I grew up Italian. We show love through food. We celebrate through food; we use food for comfort, we have a great deal of emotional attachment to food. When I was younger, my Grandmother would call her sister every morning to ask what she was having for dinner that evening. Holidays were planned solely around the spread. Many debates were had over who was “the best cook.”
This mentality perpetuated into adulthood. In a new study conducted in Italy, findings concluded that eating for enjoyment activates reward centers in the brain that eating to satisfy hunger does not. Eating highly pleasurable foods may spur us to overeat more often for enjoyment, verse actual hunger. (Journal of Clinical Endocrinology and Metabolism)
The study included 8 participants that were asked to eat two separate meals with similar macronutrient intake/ caloric values. One meal was based on their favorite foods while the other was bland in comparison. Researchers then measured levels of ghrelin ( a hormone that stimulates hunger) and 2-arachidonoyl glycerol (which triggers the reward system in the brain) after each meal. The findings concluded that both ghrelin and 2-AC were increased when subjects ate for pleasure verse when consuming the more bland meal (less favorable).
The concept of overeating due to specific foods causing an activation in our brains reward center is interesting when applied to flexible dieting. Often, it ‘s hard to distinguish real hunger from a craving or want. Many times we start eating a specific food (for me it is trail mix) and feel like we “just can’t stop.” That out of control feeling occurs because our reward centers are activated and override the feelings of satiety saying “enough is enough!”
If you are utilizing a hefty portion of your macro allotment on your favorite sweets, you may be sending your brain the message to keep on eating the goods! I prefer to focus on including high volume, low calorie, nutrient-dense foods to satisfy hunger with treats sprinkled here and there for enjoyment. This study shows that focusing on food that is wholesome and delicious without falling into the category of bliss-worthy can help you to feel satisfied in more ways than one.
Can you name some foods that could be potential triggers for you? I have an emotional attachment to cakes and cookies, chocolate, trail mix, and yogurt covered pretzels, and- oddly enough- protein bars. If I consume these, there is a good chance I’ll want seconds (and thirds, fourths…). I do not avoid them entirely, but I do say in my mind “after I eat this, I’ll likely want more, and that is OK. I don’t have to have another serving. I enjoyed this treat, and I can have some tomorrow if I wish.”
Knowing why our bodies and brains react the way they do helps tremendously with our ability to adhere to a fitness regimen. Take this week to focus in on how you FEEL after you eat your meals. Journal the week if needed and glance over the results. Do you find yourself mindlessly eating? Do you use food to distract yourself from uncomfortable emotions? Do you use food to celebrate? Hashing out when and if you overeat for reasons other than hunger can be very eye-opening.