Monday, May 28, 2012

Are We Addicted To Food?

A couple of nights ago we were at a friend’s house for dinner. And what a feast it was: succulent roasted chicken, rice pilaf with roasted veggies, crisp market greens, all followed by a selection of New York State artisanal cheeses. As you can imagine, we were all pretty satisfied and full when the meal was over. A few even commented on how they “could not possibly swallow another bite”. So what do you think happened when the luscious chocolate cake made the appearance on the table? Did we all politely say “No, thank you, we had enough food”? Ha! Everyone took a piece and happily ate it all! Were we still hungry when we saw the cake? Far from it. What happened is called “hedonic hunger” – a primitive reward mechanism that has been used by human bodies for thousands of years to protect us from starvation. This means that even if we are full we can be still “hungry” when faced by foods with high hedonic value. Very often they are some kind of combination of fat, salt and sugar. We are programmed to eat more than we need when this kind of food is readily available and accessible, like it is in most Western countries.

And it is not getting easier from here. Some studies show that as we eat more of these foods and gain more weight, we need still more food in order to “get a kick” or feel rewarded for doing an evolutionary correct thing. Sounds familiar? Yes, food can elicit a response from the brain that is very similar to the one elicited by drugs. Of course it is too early to speak about clinical signs of food addiction. It is also unclear whether the ability to feel satisfied with smaller quantities of food diminishes when we gain weight or it is genetically too low in for some. But scientists already know that this mechanist makes it very difficult for us to maintain or lose weight in the current environment of plenty because it requires a lot of willpower in order to resist the ubiquitous cues leading to overeating.

Here are some practical ways to deal with conditioned overeating described by a former FDA commissioner Dr. David Keissler in his book “The end of overeating. Taking Control of the Insatiable American Appetite”:
1. Replacing chaos with structure. Establish a structure in your meals and snacks and follow it religiously. Uncontrolled snacking or skipping meals compromises your ability to make good choices and control the amount of food you eat.
2. Just-right eating. Learn what a serving size of food should look like, serve it on your plate and eat slowly, enjoying every bite, trying to gauge what amount of food truly satisfies you. You might be surprised to find out that you are able to leave some food on the plate.
3. Choosing foods that satisfy you. Protein-rich foods such as meat, fish, poultry, beans, soy, nuts and seeds and fiber-rich whole grains, fruits ad vegetables will help you feel full and satisfied for longer periods of time. Sugar or refined carbohydrates, on the other hand, can trigger overeating or chaotic snacking, as they are less satiating. Ideal menu suggested by Dr. Keissler to prevent you from overeating can look like this: an omelet for breakfast, a grilled chicken sandwich for lunch, two snacks, such as a piece of cheese and a cup of fruit; and fish with leafy greens for dinner.
4. Seizing conscious control. Notice the feelings make you reach for food and find ways to have your emotional needs met in other ways. Try yoga or meditation when you are stressed out or call a friend when you are sad or anxious.
5. Getting out of the path of cues. Stay alert to the external stimuli leading to overeating. Whether it is a happy hour on Friday night or passing by a French bakery on Monday morning – limit your exposure to the food you find tough to control.

So what would be the proper way to deal with that chocolate cake temptation? If you know that you have a hard time controlling yourself around sweets, volunteer to provide a dessert for the party and bring a fruit salad. If you are faced by a “trigger” food, ask yourself how much you are influenced by the environmental cues rather than by your own desires and try to resist the urge to indulge. If “no, thank you” is not an option, serve yourself a small portion and slowly savor each bite you take, paying close attention to your satisfaction level. As soon as you notice enjoying the food less, put the fork down, push away the plate and distract yourself by engaging in a conversation with other guests, for example.

Natalia Stasenko MS, RD is the owner and Registered Dietitian at New York based Tribeca Nutrition created to provide professional help for your family's everyday nutrition. Her mission is to help parents raise healthy eaters, resolve picky eating, eat well with food allergies and enjoy family meals while taking better care of themselves, too. Check our Facebook page and Pinterest boards for daily fresh and healthy lunch ideas, feeding strategies, healthy eating tips and much more.

References: Joe Vinson, Ph.D., professor of chemistry, University of Scranton, Scranton, Penn.; Endocrine Society, May 3, 2012, news release; June 2012 Journal of Clinical Endocrinology & Metabolism. David A. Kessler The end of overeating. Taking control of the insatiable American appetite.

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