouraging people to overeat, two flavors are better than one.
In fact, when I spoke to an industry insider, a food scientist at a prominent processed food manufacturer, she revealed the specific “stimuli stacking” formula that the food industry uses to create hyperpalatable food.
They call it “The Big 5.”
Foods that fulfill “The Big 5” are:
Calorie dense, usually high in sugar and/or fat.
Intensely flavored — the food must deliver strong flavor hits.
Immediately delicious, with a love-at-first taste experience.
Easy to eat — no effortful chewing needed!
“Melted” down easily — the food almost dissolves in your mouth, thus easy to eat quickly and overconsume.
When these five factors exist in one food, you get a product that’s practically irresistible.
In fact, foods developed by this company have to hit the big 5, or they’re not allowed to go to market.
When processed food manufacturers evaluate a prospective food product, the “irresistibility” (the extent to which a person can’t stop eating a food) is more important even than taste!
Just think about the ease of eating whole foods versus processed foods:
Whole foods require about 25 chews per mouthful, which means that you have to slow down. When you slow down, your satiety signals keep pace with your eating and have a chance to tell you when you’ve had enough. Which is probably why you’ve never overeaten Brussel sprouts (also because, farting).
Processed food manufacturers, on the other hand, aim for food products to be broken down in 10 chews or less per mouthful. That means the intense, flavorful, crazy-delicious experience is over quickly, and you’re left wanting more — ASAP.
Restaurants use these “ease of eating” tactics, too.
A major national chain uses this sci-fi-esque trick:
To make their signature chicken dish, each chicken breast is injected with a highly flavored sauce through hundreds of tiny needles. This results in a jacked-up chicken breast with intense flavor hits, but also tenderizes the chicken so it requires less chewing.
In other words, there’s a reason that restaurant chicken often goes down easier and just tastes better than the simple grilled chicken breast you make in your kitchen. Unless you have hundreds of tiny sauce-needles (weird), that chicken is hard to recreate at home.
This is why a good coach/nutritionists don’t talk to clients who are battling overeating about will power. If you’re relying on willpower to resist these foods, you’re fighting an uphill battle.
The solution isn’t more willpower. The solution is educating yourself about these foods, examining your own relationship with food, and employing strategies that put you in control.
So, now you see why processed foods are so hard to control yourself around.
But what can actually you do about it?
Up next, some practical strategies to empower you against processed foods.
This article was adapted from one written by Dr. Jennifer Broxterman