Learning To Eat Less: How Understanding Your Brain Can Make You Healthier

by | Sep 16, 2009

the-end-of-overeatingIn a nation where obesity and health loom large in our public dialog, there is no escaping the simple fact that we eat too much.

On average Americans consume 500 more calories per day than we did in 1970 (more than we ever have), mostly in the form of refined and processed foods. This corresponds with a 25-30 pound increase in body weight and obesity rates near 30%.

Debates rage over the specifics of what is causing our weight and health problems, but it seems clear enough that the critical element is the amount of food we choose to put in our mouths.

But does everything we eat represent a true choice?

In his book The End of Overeating, former FDA commissioner Dr. David Kessler examines the role of the brain in eating behavior and the mechanisms involved in what he calls conditioned hypereating.

According to his findings specific combinations of sugar, fat and salt hijack the reward pathways of our brain and force us to behave more like food addicts than hungry organisms. This leads to a cycle of conditioned hypereating that makes the habit harder to break with each repeated episode.

But whether or not we are addicted to food is a point of debate. In my interview with Kessler, he made clear he does not use the word addiction for fear of oversimplifying conditioned hypereating. Our relationship with food is more complicated than it is with something like alcohol or tobacco because a human can live without cigarettes, but food is vital to survival.

When pressed to describe the neural differences between addiction and conditioned hypereating, however, Kessler conceded, “The fundamental circuits are the same.”

For this reason, treatment of conditioned hypereating can draw from the success of substance abuse treatments. These tactics involve cognitive and behavioral therapies we can use to train ourselves to override our instincts and adopt new behaviors in response to stimulus cues.

For conditioned and compulsive behavior, cognitive strategies are necessary because intuitive inclinations and “listening to your body” do more harm than good. If your body is telling you to have a cigarette, this does not mean it is in your best interest to do so.

At the FDA Kessler was instrumental in the fight to regulate tobacco, and now he believes some of the same lessons can be applied to the treatment of overeating.

“What took me a decade to understand is you need to change the valence of the stimulus.”

The positive emotional reaction associated with indulgent foods is at the center of our motivation to seek them out. Twenty years ago cigarettes had tremendous allure. But the FDA was successful at demonizing the tobacco industry, and the public no longer sees smoking as glamorous and attractive.

And smoking rates have plummeted.

Changing a conditioned behavior requires a fundamental shift in how we think about a stimulus. In conditioned hypereating the stimulus is food, which makes the task especially difficult, but not impossible.

To break the cycle of conditioned hypereating we must redirect our automatic response to the kinds of foods that cause us to overeat. Kessler calls these hyperpalatable foods, which are loaded with layers upon layers of sugar, fat and salt. The goal is to replace our automatic responses to these foods with different, equally enjoyable actions that are not detrimental to our health and do not reinforce compulsive behavior.

I asked Kessler what is the first step in controlling our eating habits and overcoming conditioned hypereating.

“I can tell you the last step. Change your relationship with food. If sugar, fat and salt are your friends, you will lose. You have to get to the point where that is not what you want.”

The End of Overeating outlines the four basic steps of habit reversal: awareness, competing actions, competing thoughts and support.

But Kessler believes the critical step is fundamentally changing the way we view what we eat, cooling down our emotional response to hyperpalatable foods. In essence, we must train ourselves to stop wanting what we believe we want.

According to the book, the first step in this transformation is becoming aware of the power food holds over us, which requires understanding how our brains work. We must recognize that when we are tempted to indulge, the urge is not generated internally but is a reaction to a cue that makes us respond automatically. You may think you are hungry, but really you are just reacting to an emotionally charged stimulus that tells you to eat.

Once you recognize a cue for what it is you have a brief moment to decide not to take the bait. To successfully divert yourself to another course of action you must have a plan ready in advance that allows you to do something completely different.

Considering alternative activities and the reasons you might prefer them can help you tremendously at this point of decision. Rather than focusing on the positive emotions you will experience by giving in to your desire for hyperpalatable foods, also remember the negative emotions that follow if you give in and the positive aspects of the alternative action.

For instance, it may help to remember that every time you get cued and give in, you are strengthening the neural circuitry that compels you to this behavior in the first place. If you even briefly entertain the possibility of indulging, you create a state of ambivalence that leads to torment, obsession and cravings. However, when you successfully divert your attention to another rewarding activity you have made a small step toward cooling down the positive valence of the food.

It is the state of mental torment and ambivalence that increases the positive emotional charge of a food, building and strengthening the neural reward circuitry that causes conditioned overeating. This may be one of the reasons dieting almost always results in long-term weight gain, since constant deprivation makes hyperpalatable foods more difficult to resist and creates severe anxiety.

Mentally, the best strategy to overcome conditioned hypereating is to develop new, positive associations with food that are independent of palatability–something you care more about than the fleeting reward of overeating. Kessler says this is a deeply personal process and must reflect an individual’s own set of values. For example, it helps some people to become vegetarian, while others value organics or local food. These decisions remove virtually all hyperpalatable food from the lives of people who choose these paths.

It also helps to develop aversions to hyperpalatable foods. Some may learn to demonize “Big Food,” while others turn away after educating themselves about health concerns. Developing a more sophisticated culinary palate can help make hyperpalatable foods less palatable. Kessler himself developed an aversion to over-sized portions, which he now sees as repulsive piles of sugar, fat and salt.

Developing positive associations with healthier foods while demonizing the hyperpalatable foods we have been conditioned to crave can fundamentally change your emotional response to stimulus cues. As you learn to recognize your brain’s response to cues, you can override conditioned behavior by consciously deciding to take alternative actions because you want to.

You will never win an internal battle with yourself. Instead use what you know about the brain’s reward system and give up trying to summon willpower to resolve the torment of conflicting desires. Reprogram your habits by closely examining your relationship with hyperpalatable food and begin making deliberate decisions that are consistent with your goals, breaking the cycle of conditioned overeating.

To read more about conditioned hypereating and habit reversal read The End of Overeating, by Dr. David Kessler.

Have you read The End of Overeating? Have you overcome conditioned hypereating?


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13 Responses to “Learning To Eat Less: How Understanding Your Brain Can Make You Healthier”

  1. Scott says:

    Nice article, Darya. Quote of the day: “repulsive piles of sugar, fat and salt.” Ewwww. You actually made me think back to some of the most recent meals I’ve eaten, and in my mind I was asking myself if I thought they were piles; It kind of grossed me out. Is that a ‘healthy’ way to view food? I guess whatever it takes to stop us from eating it….and I agree, its a shame that we (Americans) don’t have more support (government/social/family) to avoid those kinds of foods.

  2. julie says:

    I just wrote a post about this, didn’t read the book, but he spoke in SF’s main library last weekend (were you there?) and I didn’t actually agree with much of what he said. Overall, I somewhat do, but I don’t think all humans are so “all or nothing”, and I found it really disturbing that he doesn’t believe that some people have metabolisms that allow them to eat this food in huge quantities and not get large. Who am I going to believe, his unwavering beliefs based on his personal experience and anecdotes, or my lying eyes?

    • Darya Pino says:

      Julie, I absolutely agree that this sort of behavior applies much more to some people than others. We all know someone who is thin yet eats mountains of garbage. However, I think the core lesson that our brains should be the focus of our therapy is very insightful and worth taking seriously.

  3. Malnutrition is what makes high-fat and high-sugar foods so irresistible. Our bodies are designed to seek out fat and sugar when we are starving. In nature, high-fat and high-sugar foods also provide essential nutrients (for ex., nuts and fruit), but unfortunately, our bodies evolved before Twinkies and French fries came along. It’s not that our bodies are steering us wrong in craving junk food, it’s that junk food shouldn’t exist.

    I’ve found the only way to short-circuit cravings is to not be malnourished in the first place. The “feel-good” effect of hyperpalatable food is much more intense when you start out hungry, and likewise, junk food is a lot easier to resist when you are well fed.

    Thanks for this thoughtful post!

  4. Hanlie says:

    I just read a book called The Pleasure Trap that explains how we are motivated by pleasure and that today’s foodstuffs plug in to that motivation. We can’t win – we need to escape the mainstream food culture if we want to be lean and healthy. Great post!

  5. When I was in WeightWatchers meetings back in the day, one of the things we’d often talk about was how hard it was to break food habits. While we may be “addicted” (emotionally, physically, or otherwise) to food, we can’t take the “easy” way out like an alcoholic or a smoker and just quit food altogether.

    They can put their tiger in a cage and lock him up. We have to get in the cage with that tiger every single day and keep him from killing us.

    I think I’ll be adding this book to my To Read list. Thanks to you, that list is getting pretty long!! 🙂

  6. Matt Shook says:

    I am really starting to look forward to Mondays, Wednesdays, and Fridays because of great posts like this one. I also think you should do more book reviews.

    Dr. Kessler makes several interesting points…from what I gather he basically breaks down the statement “how people get into unhealthy relationships with junk food” into scientific terms.

    How does he take into account that we’re all wired a little differently? The past two years I’ve experienced joy/happiness in limiting (sometimes severely) my food intake. As weird as it sounds, as much as I love eating good food, I’ve found that I also love not eating…especially during the middle of the day (from noon to 4:00 PM).

    I should probably start keeping logs of everything I eat and when…could prove interesting.

  7. Evelyn says:

    I found that the easiest way to start eating less is by getting a stomach bug that makes you feel absolutely awful every time you eat more than about 400 calories. Cramps and other intestinal discomfort are an added incentive, so is everlasting nausea. After 4 weeks of this, you’re nearly in the habit of loathing and fearing food(even if you love the taste!), if you’re still scared that the agony will come back you can make it to day 66, and then by magic, you have a new habit, that of not wanting to overeat. Not saying you should deliberatly feast on salmonella etc, but, if you happen to encounter food poisoning, you may as well consider using the ‘benefits’ of the illness to change your eating habits to the better. I am now cured of the bug, and enjoy my food much better now that I’m free of being ravenous all the time, but I don’t think I’d have managed without the ‘help’ of the illness.

    It’s actually very similar how I stopped smoking: I didn’t ‘stop’ but changed my cigarette brand to a herbal one from the pharmacy, which tasted and smelt just like granny’s sofa rolled into old socks. Light one of those up and get everyone, even hardened smokers to complain and flee the vicinity. Truly awful stuff! After about 4 weeks of that, I hated the thought of smoking and the intervals where I felt like smoking got longer and longer in between, and every time I thought of smoking I also thought ‘yuck’ and all positive thoughts and appetite I’ve had about smoking ceased naturally without me craving anything (other than fresh air, lol). I’ve not smoked (or wanted) another cigarette ever since that time.

  8. Rob Hueniken says:

    This is a very good article, and I have passed it onto my fitness trainer.

    The effects of marketing and lifestyle are huge in this area of our lives, and it can be surprisingly hard for people to develop a food regiment that runs counter to mass-produced food and common restaurant meals.

    But as your article suggests, awareness is key, and having a strategy is much better than just intending to eat better.

    Thanks, Darya!

  9. Hey Darya,

    I really like how you explained this stuff, makes sense to me, a neuroscience nut and someone who understands the importance of really understanding your brain.

    I’m likely to end up here again 😉

  10. homeborn says:

    I changed my diet in two ways, around the same time, last year. I eliminated wheat and began drinking a Jarrow vanilla whey protein shake with added organic cocoa and organic coconut oil. A lower calorie breakfast, intended to boost my immune system, I was also aware of the supposed effects of whey in reducing appetite/increasing satiety by improving brain chemistry. I was so pleased the day I realized that I was no longer experiencing food cravings, especially in the evening. It then became an easy thing to choose delicious, healthy, reasonably caloried foods. In the last year, without the arduous emotional willpower grapple or the huge amounts of exercise previously required, I have lost 40lbs. It has been easy and joyous.

    Last month, I read “Wheat Belly” by William Davis. There, every benefit I noticed, no hunger, far less anxiety, fatigue, fibrobyalgia type symptoms & negative attitudes of a lifetime -gone-….are apparently attributable to the removal of wheat from my life!

    Wheat stimulates (addictive, craving type) hunger, by several means, within the brain, more or less, according to the individual.

    Combining elimination of wheat with the boost of satiety improving foods has balanced my brain’s ability to make healthier choices. I eat like a “naturally slim” person now that my brain is supported….no longer assaulted….in this way.

    L-Tyrosine, and Vitamin D3 also boost satiety.

    What is very sad, is that persons unknowingly under the spell of brain chemistry based food addiction almost exclusively focus on the emotional component when evaluating the reasons they overeat, and judge themselves (and are judged instantly by those they encounter who observe the obvious extra, unhealthy weight they carry) as weak-willed, low character, or emotionally damaged folks who should just DO IT. They are actually impacted by unbalanced brain chemistry.

    Dr. Eric Braverman’s books go into detail about the neurotransmitter impact on our overall health, outlook, fitness and aging.

    The brain is where it begins. Support Brains!

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