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Addictive

Sugar, Fat, Salt: An Addictive Combination?

Do you ever feel like you are doing really well eating healthy, choosing lots of healthy foods, sticking to your plan and then suddenly, you are faced with the moment of truth… your weakness… your favorite not-healthy comfort food. Before you can say, “bikini… beach… in 3 weeks,” you are stuffing your face with it.

I think we’ve all had a moment or two… or twenty like this. Later on, or even in the midst of your madness, you find yourself disappointed and frustrated with yourself, wondering things like,

“What happened to my willpower? I know better… Don’t I?”

This is exactly what the book, The End of Overeating by David A. Kessler, MD dives into. What is the core reason we overeat? Dr. Kessler believes it is about more than just willpower, but rather the seductive and addictive combination of sugar, fat, and salt that is layered into many of our favorite binge-inducing foods.

After reading this article in the Washington Post, I was intrigued by the points that Dr. Kessler makes about cravings. As a society, we use food for so many things besides nutrition.

Food is a form of entertainment, and a relatively inexpensive one, in most cases. It’s an escape. It gives comfort and brings us back to fond memories of the past. It’s a reward. It makes us feel good.

Yet often we get carried away and overdo it. The temptation – to take that extra slice of pizza when you’re already full, or when you told yourself you’ll have just a small handful of chips, and suddenly the whole bag is empty – gets the best of you.

For a long time I have asked myself why this struggle with overeating is so common.

I am the first to admit, I love food. Not all food, but certain specific types – my own comfort foods, which have surprisingly changed over the years.

Some die-hard favorites like warm chocolate chip cookies and deep-dish pizza get my mouth watering, as well as other newbies favorites like oatmeal pancakes with peanut butter and agave syrup.

I have learned how to enjoy these foods in healthy portion sizes, but I often wonder when I am eating these foods,

Why does this food taste so good? What is it about this food that I like so much? The taste? The texture? The way it makes me feel when I am eating it?

Who’s Fault is this Epidemic of Obesity?

Dr. Kessler says it’s the food industry who has hijacked the brains of millions of Americans.

They’ve figured out that they can manipulate the public by creating food products that have layer upon layer of sugar, salt, and fat and the combination of these three things stimulates the brain to release dopamine.

Dopamine is the neurotransmitter associated with the pleasure center of the brain. Over time it creates an almost learned behavior, lighting up the dopamine pathways upon the mere mention of that particular food.

Once the food is eaten, the brain then releases opioids (stems from the term opiate) which brings emotional relief.

This process, of activating these pathways, which many describe as a craving, happens every time a person is reminded of a particular food, regardless of whether or not the person is actually hungry.

If what Dr. Kessler says is true, you’ve got to hand it to them, these food product manufacturers are smart.

They’ve figured out what works, what gets us craving their products, and they use this knowledge to their advantage. But, this is business.

And like any business, they follow demand. I think to lay blame solely on the food industry is missing a big piece of the puzzle.

In blaming them, we are ignoring the obvious responsibility we each hold for our own body and our own well-being. Whether or not they are playing mind-trickery with layers of sugar, salt, and fat, we still put the cookie in our mouth.

Opening Our Eyes

I really like that Dr. Kessler lists many of his own research studies as well as other references proving the points he lays out in the book.

This wasn’t the normal “sugar is the enemy, so follow this diet” kind of book. In fact, he never mentions a specific diet to follow at all.

The point he is making is that in order to gain control over these kinds of cravings, we must first become aware. Aware of both our own habits as well as aware of what is actually in the foods we eat. We must start to ask ourselves questions like,

  • Is what I am eating really “food,” or is it just a combination of various highly processed ingredients and chemicals put together to create something that resembles food? Is it actually providing nutrition for my body at all?
  • How many different layers of sugar, fat, and salt went into this meal, meaning how many different types of sugar are there, how many times did they add salt to the cooking process?
  • How many calories are actually in this serving of chocolate cake?

Sugar, Fat, Salt: An Addictive Combination?

Claim Jumper’s Chocolate Motherlode Cake, featured on the Food Network as one of the most decadent desserts in the country – a whopping 2,150 calories per slice.

Why Does Sugar, Fat, and Salt Taste Good?

The book goes into a lot of detail explaining why foods that taste good to the general public, tend to be layered and loaded with these three ingredients, in order to achieve a multiple sensory effect.

This combination also helps to release more flavor, making the food more palatable, easier to chew and swallow, and essentially easier to eat larger quantities of it.

I read this, and remember times where entire baskets of tortilla chips and salsa have disappeared before my eyes. Yes…I can see how this could be true.

Regaining Control

Ultimately, in order to break the cycle of overeating, we must begin to fundamentally change how we view the foods we eat so that we can reprogram ourselves to choose healthy options that taste good and will fuel our body.

Dr. Kessler does a great job of teaching how to question things that we often don’t even think about when it comes to food…

Does there really need to be sugar in jarred pasta sauce?

His strategies for how to break through the never ending cycle of overeating, to get to a place where you can live in moderation with a healthy relationship with food align very much with the strategies I have instilled in my own life. He believes,

We can’t sustain a change in behavior if it leaves us hungry, unhappy, angry, or resentful.

Well said. We are all capable of relearning how to have a healthy relationship with food, we just have to educate ourselves on our own patterns and then create an individual plan that works for us.

I would absolutely recommend the book, The End of Overeating, for anyone who is looking to better understand how to get to that happy place where they can enjoy food, yet it does not hold them hostage.

So, what do you think about the seductive combo of sugar, fat, and salt?

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{ 4 comments… read them below or add one }

Marie November 30, 2009 at 11:39 PM

I totally agree with what Dr. Kessler says ‘We can’t sustain a change in behavior if it leaves us hungry, unhappy, angry, or resentful’. That’s probably why diets don’t really work. We need to find foods that are a healthy combination that we actually like eating. I really like mixing my plain low-fat yogurt with fresh fruit and some stevia. This way I know how much sugar is in it rather than buying a container of ready mixed yogurt and fruit. I think you just have to think about what you like to eat and find healthy alternatives. Great article, as usual, Sheila!

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Michelle December 1, 2009 at 7:50 AM

Hey Shelia!

Yeah, no doubt, though I don’t know if it was all done by the food industry by intention…I remember the advent of high fructose corn syrup being viewed as a more natural alternative than sugar! If we only had known!

In studies we saw at nursing conferences, it showed that while, like the groups I’ve worked among, especially on a 12 hour night shift…we tow the line with healthy eating until we start hitting exhaustion…then its chocolate, salt,caffeine- and the real physiology is that it helps the old synapses of the neurons fire quicker – and keeps one awake and a little more alert for a short time….quick rush…

But then there’s the rebound and the cycle begins again….

Good info!

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Steve January 8, 2010 at 10:59 AM

I DO blame the food industry, keyword, INDUSTRY. Perhaps high fructose corn syrup was innocently introduced into our diets, but it’s consequences have been well know for a long time without any reduction in it’s use, as a matter of fact, it’s in more foods than ever. Yes, we put the cookie in our mouths, but Dr. Kessler’s point is that those combinations; layers of fat, sugar and salt, were combined and “designed” to excite the neurotransmitters that cause us to CRAVE more. Intentionally combined to cause for all intents and purposes, an addiction.
The food industry IS to blame for most ills in our food system and the majority of the public does not educate itself on what they put in their mouths and stomachs. Our part is not just to not put that cookie in our mouth, but to hold them accountable by keeping these practices in the public’s eye and supporting local food sources. Time to pull our heads out of those mounds of salt, sugar and fat……………..not to mention chemicals!

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Zaakiya September 16, 2011 at 10:04 AM

Why’s food so addictive? There can only be one answer: monosodium glutamate….

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