Why You Overeat

by Anne Bennett on June 4, 2009


Bet You Can't Each Just One!

Bet You Can't Eat Just One!


Recently I substituted for another leader at a Weight Watcher meeting. Since I didn’t know any of the members, I asked a question that often stimulates conversation–what is your biggest challenge in losing weight?

A woman quickly raised her hand and announced, “food”.  I asked if she could be more specific–what foods were causing the challenge?  She replied, ” All of them! I want to eat all the time. I want to eat everything I see. I can’t stop.” She as smiling, but her eyes suddenly began to water up a bit, as if she were about to cry.  

Other women in the room slowly, silently nodded in agreement.  These strangers were unexpectedly coming face-to-face with a raw, painful truth: we can’t stop eating and we don’t know why. 

According to Dr. David Kessler, the former head of the FDA,  America’s food industry is partly to blame. In his new book, “The End of Overeating–Taking Control of the Insatiable American Appetite”, he states that our brains have literally been rewired by processed foods containing a calculated combination of sugar, fat and salt. Thus we have been conditioned like lab rats to eat, eat, eat, far beyond our capacity or understanding.

Here’s how it works: neurons in our brains respond to highly-rewarding foods by firing electrical signals that release brain chemicals called endorphins. These chemicals can actually calm us down and relieve stress or pain. If you’ve ever reached for a chocolate chip cookie when you were upset, this is why: you felt better in the short run.  And guess what? The feeling you got from eating that cookie is very similar to what a drug addict feels after injecting morphine or heroin. The same chemical is at work. 

Sadness and anger have the greatest potential for driving this loss of control that Kessler calls, “conditioned hypereating”. If  potato chips or cookies make us feel better when we’re sad or angry, then every time we reach for them we strengthen the habit. Our brains have made a link between the food and the feeling and we’re hooked.

What’s worse, conditioned hypereating is magnified by diets that leave us feeling deprived, so that every time we try to break the bond between food and mood by white-knuckle dieting, the bond becomes stronger.

Because our brains are wired for our survival, we can’t completely cure ourselves of the desire to eat sugar, fat and salt. However, the first step to gaining some kind of control is to become aware of the way our brains react to highly palatable foods, to know before we binge on junk that we are literally rewiring our brains to want more and more. 

Remember the Lay’s Potato Chip commercial, “Bet you can’t eat just one”?  Turns out they weren’t kidding.

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{ 3 comments… read them below or add one }

Susan in Westwood June 5, 2009 at 12:35 pm

Great article and wonderful photo! Thanks for the support!

Amy June 5, 2009 at 4:07 pm

Doesn’t it just infuriate you to know that it is OK for this corporate practice to continue and then “they” tell you if you ate less you’d be fine……just one of many issues that makes me spitting mad!!! Thanks for the summary of the book..another must read for me. If you haven’t read them already I would recommend Omnivore’s Dilemma and In Defnse of Food by Michael Pollan.

judy foster June 6, 2009 at 8:51 am

Anne, This is a great article! It has helped me to stop and think about what I’m eating and why. Great pictures too! Judy

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