Hyperpalatability: Your Brain, Your Weight, and You
I would like to start this week’s strategy discussion with a philosophical statement:
Plurality should not be posited without necessity.” – Ockham
Stated more clearly: keep it simple.
Why is this such an important concept for health, weight loss, weight maintenance, fitness, and diet?
Nutrition is Simple
Here’s the reality: at its core, nutrition strategies should be painfully simple.
Do people have different needs, and are specific strategies required (especially for medical and/or hormonal issues)? Yes, absolutely.
However, the weight loss industry has hijacked commonsense, and caused us to believe that we are each so unique and individual that we all need highly specialized and complicated diets.
The result is confusion and lack of direction.
The reality is that the fundamentals of nutrition and health are much simpler than the weight loss industry would ever have you believe.
Making the Changes That Matter
If you read my last blog post, you know that this is the beginning of a year-long series called “Making the Changes That Matter.”
This will be the first of 48 installments, and while next week we’ll talk about what makes nutrition and weight loss/maintenance complicated, this week we’re going to isolate the most simple, true, and universal concept that applies to pretty much everyone.
Read the whole post, and at the bottom, you’ll find a checklist of strategies to try for Week 1! Then, when Week 2 rolls around, there will be not only strategies for Week 2, but also follow-up questions from Week 1!
If you want to be one of my “lab participants” for this year-long project, e-mail me to let me know that you want to try it out, and remember that it’s totally free! All you have to do is keep a daily journal and e-mail me the answers to the questions each week, so that I can keep track of how strategy implementation worked for you.
I have written about hyperpalatability before, and it is one of my favorite topics. Addressing the presence of hyperpalability in your diet is the fastest and most direct way that you can immediately improve your eating.
Like Ockham says, why make it complicated when you can keep it simple?
What is hyperpalability?
To understand hyperpalability and why it is part of the solution, it’s important to grasp how the brain moderates movement, eating, and weight. Your brain, as a result of evolutionary history, is very invested in keeping you alive and at a healthy reproductive weight. Our brains have a “set point” of weight that it seeks to maintain all the time, so it adjusts our hunger, fullness, and activity levels accordingly.
The problem is that for most of history, food scarcity, rather than obesity, was the biggest threat to human health. Therefore, we are generally more prone to store fat than we are to burn it. Our brains have evolved to crave (and have a very pleasurable response to eating) foods that are calorically dense and palatable, and we tend to maintain a healthy weight when we – as our ancestors did – overeat every once in awhile, but most of the time eat moderately for our energy needs.
Palatability occurs in nature (in honey, for example).
Hyperpalatability is man-made (in honey-roasted and salted peanuts, for example).
Palatability ensures that we will have a drive to eat foods that will stave off starvation, by encouraging us to overeat when we have the opportunity.
Hyperpalatability, on the other hand, virtually short-circuits our ability to recognize satisfaction or fullness, and freezes our “off switch” to stop eating. Essentially, hyperpalatability is the combination of sugar, fat, and salt. This holy trinity of tastiness automatically elicits the desire to overeat, the biological lure of which most of us find almost impossible to resist.
Our bodies and brains were not designed to handle hyperpalatable foods, especially not in the volume in which they are available today. Put differently, the 21st-century American food industry has taken advantage of our natural propensity to overeat palatable foods by engineering hyperpalatable foods that are almost impossible to stop eating – and these foods are everywhere!
Unfortunately, we are not primitive hunter gatherers who stumble upon a beehive and consume every drop of honey until it’s gone. Instead, we have an almost endless supply of rich food, anywhere and anytime, which creates a vicious cycle of variously grazing, snacking, eating on the go, socially overeating, and/or privately binge-eating. In other words, food never really runs out – there is an endless re-supply, which our bodies were never designed to handle.
On top of that, there is an intricate relationship between the load of chronic stress, the hormones your brain produces in order to manage your eating, and the types of foods that we choose. When we are chronically stressed and emotional, we are in a perfect storm of poor eating habits.
As a result, obesity has replaced malnutrition as one of our nation’s most pressing health concerns.
Here are some examples of how hyperpalatable foods affect us on a typical workday:
- The pastries behind the glass at the coffee shop
- The snacks that permeate the office environment, whether it’s donuts left in the lounge, a kitchen stocked with bags of potato chips and popcorn, or a co-worker with a candy bowl
- “Healthy” lunches (such as heavily loaded salads) in trendy eateries, that are as calorically dense (or denser) than their fast food counterparts
- Drive-through decision-making when we’re in a rush on the way home or on the way to a child’s school event
- “Kid food” that easily finds its way from our kids’ plates onto ours
- Ice cream in the freezer (or chips in the pantry) when we’re relaxing at night
As you can see, at almost every stage in the day, our environment offers multiple opportunities to make food decisions that favor our craving for palatability, instead of choices that favor our health. Again, remember that on top of the ubiquity of hyperpalatable foods, we are also more vulnerable to comfort foods when we are under chronic stress.
The Set Point
On top of that, the real stinger of the hyperpalatability conundrum is that we become adjusted to the rush of these engineered foods, and while I wouldn’t technically call it an “addiction” (more on this in later weeks!), it certainly has the quality of a “use disorder” – we want to stop, we want to eat better, but we continue behaviors that ultimately harm us
… Because, in the moment, comfort foods feel really, really good.
Our brains – specifically the hypothalamus, which regulates eating and energy – can actually become adjusted to the over-consumption of hyperpalatable foods, to the extent that our weight “set point” can increase and influence our eating behaviors. This loop is partly what makes weight loss so difficult. If we don’t adjust the underlying issue of the way we eat (especially our relationship with hyperpalatable foods and our food environments) in the process of weight loss, our bodies will fight to return to a higher weight set point.
Why is understanding hyperpalatability so critical for long-term healthy lifestyle success?
1. It allows us to understand that we are products not only of our choices, but also our environment, and that when we change both our environment and choices, we have the best chance for success.
2. It allows us to detach from decontextualized calorie-counting and to take a bigger-picture look at the quality of our diets and how that impacts the number of calories we eat each day.
3. It allows us to get out of denial that we are eating “pretty healthy,” and to totally re-shape our approach to health and wellness so that we can re-set our natural weight and eat with self-responsibility, freedom, joy, and intention.
The good news is that your brain can be re-set. Here’s how to start:
Strategy of the Week
This week is all about hyperpalatability.
For the next seven days, aim to reduce (or eliminate) your intake and dependence on hyperpalatable foods (aka junk foods) and start the process of re-setting your brain, by watching out for that holy trinity of tastiness – sugar, salt, and fat. Try to avoid foods that contain this combination.
Day by day, look around you and scan your world through the eyes of an alien astronaut who has just landed on Planet Earth, and is taking in new information about the way humans eat. Don’t rely on your knee-jerk reactions or to slick, “healthy” packaging – deeply inspect your food and your food environments, and look for that highly tempting combination of sugar, salt, and fat.
Common culprits include classics like pizza, nachos, french fries, candies, pastries, drive-through fare and desserts, but they may also include sneakily-packaged, “organic” products that dress up as health foods.
Try to replace these foods with simple choices like vegetables, lean protein, fruit, and unseasoned nuts.
Week 1 is all about Ockham’s razor – why make it complicated, if you can keep it simple?
In three words: avoid junk food. Look out for hyperpalatability, and make new choices, with every food decision available.
And remember, if you want to participate in the weekly strategies, all you have to do is keep a daily journal and e-mail me answers to the weekly questions in each blog post. E-mail me if you want to participate in this open-source healthy living project!
All you have to do (and remember, participation is free!) is:
- E-mail me immediately to let me know you’re participating
- Each morning, take 5-10 minutes to keep a daily journal of 1-3 pages to word vomit what your previous day was like
- E-mail me your answers to the reflection questions that will (starting next week) appear in each blog post
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