Tuesday, May 3, 2011

Why Eating Makes Us Feel Good

Everybody eats.  And many of us eat and eat and eat. Having a full stomach makes us feel good and content. But why do many of us overeat...continuing to stuff ourselves even when we are full?

Evolution has given us the instinct to eat a lot every time we can, preparing for hard times. It's the drive to survive, like squirrels storing up for the winter. It's also fueled by competition: beating others to the food.  And as for that warm, content feeling after eating a meal, scientists studying that good feeling call it ingestion analgesia, literally pain relief from eating. Despite the modern environment bombarded by appetizing advertisements and fast food, the wiring in the human brain hasn't changed. The reward circuits in the brain still release chemicals that comfort and satisfy.

The body rewards fatty, salty, and sugary foods by releasing endogenous opioids, chemicals which help control pain. A study published in Nature Neuroscience recently suggests that high-fat, high-calorie foods affect the brain in much the same way as cocaine and heroin. According to this study, when rats consume these foods in great enough quantities, it leads to compulsive eating habits that resemble drug addiction.

It is this addiction to foods that are bad for us that has helped to cause the current obesity crisis in the United States, and many other parts of the world. Our brains tell us that we are full, but we ignore ourselves because evolution tells us to keep eating. We need to learn to listen, and I leave you with a few tips that might help:

  • STOP EATING when you are full
  • Eat when you feel hungry, because if you wait too long to eat (become 'starving') then you are more likely to overeat.
  • Eat slowly - give your brain time to figure out that you have eaten, and are full. The dinner table is not a competition of which family member (or apartment mate) can finish first (if it was, I would consistently lose)

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