Who among us has never been tempted by certain foods, eaten too much at a buffet, totally lost track of our internal braking system when faced with certain situations, or grabbed some comfort food when stressed out?
In cases like these (and others), we can end up scratching our heads in wonderment. How could this have happened? I thought I had more control than that!
Turns out that our brains and bodies often work against us. It’s almost like that lament from Flip Wilson back in the 70s’, “The Devil made me do it!” It’s really not fair, but that’s the way it is. Let’s break this down a bit so you can see why this can happen. Once you know what is going on, you can:
- Get off your case, and stop beating yourself up.
- Divide and conquer. Once you sort out the cause, you can have a shot at beating the system.
So here goes. First, the overview.
DISCLAIMER! I am just going to talk about our brains and bodies, not how you may have been taught to make food choices or what was going on way back in the day when you learned how to eat.
There are several systems that interact with each other when it comes to how we eat. There’s our genetics, epigenetics (when genes that you have are activated by your lifestyle), gut microbes, stress, circadian rhythms, how our brains are set up, signals from our bodies about hunger and fullness, signals from our bodies that regulate fat storage, foods designed to be appealing and addicting, and even what medications we may be taking. Dang! We are up against many different forces.
Please note: The fact that this list is long and implies a lot of complexity also means that there is no silver bullet, no one food, or no one supplement, that is going to make everything fall in to place. So, buyer beware!
We CAN, however, use broad strokes to describe the issue. There are two basic reasons why we eat.
- There is homeostasis. In other words, we eat to keep our bodies in balance nutritionally and functionally. Our bodies frequently will tell us when we are getting off kilter. We have elaborate systems that let us know what is going on in our bodies. These systems regularly interact with our brains, which then runs the show based on what it is picking up from the body.
- There is the hedonic system. This is the place where things get sticky. We are designed to like to eat! After all, where would we be without food? Our species would never have survived if we weren’t attracted to food. Come to think of it, that would be true of every other living thing on the planet. (Fun fact: There is a snail that has only two types of neurons instead of a brain. One neuron is for determining if it needs food, and the other is for locating it. Otherwise, not much is going on. This shows that even at the most basic level, food is number one.)
So here is a potential problem. When both of those systems are working together in harmony, all is well. But, when the hedonic system is more dominant, we can end up doing those things mentioned above that may frustrate us and lead to overeat.
What keeps these systems in balance (or not)?
To keep this blog from getting out of hand, I will just highlight a few things that are major players when it comes to systems that regulate how we eat.
We have a reward system that attracts us to things that are pleasurable, like food. Then there is the control system that enables self-regulation. To put it in a nutshell, our current environment surrounds us with hyper-palatable foods (a.k.a., junk foods) that send our reward systems into a tizzy, and make us lose control over our intake. In this case, hedonic wins over regular old homeostasis. In fact, repeated flooding the reward system can result in a sort of numbing of the system so that we end up seeking more and more in order to get the same rewarding feeling. If that sounds like addiction to you, you are right.
Then there’s your gut bacteria. Many of those hyper-palatable foods alter our gut bacteria in a bad way. Another thing that throws off our gut bacteria? Carrying around extra weight. The wrong gut bacteria can throw off signals that tell us we are full, create a state of chronic inflammation, and create a situation where weight gain is almost inevitable. Our genes and how they become expressed can also determine the quality of our gut bacteria. The wrong gut bacteria will send the wrong signals to the brain, which can and will disrupt many of the systems that help us maintain control over what we consume.
What to do?
- What to eat. Eat a diet rich in plants, including nuts, seeds, beans, legumes, whole grains, lean proteins, and healthy oils like olive oil. If this sounds familiar, that’s because many, many, experts always say the same thing. Me too, for that matter. Following that style of eating is good for your gut (big time!) and gives you the nutrients you need to maintain your function, as in homeostasis.
- What not to eat. Stay away from ultra-processed “junk” food. This is the stuff that is mostly chemicals and additives. This advice may sound familiar as well. That’s because it is virtually a mantra these days of the experts that I mentioned in #1. If you make a list of ultra-processed items you often consume, you may be shocked and even discouraged. They are everywhere. Commercial baked goods like cookies and pastries, frozen pizza, chips and dips, soda, and many cereals with added sugars and dyes. Honorable mention goes to items like fast foods, and foods high in sugar, salt and/or fat. These items wreak havoc with your gut bacteria and your reward system.
- Exercise. Darn it! Here we go again! We are always harping on exercise. Why? There is a laundry list of benefits you get from it. There is appetite control, expenditure of energy (i.e., calories), enhancing feelings of fullness when eating, lowering reward seeking, especially for sweets, and upgrading your internal control system. It also helps you tune in to what your body really needs for good function.
All this may sound quite familiar. But here we are giving you a bit more insight into why you see the same recommendations again and again. Not only are these great recommendations to follow for nutrition and health, they are also huge when it comes to taming a runaway appetite.
© 2023 Kristen Carter. All rights reserved.
Photo Credit: MarianVejcik | iStock