Manufactured deliciousness: Why you can’t stop overeating

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“If you’re overeating, it’s not because there’s something wrong with you or your willpower. There’s a whole industry dedicated to creating food that’s hyperpalatable.”


Processed foods are scientifically engineered to be irresistible and easy to gobble up in large quantities. If you can’t stop, the chips are doing their job.


Because, if you feel out of control around certain foods, you’re not crazy.

Even healthy eaters feel out of control around food sometimes. Even if we value nutrition and want to take care of ourselves, some foods can make us feel… kinda possessed.


Certain foods are actually designed to make us overeat.


If you’re overeating, it’s not because there’s something wrong with you or your willpower.


Here’s the truth: There’s a whole industry dedicated to creating food that’s hyperpalatable—food that’s so tasty it’s nearly irresistible.


Your body and brain are responding exactly as they’re supposed to. It’s supposed to feel almost unnatural to stop eating these foods!


But we’re not talking about food like celery sticks, whole brown rice, or baked salmon filets.


We’re talking about processed foods.


Processed foods are foods that have been modified from their original, whole-food form in order to change their flavor, texture, or shelf-life. Often, they’re altered so that they hit as many pleasure centers as possible—from our brains to our mouths to our bellies.


Processed foods are highly cravable, immediately gratifying, fun to eat, and easy to over-consume quickly (and often cheaply).


How processed foods trick us into eating more than we meant to.


1. Marketing convinces us that processed foods are “healthy”.


Processed foods come in packages with bright colors, cartoon characters, celebrity endorsements, and powerful words that triggers all kinds of positive associations.


Companies come out with organic versions of their boxed macaroni and cheese, gluten-free versions of their glazed pastries, and vegan versions of their icing-filled cookies.


You’ll see chips “prepared with avocado oil,” sugary cereal “made with flaxseeds,” or creamy chip dip with “real spinach.”


The nutrient content of those foods isn’t particularly impressive, but the addition of nutrition buzzwords and trendy ingredients make us perceive them as healthier.


Health buzzwords and emotional appeals can make us perceive a food as “good for me”; it seems like a wise and caring choice to put them in our shopping carts, then in our mouths.


And if a food is “healthy” or “we deserve it,” we don’t feel so bad eating as much as we want.


2. Big portions make us think we’re getting a “good deal”.


People get mixed up about food and value.


We’re taught to save money and not waste food.


We’re taught to buy more for less.


Given the choice between a small juice for two dollars, and a pop with endless refills for the same price, the pop seems like better value.


What we don’t calculate into this equation is something I like to call the “health tax.”


The “health tax” is the toll you pay for eating low-nutrient, highly processed foods. If you eat them consistently over time, eventually you’ll pay the price with your health.


When companies use cheap, poor quality ingredients, they can sell bigger quantities without raising the price.


But what’s the deal?


Sure, you’ll save a buck in the short term, but you’ll pay the health tax—through poor health—in the long term.


3. Variety makes us hungrier.


When we have lots of variety, we have lots of appetite.


It’s hard to overeat tons of one thing, with one flavor, like apples.


How many apples can you eat before, frankly, you get bored?


Reduce the variety and you also reduce distraction from your body’s built-in self-regulating signals. When we’re not so giddy with choice and stimuli, we’re more likely to slow down, eat mindfully, and eat less.


4. Multiple flavors at once are irresistible.


If there’s a party in your mouth, you can guarantee that at least two out of three of the following guests will be there: Sugar, Fat, Salt


These three flavors—the sweetness of sugar, the luxurious mouthfeel of fat, and the sharp savory of salt—are favorites among those of us with mouths.


However, when you combine these flavors, they become ultra delicious and hard-to-resist. This is called stimuli stacking—combining two or more flavors to create a hyperpalatable food.


Food manufacturers know: When it comes to encouraging people to overeat, two flavors are better than one.


When processed food manufacturers evaluate a prospective food product, the “irresistibility” (the extent to which a person can’t stop eating a food) is more important even than taste!


So, now you see why processed foods are so hard to control yourself around.


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