Why we crave certain foods and can't stop at just one
Updated: Mar 31, 2021
Call it what you want - food with no brakes, highly or hyper palatable food, manufactured deliciousness, or as my husband likes to say, "tastes like more"; some foods have been scientifically engineered (and I use those words intentionally) to override our body's natural mechanisms to stop when we're full or have eaten enough to meet our energy requirements.
Food manufacturers employ food scientists whose job is to create products with the perfect bliss point, a term coined by US market researcher and psychoanalyst, Howard Moskowitz. The bliss point is the point at which sugar, fat or salt are blended to delicious perfection. Or in other words, when the ratio of sweetness, saltiness or richness is most irresistible. No wonder it's hard to stop at just one.
As a result of our evolutionary biology, our brains are hardwired to seek out and appreciate three basic tastes:
Sweet - which represented a safe source of energy when we were constantly on the move hunting and gathering food
Fatty - which provided a dense source of calories for when food was scarce
Salty - which served as a means of conserving fluid during drought or when far from sources of fresh water
As you can see, these were necessary for our survival back in the day, however in today's environment where food is always and easily available, these preferences and survival instincts are easily manipulated by food manufacturers for their profit.
Persistent biological signals lead us to overeat sweet, fatty, salty foods while keeping us malnourished. Food scientists caught on to the fact that our brains respond strongly to specific flavors and armed with that knowledge they began to modify our whole foods. They sucked out the water, the fiber, and the nutrients and replaced them with ingredients like corn syrup, MSG, seed oils, and artificial sweeteners, colors and flavors. These foods light up pleasure and reward centers in the brain for a different reason than nature intended - not because they provide vital nutrition, but because they are scientifically designed to stimulate our taste buds (and to create a profit for food manufacturers). The effect is a total disconnection between pleasurable, rewarding tastes and the nutrition that always accompanies them in nature. Source: It Starts With Food
How they do it
Food manufacturers use a combination of the following tactics to create the hyper palatable foods that we find so hard to resist.
They start by ensuring the food requires very little effort to chew so you can eat it quickly. It practically melts in your mouth, so before you've barely finished the first one you reach for another bite.
Every aspect of the food from the packaging down to the exact amount of each ingredient is carefully and thoroughly market tested until they've found the a winner. By way of example, Cadbury tested 61 formulations for a new flavour of Dr Pepper.
They strike the perfect balance between opposite or alternating tastes and textures so that your taste buds get neither overwhelmed nor bored. Think about Oreo cookies that have a creamy sweet filling between plain crunchy chocolate wafers. This variety has the effect of bypassing your natural appetite suppression mechanisms. Try eating only plain potatoes for a few days and at some point you'll sit down to yet another plate of the same thing and decide that you're really not all that hungry. However when it comes to Lay's potato chips, bet you can't eat just one!
They use artificial additives and enhancers to not only improve taste and texture but to also make it shelf stable for a zombie apocalypse.
They include quantities of salt, sugar or fat that far exceed what you would find naturally in whole foods. An average sized banana, one of nature's sweetest foods has 12g of sugar while a half-cup serving of vanilla yogurt has 18g or more. One third of a of Delissio stuffed crust pepperoni pizza has 21g of fat which is equal to almost 2 tablespoons of butter. And a single tablespoon of Lee Kum Kee soy sauce has 77% of your recommended daily intake of salt.
They combine 2 of the 3 basic tastes. The sweet and salty combination is popular, think trail mix, chocolate covered pretzels or granola bars. Potato chips, pizza and bacon are the ultimate examples of salty and fatty. And every carb lovers dream is the sweet-fat combination that makes peanut butter and jelly sandwiches, donuts or cupcakes with buttercream frosting so irresistible.
With all these tricks up their sleeves, it's no surprise that we struggle with moderation when it comes to highly palatable foods. These foods confuse our brains and override our natural signals for satiety - the feeling of fullness or having eaten enough and satiation - the feeling of being satisfied.
The good news is that now that you understand what's going on, you can take action.
What you can do
The easiest and simplest way to ensure you don't get duped by processed food is to eat slowly and mindfully. Slowing down and paying attention while eating these delicious foods will still allow you to consume them but in a manner that best serves you and helps you stay on track with your health goals.
Suggestions for eating slowly:
Thoroughly chew and swallow your current mouthful, then pause before taking the next bite
Eat smaller items like jelly beans or chocolate covered peanuts one at a time versus by the handful
Put down utensils between bites
Eat with your non-dominant hand
When eating with others, aim to be the slowest eater in the room
Use a timer to pace yourself
Suggestions for eating mindfully:
Take time to notice and appreciate the flavours, textures, tastes, and other qualities of the food
Pay attention to body sensations
Pause every few minutes to notice how hungry or full you currently are, and honour those signals
Using a dish to portion out a serving instead of eating directly from the package
Sit down, eat at a table with no distractions; avoid working, watching tv, reading or scrolling through social media
Consider the ways in which the food is nourishing you
Consider where the food came from and what it took to get to your plate
The benefits of eating slowing and mindfully:
It's easier to hear your body telling you it's full when you are actively listening and paying attention
You can choose to eat any food, no food is off limits
Savoring and allowing yourself to enjoy the food will increase the pleasure and satisfaction you get and you may find you are content with less
Reduce or eliminate feelings of guilt or shame which often result from mindless or uncontrolled consumption
You may notice that the food doesn't taste as good as you thought it would so you choose to not eat it
Reduce the stress around eating
Improve digestion or reduce digestive upset
Further Reading & Watching:
If you are curious about the lengths to which big food companies will go to create products that hook us, I recommend reading the book Salt, Sugar and Fat by Michael Moss; or you can read an abbreviated version in his New York Times Magazine article; or watch this YouTube video of a presentation he gave to a university class
The Omnivore's Dilemma by Michael Pollan
In Defense of Food by Michael Pollan
It Starts With Food by Dallas & Melissa Hartwig
Malcom Gladwell's Ted Talk - Choice, Happiness & Spaghetti Sauce