Friday, April 10, 2009

How Outside World Makes Us Overeat

I am very concerned that the most important point in the discussion of obesity causes and weight control strategies is getting lost- the abuse of our brain reward systems by external marketing forces.

Specifically, research shows that environmental factors cause us to overeat, oftentimes without even realizing it.

A recent article in Diabetes Journal cites several human characteristics that can be exploited to cause you to overeat:

1. Food and images of food cause automatic secretion of chemicals in our brains creating desire to eat. We are surrounded by abundance of food images in our daily lives via billboards, store shelves and other marketing venues.

2. Inborn preferences for sugar and fat cause people to reach for foods that provide immediate calories during stressful times, especially given the easy access and availability of high-sugar/high-fat foods and snacks. These high impulse items are typically placed at the end of aisles and inside check-out centers, responding to the human trait of being unable to resist innately desirable foods for extended periods of exposure (e.g. waiting in line).

3. Built-in survival mechanisms automatically respond to food abundance and variety by greater consumption. The increasingly greater variety of food on store shelves and restaurant menus, without regard to their calorie or nutritional value, results in calorie over-consumption without nutritional benefits.

4. What's in YOUR dinner?
Sorry to tell you, but biologically speaking, none of us have the capacity to detect with precision the calorie load we are consuming during our meals. Our satiety mechanisms are not very exact and usually turn on much slower than the time it takes us to gobble up a good chunk of calories. Plus, thanks to the marvels of modern food science, quite petite portions of many marketed items contain a pretty good density of calories (usually in the form of fat and carbohydrates). They look very small (and so appetizing and cute), yet pack quite a punch (to the visceral gut). So, next time you are taking a trip to your local grocery store, check out the calories/serving of most foods in the middle section. More importantly, ask yourself - would consuming 1 serving of this product satisfy my hunger? If the answer is no - perhaps, avoiding that isle next time would be an easier way to get out of the store unharmed.

5. Laziness (energy preservation) is in our genes!
In the nature's game of survival, a species' success depends on its ability to preserve energy for absolute essentials. We were bred for millions of years to make the best use of the available energy sources. Everything was going according to plan, until...we developed a refrigerator. That singular invention has essentially turned the entire "survival of the fittest" concept on its head. We now have the unlimited access to food, any time - day or night, winter or summer, and so on. The only problem is that we unfortunately, did not leave our biology behind and have continued to try to minimize our energy expenditures in anything we do. So, why schlep all the way to the farmers market and buy fresh vegetables (which then need to be washed, chopped, mixed with olive oil, etc) when i can just swing buy my corner convenience store and pick up my favorite snack and enjoy the afternoon?!

Out of curiosity, when was the last time You saw a an advertisement for fresh veggies on TV? ...and for potato chips?

6. It's OK 'cause they are all doing it too!
Weight gain is a team sport. Recent medical study showed that the person's weight was highly correlated with the weight of his social network. We tend to imitate behaviors of others around us. So if something is OK to do at your friends' house, why should You deprive yourself? I am not saying you should get new friends or be less accepting of them, I just want you to be able to decide for yourself which behaviors are truly your own and which are just imitations. So, the next time they are having their cheesecakes, maybe you could enjoy that fruit salad?

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