Scientists (Sort Of) Explain Why We Overeat

Illustration for article titled Scientists (Sort Of) Explain Why We Overeat

A new study may shed light on why obese people overeat, but, as Dr. David Kessler explains to Salon, most people struggle with overeating regardless of their size — and the problem may be more mental than physical.

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The study showed that obese people salivated longer than the non-obese in response to a new taste. Study author Dr. Dale Bond explained the implications of this result:

Saliva production tends to decline in most people once they've gotten used to the taste of a certain food and had enough of it. The process, called habituation, is associated with a feeling of fullness.

Although more research is needed, it seems that people struggling with obesity may not be receiving mental cues — the feeling of being used to a new taste, and of being full — as quickly as people who aren't obese. Thus they may keep eating longer. This result is in line with the view of Dr. David Kessler, who believes overeating is a mental problem, similar to addiction. He tells Salon's Katharine Mieszkowski:

In people who have a hard time controlling their eating, their brain circuits remain elevated and activated until all the food is gone. Then the next time you get cued, you do it again. Every time you engage in this cycle you strengthen the neural circuits. The anticipation gets strengthened. It's in part because of ambivalence. Do you ever have an internal dialogue? "Boy, that would taste great. No, I shouldn't have it. I really want that. And I shouldn't do it."

That sort of ambivalence increases the reward value of the food.

While overeating is affected by factors like the amount of fat, sugar, and salt in food, and the number of chews per bite (the fewer chews, the more we overindulge), Kessler says its true cause is what's going on in our heads. The reason diets don't work, according to him, is not that the body returns to a certain set point — it's that the brain does. He says,

Sure, I can take you out of your environment. I can give you meal replacements, or you can white-knuckle it, and for 30 days, 60 days, 90 days, resist eating a lot of food, and you can lose weight, no question about that.

Now your diet's over. I put you back into your environment. You still have that old learning, that old circuitry. What's going to happen? You're going to get bombarded with the cues again and you're going to gain it back if you have not laid down new circuitry and new learning on top of that old circuitry.

But why is this circuitry a problem now, when it wasn't forty years ago (Kessler says that in the 1960s, people's weight remained stable throughout their adult lives)? Kessler's answer isn't totally satisfying:

We're eating in a disorganized and chaotic fashion. And we're being bombarded with the cues.

We make food into entertainment. We make it into a food carnival. Go into a modern American restaurant: the colors, the TVs, the monitors, the music. You do it with your friends. We've taken sugar and added all these multiple levels of stimuli. What do we end up with? Probably one of the great public health crises of our day.

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Of course, we didn't have TVs in restaurants forty years ago. But food has been part of entertainment and celebration, and eating something people do with their friends, for a very long time. Looking for a "food carnival"? Try Carnival. So while Dr. Kessler's insights — and the findings about overeating and saliva — are interesting, its doubtful they're the whole story.

Why We Can't Eat Just One [Salon]
New Study Suggests Why Obese People Overeat [Diet Blog]

DISCUSSION

Sonadelite

I have to go to an endocrinologist for a host of disorders, and to no fault of their own, most of their clientele have to battle against weight gain. So much so that one time a nurse added an extra hundred pounds to my weight, because she was so used to writing those types of figures. My former endo. noticed there was an error on my chart, lol, and my self esteem was wrecked for weeks!

What I'm trying to say is that I don't understand is why this study doesn't address insulin resistance, PCOS for women, etc., because clearly weight issues have a lot to do with endocrinology. [en.wikipedia.org] Essentially once your body hits a certain weight, if you are genetically prone, you'll have insulin resistance problems and then it will become nearly impossible to lose the weight. And in fact, because you can't process insulin correctly, you will just keep gaining weight. Or you will loose weight on a strict diet and exercise regimen, but not enough to not be insulin resistance-free. Moreover, hypothyroid patients typically experience insulin resistance after treatment even stabilizes their T3/T4. levels.

And in terms of preventing insulin resistance, it just shows why eating patterns in childhood is so important, and honestly, why people should be aware of their thyroid health, since it can screw up your entire system. I feel like a broken record when I comment on the "health/weight" items on the blog, but seriously, it's important. I don't want anyone else to have the year I've had!