Neuroscience Research: Why Do We Eat WAY More Than We Should?

Why Do We Eat WAY More Than We Should?

What Does the Neuroscience Research Say?

Let’s take a side street from the classroom and go directly into your kitchen and dining room. I thought I would give you the science behind eating and over eating. Would this apply to you?

If you know me, you know I am skinny as a rail. But, while I might make it look easy, it’s NOT! I watch what I eat. I rarely ever eat desserts. I eat no artificial sweeteners, no artificial colorings and rarely any preservatives in my food. On top of that, I go out of my way to avoid so called natural sweeteners like high fructose corn syrup.

All I’ve told you so far is a “no brainer”. But I haven’t told you the most shocking thing yet!

This might surprise you; I DO eat like a pig sometimes (though not usually.)

The question is “How can I get away with it?” And, even more importantly, what can you do to keep the waistline where you want it? I’ll get to the answers in a moment. First, you should know the science behind all the weight gains that adults experience.

At each developmental and maturation age, the body and brain are trying to help you survive. As a female, you don’t need a bit of extra fat at age 10, but by puberty, your body tries to add some, since childbearing is becoming a real possibility. Extra fat helps ensure a food source for the pregnant mom. So why would your body try to add fat when you’re over forty, past the likely childbearing years? The answer is it doesn’t try to do that! If anything, your body is trying to get leaner as you grow into middle age. Baloney you say! So what’s happening?

Here are the top 5 myths and the truth to help you get you back to your slim and sexy self. (Guys, this applies to you, as well!)

1. MYTH: Sleep is laziness and bad for your weight.

TRUTH: Get more sleep. As you age, hormone fluctuations mess with your sleep schedule. But three hormones, ghrelin, leptin and cortisol influence appetite. When you do not get enough rest, ghrelin rises, which increases hunger. Leptin, which promotes feelings of fullness, drop. But wait! It gets worse! Less sleep promotes increases in cortisol, which promote a lust for “comfort foods” those high fat bombshells that sink your day. Get 6-8 hours of sleep a night and weight will re-regulate itself. Motivala SJ, Tomiyama AJ, Ziegler M, Khandrika S, Irwin MR. (2009)

2. MYTH: Stop snacking.

TRUTH: Make healthy snacking easier. WHAT??? Yes, it’s true. You can eat nearly all you want, but only of certain foods. So make them easy to get and easy to eat. It’s much more expensive to buy a package of pre-cut celery and carrots. They charge DOUBLE the price of raw celery or carrots in bulk. BUT, if you actually eat them for snacking, you’ll end up saving the money by eating less junky, pre-packaged, high fat convenience foods. Eat small servings of mixed nuts as a snack. Why? You get better satiation and you’re likely to eat less at mealtime. Plus, the artificial sweeteners (like high fructose corn syrup) are well known to be linked to obesity – not getting skinny! Bray GA, Nielsen SJ, Popkin BM. (2004) and Bowen J, Noakes M, Clifton PM. (2006)

3. MYTH: Eat desserts at home, not in a restaurant (to save money)

TRUTH: Saving money makes you fat, eat desserts out at restaurants. Brand new study sheds light on this. Read this: “Hedonic foods trigger the analgesic functions to defend eating from ending.”    Translated? The fatty foods induce a “brainstem-mediated defense” (they make you feel no pain) of the consumption of palatable foods. (Foo H, Mason P. 2009). It makes overeating tasty foods so irresistible in the face of opposing cognitive and motivational forces. In short, comfort foods may put you in a temporary “numbing” euphoric zone. How can you combat that? You can’t! NEVER buy hedonic foods for home storage. Make ice cream (Ben and Jerry’s, Hagen-Daz, etc.), as well as every other goody, something you have to go out to get. It’s OK to treat yourself weekly or monthly. But any more than that and you have got a problem! Do not store any comfort foods in your home. (Confession: I do buy and eat just one of those separately wrapped Hershey’s chocolate miniatures for dessert occasionally.)

4. MYTH: Eating is physical.

TRUTH: It’s all in your brain! Re-train it to ignore or postpone hunger. Start using mind over body strategies. There are three nasty things that happen in your brain that make you eat too much. One, I just mentioned in the myth above: hedonic foods make you desensitize to eating MORE hedonic foods. Second, eating can be just as addictive as drugs or gambling. The signs of eating addiction? There is a loss of control over your eating and it starts to affect your overall well-being. Third, when you get slightly hungry (plus a little stressed), your brain says, Search for food and eat! The next time that happens, say to yourself, I do notice I’m a bit hungry. But I won’t die; I can wait until I can eat some healthy foods later. Do this over and over and over, week after week. The more you train your brain, the better you’ll get at ignoring your hunger signals. It’s brain training, like an Army boot camp.

5. BONUS: MYTH: Turkey makes you sleepy.

TRUTH: It’s the wine and the desserts. Neuropharmacologist Wurtman of the MIT says tryptophan is the scarcest amino acid in turkey. Not only is it scarce, it also competes with five other amino acids for the same transporters. Taken in isolation, tryptophan would increase brain serotonin, but every food source contains multiple nutrients, not just one (like tryptophan). Eating a cherry or pumpkin pie, will causes beta cells in the pancreas to secrete insulin, a hormone that allows the uptake of glucose and most amino acids into the tissues. That reduces the tryptophan’s competition; the transport system is no longer tied up and much more tryptophan can cross the blood-brain barrier. This creates the calming effect. But there’s more: the neurotransmitter GABA (that’s the one stimulated by alcoholic beverages) is also released during the “BIG” meal. Kähkönen S, Wilenius J. (2007) In short, it’s easy to blame the food, but it’s actually more our choices we make (sorry about that).

And skinny me? Is it really my genes that make me skinny? That’s only part of the answer. Genes contribute 30-40% of how we turn out. To address the other 60-70%, I am a fanatic about getting my 6-7 hours of sleep every night! I snack like crazy. I eat fruit and nuts for snacks. I avoid ALL artificial sweeteners. I have learned to notice my hunger, then to postpone my eating. That puts me back in charge, not my body’s hormones.

Let’s summarize the actual eating strategies based on how our brain works. Get more sleep, not less. Go for 6-7 hours a night. Make healthy snacking easier and more convenient. Eat fruits, nuts and veggies. Saving money makes you fat, eat desserts out at restaurants. It’s all in your brain! Re-train it to ignore or postpone hunger. Turkey does not make you sleepy, it’s the wine and desserts that do that. Brain-based education says, “Use your brain!” Now, go have some fun!

Bowen J, Noakes M, Clifton PM. (2006) Appetite regulatory hormone responses to various dietary proteins differ by body mass index status despite similar reductions in ad libitum energy intake. J Clin Endocrinol Metab. 2006 Aug;91(8):2913-9

Bray GA, Nielsen SJ, Popkin BM. (2004) Consumption of high-fructose corn syrup in beverages may play a role in the epidemic of obesity. Am J Clin Nutr. 2004 Apr;79(4):537-43.

Foo H, Mason P. (2009) Analgesia accompanying food consumption requires ingestion of hedonic foods. J Neurosci. 2009 Oct 14;29(41):13053-62

Kähkönen S, Wilenius J. (2007) Effects of alcohol on TMS-evoked N100 responses. Neurosci Methods. 2007 Oct 15;166(1):104-8

Motivala SJ, Tomiyama AJ, Ziegler M, Khandrika S, Irwin MR. (2009) Nocturnal levels of ghrelin and leptin and sleep in chronic insomnia. Psychoneuroendocrinology. 2009 May;34(4):540-5.

Speechly DP, Rogers GG, Buffenstein R. (1999) Acute appetite reduction associated with an increased frequency of eating in obese males. Int J Obes Relat Metab Disord. Nov;23(11):1151-9.

Creative Commons License photo credit: thekevinchang

1 reply
  1. Wilda Allgeyer
    Wilda Allgeyer says:

    Hey Patrick, good question. I always went with total carbs (not net carbs). I counted fiber as carbs. There are valid arguments that insoluble fiber shouldn’t count as a carb, etc, but I still just counted all carbs.

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