Eating Blind Spots - Kristen Carter MS

Eating Blindspots

“I think, therefore I am.’
“You are what you eat.”
“Don’t always believe what you think.” 
“The more you know, the more you know that you don’t know.”

These pithy phrases have been around for a long time (especially the first one).  They are meant to start us on a journey of thinking about things differently.  Or, at least somewhat differently. 

If you put all these together, you can apply them to some of the issues that affect how we eat. 

Descartes was probably not thinking about food when he said, “I think, therefore I am,” but you could apply this phrase to how we eat sometimes.  “I want ice cream, therefore, I will go get some.”  Or, “That bag of chips is calling to me.” 

On the other hand, the realization that “You are what you eat” may throw us into a tizzy, a guilt trip, or maybe even a cleanse.  It is well documented that people go on guilt trips after they eat something that they think is “bad.” Sometimes, that leads to other “bad” eating, as in “what the Hell…I might as well keep going because I already blew it.” 

The other two phrases are directly in line with what is going on beneath the surface when it comes to how we eat, what foods appeal to us, what we end up choosing, how we guage our hunger, and what we think we need to consume at any given time.  The truth is, it can be a struggle to know what our body and brain are telling us. 

In fact, it is impossible to do so.  Much of what is going on in our brains and bodies when we choose what to eat is hidden from our conscious awareness.  We are not automatons, acting only at the whim of our senses (although sometimes it may seem like it).  We have options, ways to combat cravings, and ways to revamp how we eat if we want to.  BUT, as we all know, it is not easy. 

Let me give you a small tour of what is going on that we don’t necessarily perceive.

It’s about pleasure

One of the fairly obvious things about food is that it gives us pleasure.  It actually lights up pleasure centers in your brain.  Some foods do this more than others.  Let’s face it, probably most of us are drawn more to ice cream than to Brussels sprouts.

Studies on humans, rats, and primates have shown that we all share a preference for sugar, fat, and often salt.  It doesn’t stop there.  Humans will veer off the straight and narrow when faced with foods that have interesting combinations of contrasting tastes and textures. 

We can also get lazy about chewing. (Ice cream wins again!) Fast food is often processed to take away the chore of chewing.  The food dissolves in the mouth quickly.  That can encourage overeating because it takes less time to consume.  The pleasurable experience of eating may be bypassed, prompting us to look around for more food in order to get satisfaction.

In fact, some restaurants plump up their food with moisture in order to make it easier to chew.  And, of course, they give you large portions.  If you want to eat more, it is good for business.   

As we are becoming more and more aware, ultra-processed foods have addictive qualities to them.  They may slide down easily, they may have tantalizing combinations of tastes and textures (think Snickers), and the ingredients are there to wake up our reward centers, big-time!  These items are so palatable that they can induce impulsive consumption, including the inability to stop that consumption. 

Other influencers of Food Preferences

We know that our sense of smell and taste add quite a bit to our perception of what we are eating.  Perception of smell and taste can vary greatly between individuals. 

For example, greater sensitivity to the smell and taste of fat has been linked to a lower consumption of fat when making food choices.  Conversely, a lower perception of fat can cause individuals not to register fat content, and thus to eat more of it.  Research has shown that a lower perception of fat is linked to higher BMI and waist circumference. 

There is another sticky wicket to consider.

Other research shows that many individuals with overweight or obesity have a blunted response to food, which can lead to overeating.  For example, fat cells secrete leptin, which is meant to signal the brain that fullness (and the reward that food brings) has been achieved.  However, after a while, too much leptin from fat cells can blunt that signal and wreak havoc with that system.  This can lead to overeating. 

Another “fun” fact:  There are plenty of genetic influences on our food preferences.  Genes can affect preferences for food groups like carbohydrates, proteins, and fats.  Genes can also draw you to specific tastes like vodka or white wine. 

The big take-away from this

It is not about willpower.  With all this going on, we cannot simply try to lose a few pounds or make healthier choices by trying to change some of our habits in a draconian manner.  Suddenly imposing a new regime on our bodies and wills is just going to make us want to rebel and retreat. 

Yes, we have to use our brains to work around this.  In a nutshell, here’s how:  select a series of changes to make, slowly, over time, that are based on your unique preferences and circumstances. Understanding even some of the factors involved can relieve guilt and instead guide us to a different strategy that will help us reach our goals. 

Stay curious,

© 2024 Kristen Carter. All rights reserved.
Photo Credit: Lolostock | iStock

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