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Why is healthy eating harder than overeating?

Updated on March 26, 2010

I'm not a great fan of donuts, but if someone brings a bunch to work, I'll eat one--or two, or, well, you get the point. I eat junk food I don't particularly like just because it's there. I can get a craving for some kind of fast food even when I'm not particularly hungry.

David Kessler, FDA commissioner under the first President Bush and President Clinton, had a weakness for chocolate chip cookies. He, too, wondered why overeating is so easy even as we try to lose weight and develop a healthy lifestyle.

Unlike many who wonder the same thing, he had the professional knowledge to conduct research (including dumpster diving!) to find out. His conclusions appear in the recently published book The End of Overeating.

Industrial food and our brains

Don't point an accusing finger either at  the food industry cynically manipulating the public or at weak-willed ignoramuses with no will power. The answer, it turns out, has to do with our brains. With a better understanding of biochemistry and psychology, perhaps we as a society can foster more healthy habits.

People have always wanted tasty food. Fat, sugar, and salt all taste good and stimulate the brain to feel pleasure. Prehistoric people might have experienced that pleasure as part of the reward for a successful hunt. They may have responded by overeating, but the hard work of getting food did not allow many binges.

Until recently, most people did not have food of any kind in abundance and had to work very hard for what they could obtain. The great prosperity of the last couple of centuries has changed that. People first wanted leisure time, then convenience.

Today, we no longer need to grow our own food or even cook it. The food industry has carefully worked to discover the exact balance at which their products have just the right amount of fat, sugar and salt--not too much, not too little--to taste just right. Now we can not only get fat, sugar, and salt in the same item, we can get various layers in the same item.

The food that results from industrial engineering taps into the reward system in our brain and overwhelms the ability to feel satisfied. Our brains get hooked on the pleasure, and we keep overeating when we're no longer hungry.

Implications for healthy cooking

Fortunately, fresh meat and produce have not disappeared from our stores. We can cook our own food and make it healthier than industrial food. Healthy cooking can start with the realization that packaged foods are not necessarily as convenient as they seem. The Internet has thousands of recipes for good food that take half an hour or less to prepare.

Soups and casseroles can be wonderfully convenient, because you can make enough for two or three meals. When you make your own, you can control the ingredients. Use less fat and better fat (such as olive oil or other mono- or polyunsaturated fat) than the transfats in packaged meals. Take advantage of the natural sweetness of fruits and vegetables. Flavor your food with herbs and spices so you can cut down on salt.

Food does not have to have layer on layer of fat, sugar, and salt in the same dish to taste good. Tasty food that uses these ingredients sparingly does not overstimulate our brains and allows us to feel satisfied with less. If enough people recognize those facts, healthy cooking and portion control will become more attractive than overeating, and intrusive regulation will not be necessary.


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    • allpurposeguru profile image

      David Guion 7 years ago from North Carolina

      Thanks for stopping by and commenting, MaryRenee. Oh, and Judah's Daughter: Baker's Square is exactly the one I meant. They're all over the Chicago area.

    • profile image

      MaryRenee 7 years ago

      David: Excellent hub my friend, it's all so very true!

    • Judah's Daughter profile image

      Judah's Daughter 7 years ago from Roseville, CA

      LOL ~ Awe....there's a place called Sherry's in Oregon; here in California we have Marie Callendar's and Baker's Square! It's a good thing they're far enough away from me it makes me think twice (the second thought of NOT) before I'd drive to pick one up!

    • allpurposeguru profile image

      David Guion 7 years ago from North Carolina

      Thank you, Judah's Daughter. I agree about learning balance. We can't blame the food industry for making mass produced food that tastes good. Anyone old enough to remember the first TV dinners or the earliest fast food meals knows that was not an easy task. Who knew it was addictive?

      But did you have to mention pie? Where I used to live, there was a restaurant chain that was basically a pie shop with a menu. They always had at least a dozen varieties to choose from. Here, I haven't found anyplace that has decent pies in eight years. You've just put me in mourning. Oh well, at least I can't run out and get a piece.

    • Judah's Daughter profile image

      Judah's Daughter 7 years ago from Roseville, CA

      As I started to read your hub I was planning to go get a mini-donut to munch on while I read the rest. You saved me from that donut ~ I grabbed a little banana instead. lol

      I can't stand it when I go through those times of craving sweets. I wish our brains weren't so responsive to things that are not good for us. I can imagine people are prone to addictions. I was totally off sugar for three weeks (that's about as long as I ever go), then celebrated with my family by having one piece of pie. I may as well have taken some sort of pleasure drug ~ I was dizzy high.

      Oh, if we can just learn the balance of incorporating these things into our diet just enough, not too little and not too much. God bless!