Have you ever found yourself in a situation where you literally can’t stop yourself from eating until the whole pack of biscuits/crisps/ sweets are finished or you physically can’t eat any more?
Or maybe just the overwhelming urge to eat something you know is going to be detrimental to your long term goals.
I certainly have and then also felt like an absolute pig for doing so and had a certain amount of ‘food guilt’ afterwards!
Bingeing like this releases all kinds of endorphins and ‘feel good’ chemicals in our brains and results in very real, if short lived, feelings of comfort and well being.
Food manufacturers looked into this a long time ago and began to design products targeted directly at stimulating these feelings and putting us into this mental state and binge situation.
Before I go into that in any more detail let’s look at how the brain works and has evolved in terms of our relationship with food.
Among the many complex things which the brain has evolved to do for us is that it rewards the things which we need for our survival with feelings of pleasure. So with food being key to the survival of the human race our brains will react to it by releasing chemicals to give us feelings of satisfaction and wellbeing. This is the brains way of ‘rewarding’ us for seeking out the things which we need for survival.
The key nutrients our brains have evolved to seek out are salt, fat and sugar (carbs) and so eating foods abundant in these substances will stimulate our ‘pleasure point’ or ‘reward point’ more quickly than those containing little or no salt, fat and sugar.
This was key to our survival when we were hunter gatherers and things like fruit or red meat would hit our reward point bang on and so we would actively seek it out and get the much needed energy and nutrients from those foods as a result.
Think about the following food:
Green veg, fruit, rice, bread, pasta, chocolate, cream cake, red meat, chicken, milk, pizza, colourful veg.
Put the food in a row from those containing most salt, fat and sugar to those containing least.
Now jumble that row up and rearrange into a row from those you would most enjoy eating to those you would least enjoy.
For many people the two rows would look similar or possibly even the same because this is how our brains are designed to interact with our environment and the food available in it.
Food manufacturers were quick to cotton on to this and realised that by loading their products with salt, fat and sugar then they could repeatedly stimulate our reward point and the feelings of pleasure that come with it. This way we would be tempted to eat larger portions of the product in each sitting and also keep coming back for more.
The Bliss Point
Manufactured foods have in effect raised the bar for the reward point and indeed far surpassed any kind of reward or pleasure feelings we can get from one ingredient, 100% natural foods.
Think about the feelings stimulated by eating a handful of strawberries compared to eating a gooey, sugary strawberry tart with cream or custard.
The ‘bliss point’ is a term coined by the food manufacturing industry to sum up the feelings of intense and sometimes overwhelming pleasure that we can get from eating large amounts of salt, fat and sugar laden foods. When our bliss point is stimulated we will often, by design, lose control over how much we are eating and/or why we are eating it and this can lead to bingeing, overeating and weight gain - usually followed by more negative feelings when the initial pleasure wears off.
When the bliss point is stimulated every once in a while then our brains can handle it, for example cake on a birthday, Christmas lunch or dessert when eating out for an anniversary. As part of a healthy diet then rare occasions of overstimulation will not cause any problems or affect our relationship with food.
However when the bliss point is repeatedly stimulated by readily available convenience foods high in salt, fat and/or sugar (which let’s face it are ALWAYS available to us nowadays) then we are repeatedly releasing large amounts of feel good chemicals originally intended to reward us for the moderate consumption of much needed nutrition.
Long term some people are not affected by this and find it easy to say no to or limit the amounts of ‘reward’ foods that they eat. However those with more addictive personalities or those more in need of these feelings of pleasure may repeatedly chase this bliss point. When this happens our brains cannot handle the overstimulation and we have, in effect, high jacked this reward centre in our brain and began to abuse it to the point where this way of eating begins to feel normal.
You may at this point be thinking that this sounds a lot like drug addiction and that’s because it is. Drugs and food have been proven to follow the same reward pathways in the brain and long term overstimulation with either will lead to the exact same result of a lower pleasure response to the same amount of food/drug.
Human nature then dictates that we will usually chase the original levels of pleasure by increasing the amounts of drugs or food in order to initiate the same feelings that we are used to getting.
Some people are genetically pre-disposed to addiction. Some people are not but can still become addicted if environmental factors are right, which food-wise they are in most of the developed world. An enthusiasm for stimulating pleasure and a limitless supply of salty, fatty and sugary foods is all you need to create an environment where food addiction can occur.
Making repeated negative food choices re-enforces the brains reward pathways associated with these choices and strengthens the addiction.
On the other hand making positive food choices will stimulate and re-enforce reward pathways associated with positive feelings of self-worth and control over destiny and this is how we can combat food addiction.
This takes time and hard work as the positive reward pathways are not survival linked and so will take more time and effort to re-enforce.
The more times you can make these positive decisions then the stronger the positive reward pathways become until these decisions become easier to make.
In contrast the reward pathways associated with the negative choices weaken and you will find yourself not as tempted to stray from your new, healthy diet.
The ultimate reward for making consistent positive food choices is the physique that you want and your hard work (making changes to your eating habits) deserves.
This change is by no means easy especially if you are heavily conditioned towards the bad choices and also if your environment constantly forces you to decide between foods detrimental to your goals and those that support your goals.
‘We become what we want to be by consistently being what we want to become each day’ – Richard G Scott