Can’t eat just one?
It’s no coincidence that you feel compelled to finish a bag of chips or polish off that row of Oreos. Millions of dollars have gone into the research and exact design of these “super tasty foods” so that they become irresistible to eat, even if you are full.
One of the ways they do this is by hijacking the brain’s reward center. It may not come as a surprise, but the 3 most rewarding tastes are sweet, salt and fat. When our brain registers these flavors, it lights up like crazy making you want MORE. And when you get a combination of all three in one shot (think: Chocolate Peanut Butter Cups) you’re willpower is no match for primal brain physiology. Sometimes it’s not the taste of these foods that can cause a knee jerk reaction, but the mere image of these foods can make a person get up and go to dig in the cupboards. Not that anyone reading this has been affected by television commercials for late night snacky treats.
Our brains are designed to help us survive as a species.
In this way, we have a large reward center for tastes that are associated with survival. Way before the age of processed foods or agriculture, humans had to hunt and gather to eat. Sweet foods usually meant that a food was safe to eat. Salty foods helped maintain electrolyte balance when we were eating so many plants and sweating in the heat (think of animal salt licks or salt tabs for athletes). Fat tastes simply indicated LOTS of calories! The reward center encouraged us to more of these foods just in case the next meal was hard to come by. So we continue to experience the drive of this system today and unfortunately these flavor combinations are no longer rarities in our environment.
Here’s an example of the reward center at work. Picture eating a filling, satisfying meal. I don’t mean stuffed but something truly satisfying, such as a steak with red potatoes and garlic green beans. Maybe there was even a roll and butter. You sit on the couch after dinner and 20 minutes later the host brings out a snack tray- with carrots and dip and cups of applesauce. You are still full from the meal- are you tempted to try a bite? My guess is that you have absolutely no interest. You’re full. But change the snack tray and see what happens. The host now brings out a delicate sampling of bite sized chocolate truffles, mini-bowls of ice cream, and some salted cashews. And, oh look, there is also some brightly colored bowls of Skittles and M&Ms. What are you thinking now? Just try a few bites? After all, everything is bite sized!
Sometimes it’s not just the main 3 flavors of salt, fat and sweet that drive us to overeat, but it’s also the combination of textures and even visual appeal in colors. The more choices we have, the more interested we are.
So how do we overcome our own brain chemistry?
This is an example of “If it’s not in the house, I won’t eat it.” How many times have you bought a tasty treat to think that you can willpower yourself to the correct portion or make it last? Be honest about how long a box of Girl Scout Cookies stays in your house. It’s funny, but it’s true that just seeing these foods lying around is enough to make us want them. If you have a co-worker who leaves candy on the desk, you may try avoiding the area for awhile. Or when office birthday cake arrives, don’t linger- avoid the area until all the cake buzzards have cleaned up the scraps.
Create a Pause Moment.
Often, our addictive behavior to consume super tasty food is so automatic and fast that before we even realize it we are elbow deep in a Doritos bag. And in the next moment we are shaking the crumbs from the bag into our mouths- still seeking the last bits of salty crunch. To get away from automatic, it’s helpful to create barriers that slow down the immediate reaction we have to grab these foods. Creating a pause moment gives our logical brain a fighting chance to weigh in on the decision “Do I eat this or not?” For example, try placing a super tasty food in a locked cabinet, or in the freezer, or in someone else’s possession. We create a situation that requires overcoming a slight barrier. This alerts our logical brain that we have started seeking out this tasty treat and gives us a chance to double check if this is the action we really intend to take.
Cravings for super tasty foods can come on so strong and so fast, it’s hard to think of anything else. The distraction technique is based on the fact that many cravings can pass in as little as 10 minutes. This really is a combination of the pause moment and changing your environment. When you feel a craving coming on, you can go do a small task like fold the laundry, wash the dishes, brush your teeth or solve a sudoku puzzle. The better distractions remove you from the environment and completely get your mind focused on something else. (Think: taking the dog for a walk). Check in again after 15-20 minutes. Chances are your craving isn’t as strong as it was, so you may be able to make a better choice, if you are still wanting food at all.
Cold Turkey Approach.
I’m a personal fan of this approach to help break the cycle of out of control eating with super tasty foods. The very nature of these foods makes us want to eat more, even when we just eat One. Small. Bite. Betcha can’t! As hard as it is to skip out on the treat- it’s one step closer to calming the overstimulated reward circuit in the brain. It helps to have an appropriate substitute however. We may need to replace the food with a less stimulating “treat” such as fruit or nuts, but be careful, dried fruit and roasted salted nuts easily fall into the category of super tasty. See how you respond when you eat these foods. If you feel compelled to have just a few more, then get up to refill the dish- guess what, you’ve got a super tasty food on your hands. Eventually, after many weeks and months of not eating the super tasty treat, we can learn to develop a new relationship with these foods that isn’t based on instant gratification or driven by that out of control feeling.
While some people do better with going Cold Turkey and avoid addicting temptations all together, some do not respond well to this strategy. Some of you are in the opposite camp- if you were to face Cold Turkey quitting chocolate you’d scream “I’m Deprived!” from the rooftop and dive into a swimming pool of fudge. In this case, going gradual is your best approach. How do you do this? Take note of your current habits. Are you craving treats multiple times a day? Is the quantity out of control? Start with small steps such as cutting down on portion size. Switch to bite size chocolate, individual portions of ice cream or switching to a small size french fry order. Finding healthier substitutes can help replace super tasty treats when you have the opportunity to plan ahead. Fill your house with super healthy treats and make sure you always have one of these options at hand to help thwart cravings.
Correct Nutritional Deficiencies.
There is some evidence that cravings (especially sugar cravings) can stem from deficiencies of minerals such as magnesium, chromium and zinc. Supplementing with amino acids such as Tyrosine and 5-HTP can help boost your production of the brain neurotransmitters dopamine and serotonin (the very same neurotransmitters that get released when we consume sugary treats.)
Dedicate Time for Self Care.
In other words, eat a balanced diet, get daily physical activity and get plenty of restful sleep. This magical trinity is effective at preventing many health problems, and combating food addiction is included. Hunger hormones increase during stress and periods of sleep deprivation. And it never seems like we are hungry for the healthy stuff. When we need an energetic boost, we tend to reach for those super tasty treats that are high the calories that we just can’t resist.
So take some time to figure out your plan to regain control over those addictive foods. Examine your current habits, because only you know what your particular triggers are and which methods will work best.
What’s the most addicting food? Leave a comment below of your worst offender.