Choices, choices, choices. Most of us live in a world where we have a plethora of foods to eat.
Unfortunately, our brains developed when food scarcity, especially large calorie-rich meals were uncommon. As an evolutionary byproduct, we developed brains wired to devour as many calories as humanly possible.
Fast forward a few million years and we find that our “hungry” brain hasn’t changed much. The desire to devour still exists, leading to the common problem of overeating.
What is overeating?
Overeating occurs when we eat more food than our bodies need. We consume more calories in relation to the energy that is expended, leading to weight gain and often obesity. It can be habitual or occasional.
That’s the simple answer to what is overeating. Why we overeat is another issue.
There’s a long list of researched reasons contributing to our current rising trend in overeating. In fact, neuroscientist, Judson Brewer found 40 of them, ranging from low physical energy expenditure to psychological and emotional need fulfillment.
So let’s not go there! Given the scope and complexity of our overeating rationale, we’ll save the “why” for another day.
Today, we will focus on the “What is overeating?” and learn how to lower our consumption by using simple strategies that can offset the hungry brain.
We can start with the obvious.
No one aspires to overeat, pack on the pounds and end up with a high risk of troublesome health issues such as diabetes or heart disease. But roughly two thirds of Americans do just that.
Even though we know better, we still struggle with overeating.
Why does our eating behavior betray our own intentions to be lean and healthy? Why can’t we send our brains a different signal?
Is it a lack of willpower?
Well, according to neuroscience researcher Stephan J. Guyenet, the author The Hungry Brain, it is not necessarily a lack of willpower or an incorrect understanding of what to eat.
Instead, our appetites and food choices get misguided by primitive brain circuits that play by the rules of a survival game that no longer exists.
These circuits don’t care about our appearance. They are wired for survival and overconsumption is part of their objective. Our brains can easily undermine our attempts to drop weight.
But, there is something we can do…Outsmart the hungry brain.
Here’s four proven strategies to do it.
#1. Feed On Feelings of Fullness
Feelings of fullness is another way of saying satiety. Reaching this state is essential for weight management.
Satiety = We Feel Full
Satiety is characterized by the absence of hunger, which follows at the end of a meal and arises from the consequences of food ingestion.
Although it’s hard to swallow the science, nothing fuels satiety better than consuming fat! That’s right. Fat makes us feel full, better than carbs, better than protein.
From: Fat Detection: Taste, Texture, and Post Ingestive Effects (Frontiers in Neuroscience)
fats do have an effect on satiety and appear to regulate appetite through several mechanisms including the release of appetite hormones and inhibition of gastric emptying and intestinal transit.
While fat fuels satiety, carbs don’t.
Bakery products like cakes, croissants, and doughnuts had the lowest satiety scores of anything tested. That’s why we can eat lots of carb-based foods such as pasta with red sauce, crackers, low fat chips or low fat cookies and be hungry an hour or two later. Carbs don’t have staying power to ward off hunger, fat does.
To make the case, The Hungry Brain details cutting-edge science of how our brain reacts to the neurobiological and hormonal underpinnings of leptin signaling and how ventromedial hypothalamic nucleus regulation affects our need to feed.
Say what? Simply stated, the brain has a thermostat to regulate eating. Some foods contain more of the cues that tell our brain to send the “full” signal.
And the good news is that fat is a great “full” signaler. It is no longer the enemy it was in the 1990’s. In fact, it is a key player to reduce overeating.
We can avoid overeating by simply fueling the feeling of fullness. Consume fats, healthy fats that is.
Healthy fats fuel satiety. Think of adding into our diet nut mixtures and nut butters, guacamole, olive oil, fatty fish like salmon, trout, mackerel, sardines, and herring, dark chocolate, whole eggs, and full fat yogurt.
On to our next hungry brain hack strategy.
#2. Play by the Bland Rules
We love our tasty treats. Unfortunately, more tasty = less filling. We get lots of calories packed into just a few bites. These high calorie dense treats don’t take up as much room in our bellies. And our gut has “mechanosensors” that detect stomach distension. So, even though we’re taking in a ton of calories, our brain is saying “GOOD. MORE.” And our stomach is saying, “Plenty of room in here. Go ahead.”
Before we realize it, we’re overeating. We are compelled to continue eating beyond the “full” mark.
Why? Because our hungry brain gets rewarded even after we’ve eaten enough. Let’s look at two interesting studies that explain why we need a few strategies to overcome our own brain’s signals for more.
In the early 1990s, researcher Eric Ravussin locked subjects in a metabolic ward with vending machines filled with the most tempting of calorie dense foods: Cheesecake, Doritos, pudding, etc. And he measured everything they ate.
They could have eaten enough to satisfy their hunger and nothing more – but, of course, they didn’t. Their caloric intake nearly doubled. Over the 7-day study they gained an average of five pounds each.
A primary cause for the overeating: dopamine signaling. “Caloric density” is particularly rewarding. More calories for the same amount of chewing? Brain says “Me like. Do it again.”
The bad news? When dopamine signaling reaches a certain level, we increase learning dramatically to the point where something becomes habitual, locked in. Eventually, the brain’s reward for “learning to like junk food” reaches a point where something learned is so powerful it can overwhelm constructive behavior.
Meaning, it’s really tough to think our way to stop overeating even though we know we should. That’s why, before we realize it, we’ve eaten the entire bag of chips rather than have just a handful.
However, the next study helps us find a strategy to overcome the brain reward system.
In 1965, scientists did what was pretty much the opposite of the vending machine study. Locked people up and gave them nothing but a bland diet that had all the nutrients and calories they needed but tasted ‘meh’. They could eat as much as they wanted.
Of course, they didn’t. But here’s the interesting part…there was no “starvation response.” The study subjects weren’t hungry. They didn’t feel deprived. And they didn’t create the dopamine brain reward cycle.
What they did is ate just until full and then walked away.
Does this mean we need to forgo tasty foods? Nope.
The science from these studies suggests that as an overeating strategy, we incorporate blander foods to reduce the brain reward effects. By blander, we often mean less complex in flavor. But it doesn’t mean flavorless.
Are apples flavorful? Absolutely. But are they as flavorful as chocolate cake? Of course not.
Fortunately, we have an innate taste ability to understand bland and the reward value of food. The higher the reward value (e.g. chocolate cake) makes us feel happy the greater our brain reward and potential to promote overeating.
According to researcher, Guyenet, “…a diet that’s lower in reward value will control appetite more effectively than one that’s high in reward value.”
Bottomline…bland foods may not bring on the dopamine happiness factor and that’s the point! We rarely overeat bland foods. The upside? We eat enough without imposing any restrictions and we aren’t compelled to eat more. We end up satisfied not stuffed and bloated.
The strategy to reduce overeating? Know the bland rules. Have fun self-testing the reward value of foods. Then, swap out one high reward value food for a still flavorful, yet lower reward value food.
Now that we know we can opt in for good fat and lower reward value foods, let’s look at the science of variety.
#3. Beware of Variety’s Dark Side
Food variety may be a double-edged sword when it pertains to overeating. On one hand, variety is required to maintain a balanced diet.
That’s because each food offers a unique blend of nutrients. Even different types of foods, such as leafy greens, berries or meats, offer a somewhat different mix of nutrients. Switching things up is good.
Additionally, when you expose yourself to lots of different food groups, you’re more likely to develop greater diversity of healthy bacteria in your gut, protection against obesity, reduced allergies and enhanced immunity.
There’s also a sensory side to having food variety. It prevents boredom, burnout and cravings.
Food variety is a very big deal! But there’s also a dark side.
Researchers have coined the term “the buffet effect” because endless options resist any habituation and people eat until they’re ready to explode.
More options mean more eating. No brainer.
Then how do we outsmart our brains? Less variety of course.
Less variety is an easy way to feel full without a desire to overindulge. Plus, when variety is low, we get tired of whatever we’re eating faster. That’s a good thing.
So how do we limit variety without losing all the beneficial effects food variety offers?
Begin by limiting the number of food options offered at each meal. This will begin to outsmart your hungry brain.
Want to go further? Consider these options:
A. Eat the same foods (limited variety) at different mealtimes.
Day 1 breakfast eat A, lunch eat B, dinner eat C
Day 2 breakfast eat D, lunch eat E, dinner eat F
Day 3 – repeat Day 1 choices
Day 4 – repeat Day 2 choices
Day 1 & 2 – same small # of food choices at each meal
Day 3 & 4 – same small # of food choices at each meal
B. Prepare the same food differently. Try varying prep methods such as broasting, roasting, broiling, baking or air-frying to avoid food boredom.
C. Add more flavor (herbs & spices), not more choices.
Repeat these strategies when bored with the current selections.
And finally, let’s get a snack hack.
#4. Snack Inconveniently
Since 1929 food has gotten dramatically cheaper and easier to get. This is especially true for snack foods, foods we eat between meals or to skip a meal. There’s no prep needed, they’re ready to eat and available the minute we get a tummy grumble.
Snacking has become cheap and convenient – great if we are eating healthy snacks.
However, in a recent Harvard study:
of the most common snacks consumed in the U.S.; cookies, chips, ice cream, candy, popcorn, soft drinks, crackers, and cake were among the top 10.
No surprise given the hungry brain’s reward cycle.
And if we randomly choose snacks without considering how they fit with the rest of our eating choices or consume them mindlessly unaware of the amounts we’re consuming, snacking can lead to overeating.
Which leads us to one more hungry brain hack.
A part of our brain called the OFC (orbitofrontal cortex) calculates how much effort it will take to get food, how much energy it contains and whether the deal is worth it. And it’s very good at its job.
Problem is that these days, the common snack choices we make have reward values so high and the effort so low that our brain always says, GO FOR IT.
How can we outsmart our hungry brain?
When it comes to snacking, there’s a simple answer: control our environment. Make processed, high reward snack foods hard to get. The biggest step here is discipline at the grocery store. Don’t let them in the house and they don’t get eaten.
Too severe? Put high reward snacks where they’re not visible. Put the candy in a jar, tucked away on the top shelf. Buy more snack foods that require preparation and you’ll make less of it. Even for healthy snacking, make it an effort. Your OFC will notice the effort isn’t always worth it!
We can outsmart our hungry brain and stop overeating by filling up on good fats, eat a little blander, reduce mealtime variety and make snacking challenging.
Now for the wrap up…
Here’s 4 strategies to outsmart overeating:
#1. Feed On Feelings of Fullness: Fats make us feel full. Eat healthy ones, such as nut mixtures and nut butters, guacamole, olive oil, fatty fish like salmon, trout, mackerel, sardines, and herring, dark chocolate, whole eggs, and full fat yogurt.
#2. Play by the Bland Rules: Blander foods will not trigger the dopamine release that leads to overconsumption of caloric density.
#3. Beware of Variety’s Dark Side: Simplify the number and timing of food choices. Say you ate steak for dinner. If dessert was more steak, you’d be a lot less likely to eat it.
#4. Snack Inconveniently: Make snacking a high effort activity. Better yet, eliminate high reward snacks completely.
Thanks for reading and share the positive message!