Why Do We Overeat?

Gretchen Becker Health Guide
  • Why has there been such an increase in obesity rates?


    Is it too much food? Too much of the wrong kinds of food? Too little exercise? Toxins in the environment? Constant stress? Not enough sleep? Micronutrient-deficient foods? Too much sitting in front of a computer or a TV set?


    All these things have been suggested as causes of the so-called obesity epidemic. For some time I've wondered if the problem might simply be that we're surrounded by tasty food all day so we eat because it tastes good and we want to sample new foods, not because we're hungry. Instead of eating to live, we live to eat.

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    Look at our daily newspapers. Most of them have food columnists and reviews of the latest trendy restaurant with photos of delicious food. The online New York Times even has photo galleries of dishes from trendy places.


    We have access to foods and recipes from all over the globe, and if people are like me, they'd like to try them all.


    In contrast, imagine that most of our food consisted of rice and beans with a few vegetables and sometimes a little meat mixed in. When we were hungry, we'd gladly eat our rice and beans. But when we'd satisfied our hunger, we'd stop. Variety makes us eat when we're not hungry.


    Now a study in mice shows that we're not the only creatures who react that way. The researchers fed rats "cafeteria diets" that included foods commonly eaten by some humans today, including Fruit Loops, Cocoa Puffs, Fudge Rounds, peanut butter cookies, Reese's Pieces, Blueberry MiniMuffins, Nestle Crunch, Cheez-it, Doritos Nacho Cheese, TownHouse butter crackers, Sugar Wafers, hot dogs, mild cheddar and Monterey Jack cheese, wedding cakes, Lays Wavy, barbecue pork rinds, and pepperoni slices. The foods were varied daily.


    They found that the rats on the cafeteria junk food diet ate a lot more and showed "dramatic" weight gain compared with rats kept on rat chow or rats on a high-fat chow diet in which calories from carbohydrates were replaced with calories from lard. They also had high insulin and glucose levels and developed glucose intolerance to a greater degree than rats on a high-fat diet. The rats on the cafeteria diet also exhibited increased inflammation.


    In contrast, the high-fat diet didn't produce significant weight gain in comparison with the low-fat diet. But the high-fat-diet rats ate less food to compensate for the higher caloric content per gram. The rats on the cafeteria junk food diet kept on eating and consumed 40% more calories than the rats on standard chow or high-fat chow.


    And now a study suggests a similar effect in humans. These researchers suggest that "meal monotony" leads to reduced calorie intake.


    So what are we to do? Should the family cook work hard to prepare boring meals, serving the same thing day after day? Should we ban newspaper food columnists? Should restaurants be limited to three or four menu items? Should snacking be illegal?


    I don't think so. No one would stand for it. However, those of us seeking to lose weight might keep this phenomenon in mind. Instead of focusing on making our diet meals varied and tasty, perhaps we should pick five or six meals we like (if we had only food we hated, we wouldn't stick to the plan very long) and stick to eating them, at least until we've reached our weight-loss goal, saving the specially tasty foods for special events.


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    Of course avoiding junk food of the types the rats gorged on would make sense. If you need to snack, eat celery. Very few people overdose on celery.


    Finally, we need to find something to do that is more interesting than eating, so meals become simple necessities, not the focal point of our lives. Suggestions (not X-rated, please)?


Published On: August 01, 2011