Neuroscience is proving what food manufacturers have known for years…

Until recently, research focused on physical hunger, and assumed that being obese meant you were just incredibly hungry and therefore had to eat loads. I suspect a number of us could have told them that eating dessert has nothing to do with feeling hungry or full. And at last, research is catching up.

Michael Lowe, a clinical psychologist at Drexel University coined the term “hedonic hunger” in 2007. He says: “A lot of overeating, maybe all of the eating people do beyond their energy needs, is based on consuming some of our most palatable foods.” No kidding! Please don’t tell me it took years of scientific research to work that out. Who gets fat on cucumber?

Research shows that extremely sweet or fatty foods light up the brain’s reward circuit in the same way that cocaine, drugs, gambling and other ‘addictive’ behaviours do. The brain begins to react to fatty and sugary foods even before they enter our mouth: just seeing them excites the reward circuit. As soon as such it touches the tongue, taste buds send signals to the brain, which ramps up dopamine. The result is an intense feeling of pleasure.

Over time, the brain gets desensitised, so to get the same ‘high’ or pleasurable feeling, we need to eat more. It’s the same with any addiction. We need a bigger and bigger hit. The brain needs a lot more sugar and fat to reach the same level of pleasure that it once felt with smaller amounts of the foods.

This isn’t a sign of us being weak. It’s us being in thrall to an addictive circuit in our brain. When dopamine levels drop, we feel down. So no wonder we turn to fat and sugar. They are literally acting as an anti-depressant. Food is acting like a drug.

Excerpt from ‘Why we Cheat when we Eat and how to stop’.

The bites that ‘don’t count’

Perhaps you turned down a slice of cake, but now you find yourself at the plate, knife in hand, just making sure that the edge is even. You cut a sliver and shove it into your mouth. The cake tastes delicious. You return to the platter and ease off another morsel. Now the edge is a mess. You take the knife again and cut to smooth the ends. A short while later, the cake is considerably smaller…

It’s very easy to say that one mouthful won’t make a difference. The question is then, which mouthful makes us fat? Is it the first? Or the hundredth?

Maybe your friends are saying, come on, you’ve done really well! One dessert won’t kill you! They are right, it won’t, but it’s very easy for that one dessert to become many.

There are many times we can tell ourselves ‘This doesn’t count’. I didn’t order a dessert – I ate it from my husband’s plate, so that doesn’t count. Or I was just clearing dishes, and it was a shame to let the rest go to waste. So I scoffed it rather than put it in the garbage.

It’s much easier to let ourselves off the hook than stick to a diet because diets require us to make a huge effort. They ask for such a large change. Everything we know, everything we do is thrown out of the window. Your normal eating habits are utterly disrupted to make way for a new miracle fix that promises amazing results.

This is mainly because most of us believe that losing weight is so hard, so painful and so mysterious, that only the truly radical solutions will work.

But what if that wasn’t the case at all? What if one tiny change was all that was needed?

Excerpt from ‘Why we Cheat when we Eat and how to stop’.

How food porn arouses us

I love the introduction to the scientific paper called Eating with our Eyes: “One of the brain’s key roles is to facilitate foraging and feeding. It is presumably no coincidence, then, that the mouth is situated close to the brain in most animal species.”

The mouth is close to the brain, indeed! This same paper talks of ‘food porn’. We are currently obsessed with images of food. Instagram feeds are crammed with photographs of meals and snacks. Cookery channels dominate television with depictions of luscious ingredients whisked into appetising meals. Food has become more forbidden than sex. We are ogling pictures of it in the same way that men used to sneak glances at 1970’s centrefolds.

In America, digital media influences more than 70 percent of the food eaten by households. Research show that “external food cues, such as the sight of appetizing food can evoke a desire to eat, even in the absence of hunger.” Again – no kidding… these scientists seem to spend years researching things that you and I knew to be true from a relatively young age.

What’s really interesting is that physical things occur within us, just from seeing a picture. We salivate (we all know that). But more worryingly, we produce insulin. Our bodies shoot out the hormone required to deal with the sugar even when we haven’t eaten it. And of course, when our insulin goes up, we crave sugar even more to balance it out. Even our heart beats faster in anticipation of the food.

This is where we need to track back to hunger. Food manufacturers know that seductive images of delicious food will draw us in, hungry or not. And our brains will take the trigger and act on it, without even consulting our conscious selves.

If we can stay in touch with our natural appetite, and eat when we are hungry, it reduces the impact of these external stimuli, and allows us to remain in control of what we eat and when.

Excerpt from ‘Why we Cheat when we Eat and how to stop’.

One small change can shed kilos

I used to think that one tiny change would never result in the loss of the fifteen kilos that I wanted to shed. To lose that kind of weight, a change had to be dramatic, drastic, and most of all, tortuous.

Medical research is showing that is not the case at all. They examined the world’s fattest man, and to reach his astronomical weight, all you have to do is eat 300 calories more than you need, every day, for about twenty years. He was so large that they had to take him to hospital on a forklift truck. So basically, all you need to do, to become enormously fat, is to eat one Mars Bar too many, every day. Gosh, I thought. That’s so easy to do! I could easily eat a small bar of chocolate more than I need every day. And some days, I could eat several.

Luckily, the reverse is also true.

If you reduce you calories a little bit every day, even if only by 50, you will lose weight. That’s just one biscuit. If you eat one biscuit less, every day, over the course of a year, you’ll lose weight. About five pounds or two kilograms, to be exact.

Excerpt from ‘Why we Cheat when we Eat and how to stop’.

How did the packet end up empty? Part 2

Not only is this embarrassing. It’s extraordinary. It seems that our left hand literally doesn’t know what the right hand is doing.

The first thing to do, is not to add to your woes with a large helping of guilt. These are well worn paths that you are travelling. Part of your being is just doing what it thinks you want.

David Kessler, the former head of the US government’s most powerful food agency, the FDA, talks of ‘priming’. Sometimes just one taste of a food, a single bite, is enough to trigger conditioned ‘hyper-eating’. Priming involves stimulating areas of your brain. The use of the word ‘conditioned’ means it’s already a habit. Your body recognises the primer, or taste, as the beginning of a conditioned or habituated pattern of behaviour.

The problem is that it’s hard to shut those habits off. Once primed, they stay activated and you may continue to eat until all the food is gone. That’s what the food industry knows when it tells us “Bet you can’t eat just one.”

The good news is that priming only holds power for a short time. If you eat one piece of candy and there’s a bowl of them in front of you, chances are you will keep eating more. But if no more are available or you have to search for them, the priming response may be undermined.

If you travel these paths less, or stop doing the behaviour, the priming will fade and it will stop being automatic, and you will not feel so compelled. But how to get there?

It’s easiest to stop the habit in the earliest stages. If you know there are times when you eat unconsciously, and they are usually in a certain place, or preceded by a certain thing, then try to address the first step.

What do you need to do to arrest the behaviour? To wake yourself up before your subconscious takes over?

How did the packet end up empty?

Have you ever driven home from work, pulled into your driveway, and realised that you have absolutely no memory whatsoever of the journey? Perhaps you commute to work, and you find yourself at your desk, with minimal or no recollection of the various trains or buses you took.

When behaviours become habitual, or regular, our brains relegate them to the subconscious. We don’t need to focus on them, so the brain allows our consciousness to focus on something else: our phone, our worries, our plans.

Unfortunately, this same mechanism can come into play when we have regular eating habits or addictions.

The brain is used to us thinking: “Hmm, that was a stressful day. I really could use some … (insert ‘comfort food of choice’)…” And it knows exactly how to get us to the shop to buy some, and get the food into our bags and then into our mouths.

Many people have told me that they have believed that they were sticking rigorously to their diet, only to find themselves sitting on their couch with an empty food packet on their lap, and no idea of how it happened.

One of my first clients was a Mum called Maureen. She would insist that she ate without realising it. “I opened the packet, it was a packet of granola. I buy it for my kids, I don’t eat it, it’s too fattening. But I just wanted one of those banana chips, so I opened it to find one of those. There was one at the top, and I ate it. I recall delving back into the bag for a particularly large clump with a sultana in it. And the next thing I knew, fifteen minutes or more had passed, and the bag was half empty. I honestly don’t remember doing it!”

The brain has well-worn paths. It is used to a flood of sugar at certain points in the day, and can turn off your consciousness while your preprogrammed behaviour runs, acquiring the substance, and then ingesting it, all without realising it.

I have, in the past, sworn off sugar, only to have a friend point out the chocolate I was shovelling into my mouth from the bowl on her table. It was in front of me, and my hand reached for it, bypassing all my declarations that I was never going to eat it again. A tad embarrassing.

In my next post, we’ll talk about how to deal with this.

When Food is Love…

Some foods can feel like love. They fill us, soothe us, comfort us. They are there for us after a hard day, no matter what. A few mouthfuls later and a sensation of bliss flows through our bodies. It can feel as safe and nurturing as a mother’s embrace, as sublime as a lover’s kiss.

Often, these are foods we have learned to crave since childhood. Strong memories and associations underpin some of the meanings they hold for us. Somewhere in the past we have had experiences where we made a connection between the food and the emotions.

A friend told me: “I’m going home and I just know that Mum is going to ply me with cake. She’ll have baked just for me, and I both want to gorge myself on it, and want to refuse it. Because I’ll feel crap the next day.”

Who wouldn’t want to gorge themselves on their mother’s love? To feel replete with worthiness, safe as a fluffy chick in a nest.

But food isn’t love. And cake isn’t worthiness.

They can feel similar physically, which is part of the mix-up. Both trigger dopamine, and can release endorphins and other chemicals that do indeed make us ‘feel better’. We have a physiological response both to hugs and love, and to certain foods, and that response in our body is close enough for us to get confused. In fact, it not only gets us confused, it can make us rely on  one when the other (usually love) isn’t available, or doesn’t feel like it is.

One of the first things we can do is to recognise that we have conflated the two, confused ourselves by mixing love into the pie.

Then, if we find ourselves turning to food, when what we really want is love, we need to ask what else might serve in its place? Would curling up under a blanket do it? Or walking in nature? Do you need to be with a friend, even if its on the other end of the phone? Or can you bear to be with yourself, take your need for love and treasure it, and love that need in yourself enough that all thoughts of cake fade away?

 

Struggling to eat healthily on a budget?

This article in The Guardian describes a weekly shop for £20 (US$26 or AU$36) together with recipes that look delicious. In a bid to reduce food waste, and therefore help our environment, the inventive meals mean that nothing is thrown away.

There are pancakes and porridge for breakfast followed an enticing pasta dish with pesto and vegetables for lunch.

Dinner is a spectacular vegetable dish.

I love the way this looks after the planet, our wallets and our waistlines. Very few ways of eating balance all three. The Paleo and low carb diets are very hard on the environment, as eating meat is the single most detrimental thing any of us do. If you’re interested you can read more here. Supplements and shakes and pre-prepared foods are expensive.

And here is a simple way to look after all three.

Need inspiration? Check out the article.

Should I avoid carbs in the evening?

Some of us try to avoid carbohydrates in the evening, in the hope that it will help us lose weight. We’re told that we’re going to sleep soon, so anything we eat later in the day will just be stored as fat. If we want to eat carbohydrates, then we should eat them earlier, for breakfast, when we are going to burn them off.

Is this true?

The body doesn’t really work like that. If you eat more than you need on any given day, it will be stored as fat, whether it’s carbs you’ve eaten, or fat or even protein. Consume more calories than you’re burning and your body will store it. And it will store it as fat, even if you eat it all at breakfast.

Basically, your body works on physics. It’s a ‘closed system’ and the energy that goes in (food and drink) will be either stored as mass (fat or muscle) or burned as energy (either metabolic processes or exercise).

If you are training hard, are eating a set number of calories and have all of your ‘macros’ down pat (ie the proportions of fat, protein and carbs), then the timing of the carbs might make a small difference. But lets face it, very few of us are doing that.

What matters most to our bodies is calories. Clearly, a more nutrient-dense option is going to be better for our health (brown bread over white). However, if you really want carbs in the evening, then going without is probably going to lead to overeating later.

I really enjoy carbs in the evening. They help the brain release Serotonin, which is a relaxant and anti-depressant. They help me sleep. And I like a bigger meal then. It suits me and if it’s your preference too, then there is no reason not to have it.

What does suit you? Do you like carbs at night?

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