There are just some foods we literally cannot get enough of. We may even call them addicting.
These foods are typically hyper-palatable, meaning they are excessively pleasing to our sense of taste. Hyperpalatable foods are often high in the combination of sugar, fat, and salt. It’s a lot easier to have more than 1 chocolate chip cookie or more than 1 potato chip rather than more than 1 serving of raw broccoli.
Hyperpalatable foods not only make you want to go outside the boundaries of a single serving, but research has shown that these foods make us eat more food in general, at every meal, all day long. A few studies on hyper-palatable foods have shown that subjects who recorded what they ate and rated the taste of their meals over seven days found that meals in which food was hyper-palatable were 44% larger than the average meal (1,2).
The Addictive Potential of Food
Drugs and palatable foods both share the potential for addiction. Both have powerful reinforcing effects that are mediated by dopamine increases in the brain reward system (3).
Dopamine, often recognized as one of the brains “happy chemicals”, is a neurotransmitter that is released when we experience pleasure via activities like laughing with friends, winning a prize, or eating food that tastes good.
Eating something hyper-palatable causes your brain’s dopamine levels to surge. Your brain uses those dopamine bursts to train itself to continue to engage in things that feel good. That’s why things that promote your survival like eating, making friends, and mating all make us feel good. Since our brain is our body’s control center, it recognizes these instances that make us feel good, driving us to want to do them more.
In the context of drug addiction, people escalate use due to tolerance, which is caused by changes in your brain’s dopamine system (4,5). Intake of hyper-palatable food causes similar effects to the wiring of your brain (6,7). The rewarding properties of food can override basic satiation signals, leading us to often eat more than we really need to.
Now, I am not saying that eating chocolate chip cookies is comparable to doing hard drugs. However, understanding their shared effects on the brain’s reward system simply helps to drive the point home in the sense that for some, it is much more than just a lack of willpower to stop eating. Your brain is literally wired to make you want to do more of the things that make us feel good, even if it is bad for us.
How Habits Change Your Brain
One of the most outstanding properties of the nervous system is its ability to modify its structure and function in response to experience, thus allowing us to “self-tune” to particular environmental drivers. Neuronal plasticity (the ability to change our brain’s neurons), happens when we learn new skills and behaviors such as playing the piano, riding a skateboard, and learning a new language. Learning new behaviors, like going straight for the gallon of ice cream right before bed, is also a behavior that can be absorbed via neuronal plasticity. It can, therefore, becoming an addictive habit that is later on, hard to break because it almost feels like an automatic response to a specific feeling, time or environment. Possibly one of the most well-known examples of this is Pavlov’s dog experiment in classical conditioning.
Effect of Food Variety on Weight and Eating Behavior
Aside from palatability, food variety has also been studied as a promoter of increased calorie intake. Providing a variety of foods varying in taste, texture, and appearance stimulates intake both within meals and across meals. (8, 9, 10). Our brains evolved this tendency long ago to maximize the probability of adequate energy intake by stimulating renewed eating when a new food type became available. However, this behavior that was adaptive in conditions of food scarcity back in the cave-man era, can be a risk of overeating in an environment in which energy-dense food is easily accessible everywhere.
Studies have shown that a high-variety vs. a low-variety diet results in higher palatability ratings, and eating more food overall (11,12). Similarly, the reverse, known as the monotony effect, is well documented in studies and just as effective. The repeated presentation of the same foods over several meals or days results in sharply declining palatability ratings and overall reduced food intake (13).
Regaining Control and Best Practices for Preventing Food Addiction or Binge Eating
If you are someone who finds yourself not being able to control the amount you are eating of a specific food, it is likely that specific food is simply too hyper-palatable for your sense of taste at that time. While practicing flexible dieting is nice and all, there are just some foods that “trigger” overeating and are healthier for us to avoid for a certain time.
Does that mean you need to cut that “trigger” food out for the rest of your life? Absolutely not. There may be other factors going on like a recent restrictive diet history, or a stressful life situation that could be leading you to find comfort and losing control with that one specific food.
Sometimes, it is healthier to avoid the situation at that time and wait until you feel you are a bit more stable. If you are going through a stressful situation and your outlet happens to be ice cream, it may be better in the long run, for you to just not have it in the house until you feel like you are in a better place.
Right now, for example, I am deep into a contest prep diet, but just a few weeks ago I had to cut out peanut butter because for me, that hyper-palatable food that is high in fat and salt (the brand I like anyway), makes me crave way more than just 16g. I can easily house ½ the jar in a matter of minutes. But why make dieting harder on me? I decided not to try to fit it in my macros anymore because I found myself slipping up and going for extra more than I should it got to a point where it felt difficult not to.
This doesn’t have to be the case for everyone. Some people can have 8g of cookie butter and be on their way. Some people try to stop at 8g but end up having 50g, which is not conducive for someone in a fat loss phase.
If you are finding yourself often overeating in general, not due to hunger signals but simply craving that reward, it may help reduce the variability in your diet and keep things a bit more consistent. This is why so many bodybuilders who have the intention of fat loss will meal prep the same exact meals for 5-6 days a week; it just makes the whole process of dieting down easier as cravings are less frequent and rampant.
Understanding the physiology of the brain in regard to food, and knowing the cause of how it all happens, allows us to take action to prevent the effect down the road. One of the most helpful tools for most people is having the accountability of a coach and guidance in strategies that have worked for their clients before.
At Team LoCoFit, we believe your relationship with food must be in a good place before pursuing any sort of fat loss phase or diet. The long term physical and mental health of the client always comes first. Therefore, we recommend that anyone who is looking to improve their nutritional habits but also feels they struggle with an eating disorder, seek professional help from a therapist to work in conjunction with a tailored nutrition plan or simply seek the guidance of at eating disorder specialist first.
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