Why We Overeat and How to Stop

By Mike Howard

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To say that overeating is a bit of a problem in North America would be like saying Jimmy Hendrix played a little guitar. Dr David Kessler (MD) explores the world of food addiction, food companies’ secrets, and how to break free of the vices that compel us to eat.

Kessler uses sound research, interviews, as well as personal and professional experience to create a convincing and riveting account of why we crave certain foods. He takes us through the biology and psychology of overeating – exploring the circuitry that compels us to eat too much of the wrong foods.

Why We Overeat

  • We have a region in our brains that houses a “reward system”. There are powerful biological forces that push us to pursue things that make us feel better.
  • Sugar, fat and salt make us eat more sugar, fat and salt. Palatability involves not only taste, but the motivation to pursue that taste.
  • Many animal and human studies show a stimulation of neurons when exposed to highly palatable foods – this is part of the opioid circuitry of the brain.
  • Opiods give food the pleasure, while dopamine motivates our behaviour and impels us towards food.
  • Incentive salience is a phenomenon many of us fall prey to – this is the desire, activated by cues, for something that predicts reward.

The Food Industry

  • Restaurants and food manufacturers weave the appeal of aroma texture, and consistency into their products – evoking pleasant memories and an intrinsic warmth.
  • Compelling imagery – in the face of pleasure, a well-placed picture of a gooey slice of pizza suspends rational thought, with the pleasure becoming a distraction.
  • The most palatable, most indulgent foods are also the most profitable.
  • There is an interesting parallel in that the food industry acts like the entertainment industry – providing not just a meal but an escape from the stress of daily life.
  • Restaurants indulge the mentality their consumers’ perceived entitlement to indulge.
  • It’s no surprise that almost all menu items contain some combination of fat/sugar/salt. These fat-on-sugar-on-fat-on-salt-on-fat creations generate multiple sensory effects.
  • The American concept of food complexity is built on layering and loading rather than intricate and subtle use of quality ingredients. Traditional food is meant to satisfy, while American food is meant to stimulate.
  • In lieu of real food, the food industry is baking with a chemical mix of preservatives and oil.
  • Cues, priming and emotional triggers all drive conditioned hypereating.

Overcoming Overeating

  • In essence, we have to be mistrustful of our brains. Success is dependent on employing a wide range of cognitive and behavioural tools.
  • In the beginning, a lot of diligence is necessary to reverse long-standing habits. It requires repeated practice – awareness is the first step.
  • Having a countermanding action for a risky situation is vital. For example “if this happens than I’ll say/do this”.
  • Altering behaviour means changing our emotional appraisal of food. We need to learn to view the pursuit of sugar, fat and salt in a negative light.
  • We need to stop looking at overeating as a lack of willpower, but rather a biological challenge.
  • Kessler recommends having structured meals, eating foods you enjoy (healthy ones), and employing imagery to help mentally prepare you for the inevitable onslaught of unhealthy fare.

Final Thoughts

If you struggle with overeating or find that you are ruled by unconscious urges to eat, this is an excellent resource. The End of Overeating is a fantastic book for anybody interested in the complex factors that govern overeating. I certainly learned a lot and gained a more thorough understanding of the science and cultural implications of eating too much.

8 Comments

  1. lisa1

    I am a 28-y o woman that was raised by a mother that still is a severe overeater. I don’t recall eating foods that I would call healthy, and sure enough I hit puberty extremely early and struggle with my weight every day. I exercise and try to eat well, but I have found that since I cancelled by cable, I don’t feel tempted to eat as often or to eat random junk. I do agree that whole, unprocessed foods are the way to go, but I saw a documentary about morbidly obese patients that were living in a care facility designed specifically for their needs. Their doctor stated that he tells his patients to have an orange instead of pizza when they are hungery, but they end up eating 13 oranges instead. I am capable of controlling myself, but I completely understand the need for the rush that eating brings.

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  2. Brbara Bartocci

    Ironically, I got in touch in a new way with my own overeating habits as I wrote my book, GRACE ON THE GO: QUICK PRAYERS FOR DETERMINED DIETERS. I have been an emotional eater my whole life–Here’s something that has helped me when I’m tempted to overeat:
    I drink a big glass of water and then go on a one-minute “Fast” breathing slowly and deeply, and saying,
    “Between my thoughts and my actions, Oh Lord,
    I place your presence. Amen.”

    Reply
  3. debra mazda

    As a former 325 pounds women who has been a size 12 and 165 pounds for over 20 years I know a few things about losing weight and keeping it off. I also have a Master’s degree in Exercise Physiology.

    To say that we will never overeat again is not realistic but I found some truths to this, the more junk one eats the more the craving never go away. I have said for years that sugar is a drug that we want more of once we eat it. Keeping the blood sugar level stable works for me every time and I have learned over the years that this is the key as I have documented my eating patterns. My diet consists mostly of whole foods and lots of protein which tends to make me alive and energized, sugar and excessive fats make me tired and irritated. I teach this to women and try to get them to understand that they need to stop being obsessed with weightloss but start looking at what you are eating and focus on good nutrition. Losing weight is so complicated but you can do it once you find what works for you and across the board I would say that eating for weight loss is a losing battle because along with this is the diet mentality that most women refuse to let go of. The world of weight loss will never be at a loss of books, scams and quick fixes. The bottom line for me is that good nutrition, exercise, a positive attitude and a will to never give up is the winning combination for anyone who needs and wants to lose weight.

    The biggest piece of my success has been exercise,which to me is the crucial component to any long-term weight loss program. I have been teaching fitness classes for 20 years and now have video’s out on the market for women to do at home. I created SHAPELYGIRL FITNESS FOR LARGER WOMEN, my goal is to get people moving for weight loss.

    debra mazda

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  4. Shining Star

    Does this book sound totally believable? Yes. Does this makes sense that cooperations could have a hand in the obesity epidemic? Yes. If you say no to either of these two questions. Just take a ride up and down the east coast from Florida to New York and see if you don’t see the same strip malls and gas stations. Everything is carbon copy from city to city unless you are talking about older structures or new cooperation buildings. Cooperations push the same mass produced stuff irregardless to whether it’s healthy for some or even most people unless it is profitable.

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  5. FatMatters

    I’m a clinical psychologist and have worked intensively with people with compulsive eating problems for over 30 years. There is a great deal of truth to what the review of Dr. Kessler’s books says. This is a theory and, as yet, unproven with respect to scientific study. The clinical data does support some sort of connection between compulsive overeating and psychological/brain factors. I have helped people become “normal eating people” for many years so whatever the factor is, it is not permanent nor addictive in the strict sense of the word. I believe (and I have written about it in my book, Mind Over Fat Matters, Overcoming Psychological Barriers to Weight Management, that the issue has to do with what I call “psychological deprivation” from restrictive, fad dieting. It is definitely a conquerable problem. Dr. Lavinia Rodriguez

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  6. Spectra

    This just reinforces my own weight maintenance strategy…namely, that you can’t really gain a lot of weight by overeating veggies and fruits. If you really want to fill up without it showing up on your hips the next day, snack on a big bowl of raw broccoli florets, some carrots, celery stalks, and a few jicama sticks. The thing is, most people aren’t realistically going to do that; they’re going to sit down with a bag of Doritos and a bowl of ice cream because those foods are more palatable. I myself DO snack on raw veggies all the time because I know they’re healthy and will fill me up. Then again, I’m not the “average” American, I suppose.

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  7. Katie

    Just because he doesn’t agree with you does not mean that the man does not know anything. You always throw the word “socialist” around and you clearly have no idea what it means, other than in the tortured, commonplace American usage. Socialism indicates an economic system in which the workers own the means of production. Socialism, as described by Marx, allows for the development of the individual by ensuring their needs are provided for and in his description democratizes learning and the arts. The well known attempts to put socialism into practice on a large scale bastardize his description of socialism as much as radical free market capitalists bastardize Adam Smith’s description of the free market. Larger government is not the same as socialism.

    Corporations pursue their own interests, which means the interests of their stockholders, regardless of the interests of consumers, many of whom have no other practical means of providing their own needs but for using those corporations. If the interests of the consumers are offended or injured, it does not matter to the corporation who will continue to do so (as we learned with the case of trans fat) until an outside force steps in and the government helps to enforce it.

    (I apologize for the political tangent, but I have heard too many people in recent months ignorantly use the word “socialist”.)

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  8. Barry

    I heard this guy on NPR last week. Basically, we’re all a bunch of helpless victims. Corporations are evil. Blah, blah… blah. The usual psuedo-scientific quasi-socialist clap trap.

    About the only good thing I heard was his point that eating refined carbohydrates, for some people, causes an increase in hunger leading them to eat still more.

    Reply