They’re what you might call “too good”. Anything that you “just can’t stop eating” would fall into this category. Reward value. Along with palatability, some foods give us a “hit” or a reward from some type of physiological effect. We’ll go out of our way to get foods with a high reward value — in fact, we may learn to like them even if they don’t taste very good. For instance, few people like black coffee or beer the first time they try them. But coffee has caffeine and beer has alcohol. Our brains like caffeine and alcohol.
So we learn quickly that coffee and beer are good things, and we learn to like (or at least tolerate) their taste. Over time we discover we like — maybe even can’t live without — them. We’ll wade through a crowded bar to buy a drink, we’ll stand in an absurdly long line for our afternoon coffee fix, and we’ll pay exorbitant amounts of money for relatively simple products. We’ll also make room for high-reward foods even when we’re full. This is why at Thanksgiving, after moaning and groaning about how full you are, you miraculously make room for pie when it’s time for dessert.
Now, what happens when you put these two things — hyperpalatable (tasty) and high reward (fun) — together? A dangerous combination. We want these foods, we like these foods, and we’ll work hard to get them. When we do get them, we often don’t quit eating them. These types of foods have a winning combination for keeping us interested and eating:
Energy density. i.e. a lot of calories in a small package,
High fat content
High refined starch and/or sugar content
Pleasing and specific texture, such as creamy or crunchy
Drugs, such as caffeine or alcohol
Other flavor enhancers or additives to improve mouthfeel
This magical mix is rarely found in nature. It is, however, often found in highly processed foods like cakes, cookies, pastries, pies, pizza, ice cream, fried foods, and so forth.
Make something salty, and sweet, and starchy, and fatty, then add in some extra flavors and scents, appealing colors and a pleasing mouthfeel for good measure, and you have something that’s been scientifically engineered for us to over-eat. We naturally love and seek out these things. Evolution has equipped us for it. If you love so-called “junk food”, and feel like you can’t stop eating it, you’re not alone, bad, or weird. Your brain is doing its job to keep you alive. For example, high-fat foods are energy dense. Good news if you’re a hunter-gatherer and nutrients are scarce. A sweet taste can tell us food is safe to eat. Bitter-tasting foods could be poisonous.
Yet our ancestors weren’t exactly dialing in for delivery. They had to bust their butts with daily activity such as stalking, gathering, and digging, even for minor rewards like a meal of turtle and tubers. Today, of course, high-fat foods aren’t nutrient-rich animal organs or blubber that we had to work nine hours to get; they’re Frappucinos and bacon double cheeseburgers that we bought while seated in our car. This is your brain on processed food. Our brains love processed foods. But our bodies don’t. These enchanting and semi-addictive foods aren’t usually very nutritious. They have more energy than we need, with fewer nutrients (i.e. vitamins, minerals, phytonutrients, essential fatty acids, etc.) and fiber.
After a while, our brain forgets about its natural “stop” signals in favor of getting more of that delicious “hit” from food reward. Our hedonic pleasure system starts bullying our homeostatic energy-balancing system. Over time, if we eat a lot of these foods consistently, we might even injure and inflame the parts of our brain that regulate our food intake and energy output. Now our homeostatic regulation isn’t just getting pushed around, it’s also on fire. We’re not sure exactly why this happens.
Getting too much energy from foods, and especially these foods seem to injure our brain’s neurons, particularly in the hypothalamus. When we are injured, we normally release inflammatory cytokines (aka cell signals). This happens in the brain as well (since the brain is part of our body), causing hypothalamic inflammation. There is also evidence that significant consumption of these energy-dense foods changes the populations of the bacteria in our gut. Which affects the gut-to-brain pathway and also causes hypothalamic inflammation.
Hypothalamic inflammation then leads to leptin resistance. Disrupting the leptin feedback loop You might have heard of insulin resistance, the condition where people’s cells stop “hearing” insulin signals, and slowly lose the ability to control their blood sugar levels. The same thing can happen with leptin: Your brain can start to ignore or “tune out” the leptin, even if you’re eating enough, and have plenty of energy stored in your body fat. In insulin resistance, the pancreas can simply pump out more insulin to keep blood sugar under control (at least for a while). Since body fat is our main leptin factory, to make more leptin, we need more body fat. When you’re leptin resistant, your brain thinks it doesn’t have enough leptin.
The brain needs the leptin factory (i.e. body fat) to get bigger and produce more leptin. Operation Add Adiposity begins. You feel hungry. Regular portion sizes are no longer satisfying; it’s harder to feel satiated and you want to keep eating and eat more often. You gain fat. Mission accomplished, or so your brain thinks. Here’s what the leptin feedback loop looks like now, in this disrupted scenario: As if that weren’t enough, it seems this inflammation and resulting leptin resistance might even cause our bodies to defend our increased weight. (This seems to be because the brain now views this higher level of leptin and body fat as its new normal.)
In this case, our body fights even harder than normal to stop us from losing fat. (Scientists are still researching exactly how and why our bodies do this.) Hyperpalatable, highly rewarding foods are often the most readily available. Tasty-fun food-crack deliciousness bombs (aka manufactured deliciousness) are everywhere. Today, these are the top 6 sources of calories in the U.S.: Grain-based desserts (cakes, cookies, donuts, pies, crisps, cobblers, and granola bars) Yeast bread, Chicken and chicken mixed dishes (and we don’t mean chicken breasts — think chicken fingers, chicken nuggets, and chicken alfredo).
Soda, energy drinks, and sports drinks, Pizza, Alcoholic beverages, and Fast food now makes up 11 percent of the average American’s energy intake. We now drink 350 percent more soft drinks than we did 50 years ago. Soybean oil (largely used in highly-processed foods) accounts for 8 percent of all calories that Americans consume. All of this, of course, makes perfect sense. If you’re a food company, you want people to eat your food.
Engineer the food to be extra-rewarding and hard to stop eating. People eat more, and buy more, and then lie awake at night thinking about how they could totally go for an ice cream sundae with sprinkles right now… If you’re a savvy marketer, you might also invent new opportunities for people to eat. Like… at movies. In the car. “Snacktime” before, during, and after school. In front of the TV.
At sports events. Before, during, and after workouts. Late at night (which is usually where processed foods excel). And so on. Social norms and our environment also affect where, when, how, and how much we eat. Now that food and food cues are everywhere, all the time, it’s hard to avoid wanting to eat, and hard to know when to stop eating.
You can’t control your unique genetic makeup, your history of dieting, nor your physiological response. But you can control your behaviors. Here are three simple (but not necessarily easy) steps you can take to help your natural appetite regulation system get back online and do its job better:
Step 1: Eat more whole, fresh, minimally processed foods. This means stuff like: Lean meat, poultry, fish, eggs, dairy and/or plant sources for your lean protein. Fruits and vegetables, ideally colorful ones. Slow-digesting, high-fiber starches such as whole grains, starchy tubers (e.g. potatoes, sweet potatoes, yams, cassava, etc.), beans and legumes. Nuts, seeds, avocados, coconut, fatty fish and seafood for your quality fats.
Step 2: Eat slowly and mindfully. No matter what you eat, slowing down will help your brain and gastrointestinal tract coordinate their activities. It will help you feel more in control of choosing what and how much to eat. Plus, since the signals are getting through properly, you’ll often feel satisfied with less food. Step 3: Eat fewer processed, hyper-palatable foods. Step 3 can be tricky. We get it. After all, this whole article is about how appealing those foods can be. Step 1 and 2 will make Step 3 easier.
If you get more of the “good stuff”, and stay mindful as you eat it, there’s often less room (and desire) for the other stuff.Over time, if you do these 3 steps consistently: You’ll probably notice you crave highly processed foods less, and feel more in charge of your food decisions in general. You’ll feel fuller for longer as that leptin loop returns to normal (at least to some degree, keeping in mind that each person’s body and the situation is a bit different). You may lose body fat. You’ll probably find you feel, move and perform better, too.
Physiology plays a big role. But so do psychology, relationships, and our larger society, our culture, our lifestyle, our individual knowledge or beliefs about food and eating. This means you aren’t “doomed” by physiology. You can use other things to help your body do its job.
A meal of whole foods, properly cooked and seasoned, and enjoyed at the dinner table with your family or friends is going to be much more satisfying than eating in your car next to the drive-through window. You don’t have to live in a world of bland and depressing “health food” just because you aren’t carpet-bombing your taste buds. Throw a little butter and salt on those veggies. Make them taste good — just not “too good”, too often. Your brain will love you for it.
Recognize that your body is a system. Think long-term. What you do today can affect what happens tomorrow. Your breakfast can change your dinner. If you restrict food and nutrients with a fad diet that “starts on Monday”, you might find your body aggressively taking back its energy by Friday.
Eat mostly whole, minimally processed foods. Whole, minimally processed foods are not hyper-rewarding or hyper-palatable. It’s harder to over-eat them. They don’t cause hypothalamic inflammation and leptin resistance. They have lots of good stuff (vitamins, minerals, water, fiber, phytonutrients, disease-fighting chemicals, etc.) and are usually lower in calories.
26. Choose whole foods that you enjoy and will eat consistently
Eat enough lean protein. Protein is a satiety superstar. We’ve seen in both research and our clients: When people eat more lean protein, they eat fewer calories overall. But they feel more satisfied. Sometimes even like they’re eating “too much”! For most men, this generally means consuming 6-8 palm-sized portions of protein daily. And for most women, this generally means consuming 4-6 palm-sized portions of protein daily.
Eat plenty of vegetables. Vegetables — especially colorful ones — are obviously super healthy. They give you a lot of volume and nutrients for very little calories. And many of them are fun to eat (think crunchy carrots, baby tomatoes, etc.). For most men, this generally means consuming 6-8 fist-sized portions of vegetables daily. For most women, this generally means consuming 4-6 fist-sized portions of vegetables daily.
For carbohydrates, look for whole grains, beans and legumes, starchy tubers (such as potatoes and sweet potatoes) and fruit. The combination of resistant starch, fiber and water content will help you feel fuller, for longer. When it comes to carbohydrates, for most men we recommend 6-8 cupped handfuls of carbohydrates daily. And for most women, we recommend 4-6 cupped handfuls of carbohydrates daily. For fat-dense foods, look to high-quality oils and butter, nut butter, nuts/seeds, avocados, and even a little dark chocolate. Fat tends to be digested the most slowly of all the macronutrients, especially sources that are less energy-dense and higher in fiber (e.g. nuts, seeds, avocados).
For most men, itis recommended to have 6-8 thumb-sized portions of healthy fats per day. For most women, it is recommended to have 4-6 thumb-sized portions of healthy fats per day. Consider how you eat. Work on eating slowly. Pay attention to your own internal satiety cues. Eat without your smartphone, TV, or computer in your face. Eat from smaller plates. Create an environment in your home and workspace that makes it difficult to overeat or be tempted with highly-processed, highly-rewarding foods. Remember Berardi‘s First Law: If a food is in your house or possession, either you, someone you love, or someone you marginally tolerate will eventually eat it. This also leads to the corollary of Berardi’s First Law: If “a healthy food” is in your house or possession, either you, someone you love, or someone you marginally tolerate will eventually eat it.
Recognize that it’s OK to have some of those highly-rewarding foods. Completely avoiding them, or demonizing them as “bad” or “poison” usually does the opposite of what you want: You feel like a guilty failure, and you often end up overeating or bingeing on those “banned” foods. Instead, choose (in other words, decide in advance) to indulge in some occasional cookies, brownies or ice cream. Eat them slowly and mindfully, until you’re satisfied. Enjoy them. And then move on, back to your regular routine like it’s nothing. Keep in mind that how often you choose to indulge should depend on what you’re looking to achieve. Be aware
Cultivate an awareness of how you feel before, during and after your meals. Do you eat because you’re truly hungry, or because the clock says it’s time to eat, or because you just “feel snacky”? Do you feel overstuffed at the end of a meal, only to find yourself staring into the fridge two hours later? Where do most of your meals come from? Consider keeping a food journal for a couple of weeks, making note of what you eat and how you feel. You can also jot down stuff like what you’re thinking, and what else is going on in your life (e.g. stress at work). Simply becoming more aware of your body’s cues — and how these relate to other factors — will help you better regulate your food intake. Awareness helps you make decisions that are more in line with your body’s actual needs.
Where did we find this stuff? Here are our sources: https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC2805706/ https://www.researchgate.net/publication/321915249_The_impact_of_junk_foods_on_the_adolescent_brain https://www.precisionnutrition.com/eating-too-much-blame-your-brain https://www.iflscience.com/health-and-medicine/eating-a-junk-food-diet-quickly-undermines-your-memory-and-selfcontrol/ https://www.researchgate.net/scientific-contributions/39797429_Richard_J_Stevenson