Food addiction is at the root of why many people find it so very difficult to stop eating some foods. Processed foods are designed to be irresistible and addictive in order to stimulate your body’s inborn emotional responses. And that’s why some foods are so mouth-watering.
According to The End of Overeating, by David A. Kessler, M.D. (Rodale, 2009), the human body has an inborn system that leads you to seek out pleasurable rewards. The pleasure derived from eating is one of the rewards you’re programmed to desire. Kessler proposes that modern-day processed foods are chemically designed to take advantage of this pleasure-seeking programming.
The palatability of food refers to its ability to stimulate your appetite, which in turn prompts you to want more of it. While palatability includes taste, it also comprises the desire to pursue the taste further. It’s the reason why many people crave certain foods more and more.
Although different people crave different foods, for those with a weight problem the most palatable and most craved foods are usually the chemically designed ones that contain not just added fat or sugar, but a combination of fat and sugar coupled with salt. And the sensory properties of these chemically designed foods — temperature, texture, color, and aroma — help to stimulate appetite. For many people, these highly palatable foods provide the most pleasure, and the greatest irresistibility.
But rather than hunger alone, it’s the mental stimulation derived from these highly palatable foods that makes so many people crave them. This mental stimulation re-arouses their appetite even after they are done eating.
The multi-billion-dollar food industry is highly competitive. Through decades of taste testing, food manufacturers have discovered that specific combinations of fat, sugar and salt — but different combinations for different foods — make consumers crave these designer foods even more. People crave them in order to get their fixes of the fat, sugar and salt combinations. And these are typically the comfort foods that many people become addicted to.
To support this view, Kessler details a host of scientific studies that show how various laboratory animals gorge themselves into obesity when fed a certain combination of fat, sugar and salt. And research on humans draws similar conclusions. Numerous studies — like one from 1995 completed by researchers at the National Institute of Health — show that when offered unlimited portions of various high-fat, high-sugar and high-salt foods, many people eat to excess. And with ongoing exposure to high-fat, high-sugar and high-salt foods, many people develop an ongoing cycle of overeating.
Food “engineers” have figured out ways to make the ideal combination of fat, sugar and salt even more addictive. According to Kessler, by making the designer food multifaceted — with several layers of fat, sugar and salt — it creates even more pleasure. This is what the food industry calls “layering.”
Take, for example, nacho-cheese-smothered tortilla chips. They deep fry super-salty, chemically enhanced chips, and load them with a processed cheese substance that’s laden with fat, sugar and salt. It’s fat, sugar and salt layered on more fat, sugar and salt. And in an effort to make the food even more irresistible, the layers of fat, sugar and salt are amplified by a chemically engineered flavoring which further creates an addictive effect.
Just the bun for a fast-food hamburger has salt, sugar, high-fructose corn syrup, soybean oil, canola oil, and partially hydrogenated oil. Couple this with the large amounts of fat, sugar and salt that are in the hamburger patty, and you’ve got something that’s hard to resist for many people. Add bacon, cheese, sauce and ketchup — which together add even more fat, sugar and salt — and it’s easy to see why fast-food hamburgers can be so addictive for many people with weight problems.
Whether it’s chicken wings, sauce-laden entrées, pepperoni pizza, or even salads with multiple toppings, most restaurant and store-bought processed foods are layered in a similar fashion. They are designed to “melt in your mouth” and go down with little chewing — the higher the levels of fat in the food, the easier it melts in your mouth.
The pleasure derived from the food’s several layers of fat, sugar and salt can create an obsession that leads many people to want those foods again and again and again. And the more you eat them, the more likely you’ll fuel this ongoing craving — and that’s precisely what the food manufacturers want, so you’ll buy the products time and time again.
As reported in The End of Overeating, Gerard Smith — a leader in the study of ingestive behavior at New York-Presbyterian Hospital — refers to the term “orosensory self-stimulation” to describe the process by which eating tasty foods tells the brain to repeatedly want more and more of them.
Eventually, these foods can invoke cues that are hard to break. They stimulate neurons in your brain because the foods’ tastes are hard-wired to the parts of your brain that respond to pleasure. This prompts a very strong emotional response to the foods. And each layer of the foods’ fat, sugar and salt can stimulate different neurons in your brain simultaneously.
Ultimately, just the sight or smell of a certain food — potato chips, for example — can intensify a pleasure response. That’s why so many struggling dieters can’t stop at just one chip. They’ve been conditioned to seek out the pleasure response for potato chips to the point where it becomes a habit. These people can’t control their response to this insidious pseudo-food because their brains have been rewired by their eating it.
Advertisements for high-fat, high-sugar and high-salt foods are designed to stimulate your senses, and invoke cues to seek and eat the foods in order to get further fixes of short-lived pleasure and comfort. Even the ads alone can stimulate neurons in your brain. And for many people, this triggers desire for the foods.
This conditioned behavior is similar to that of the dogs of the famous Russian scientist, Ivan Pavlov. Pavlov signaled the occurrence of food by a variety of stimuli, including whistles, tuning forks, and ringing a bell. Once the dogs had got used to, for example, hearing a bell ring at the same time that they were given food, they would salivate at the ringing of a bell even without food being present.
When your senses are exposed to a certain food, bursts of dopamine can be released in your brain, which simulate the pleasure response from the food without it having been eaten. Dopamine is a chemical in the brain that contributes to creating the drive to eat. And it’s what gives desirable foods the prominent memories in your mind. The more desirable the food, the more attention is directed to it, and the more you’re likely to pursue it.
A study by scientists at the US Department of Energy’s Brookhaven National Laboratory found that dopamine — which they say is involved with addiction to cocaine, alcohol, and other drugs — may also play an important role in obesity. Their research suggests that obese people have fewer receptors for dopamine.
The Brookhaven study indicates that obese people may eat more to try to stimulate the dopamine pleasure circuits in their brains, just as addicts do by taking drugs. Because eating — like the use of addictive drugs — is a highly reinforcing behavior that induces pleasure, the Brookhaven study theorizes that obese people may have abnormalities in their brain dopamine activity.
For many of you, even the sight or smell of food can motivate your reward-seeking behavior to release further dopamine. Just the smell of certain foods — like from being downwind of a restaurant — can make you crave the foods. Now you know at least part of the explanation for why watching a television ad for food can make you salivate. The ad is like the sound of the bell that made Pavlov’s dogs salivate even when no food was present.
According to industry insiders, by capitalizing on their consumers’ chemically engineered food addiction, restaurants have slowly upped their portion sizes in an effort to increase their profits. (It costs only a few cents more to create a larger portion, but the restaurants can sell it for a higher price because the customers believe they are getting increased value for money.) Generally speaking, portion sizes in American restaurants are substantially larger than in other countries.
This chapter is just an introduction to the addictive powers of food.
In the next chapter we’ll go into some of the details, and let you know how real-life dieters have dealt with their food addictions — and how you will, too.