Are some of us hardwired to eat too much?
It’s difficult to pick up a newspaper or magazine without seeing an article about obesity or a contribution to the debate about what food is good or bad for us. We seem to be overwhelmed with programmes about the 5:2 Fast, Atkins, Cambridge or some other form of diet program that will guarantee a slim healthy body and provide a way to control what you eat.
It’s certainly true that the weight of the average individual in the UK and most other parts of the world is creeping up. It’s also true that a lot of people have some fairly passionate views about the underlying reasons.
I was watching a light debate show on television the other day and amongst the topics discussed was that of weight management and the role of self-control in the process. I believe the debate had been prompted by news that an NHS trust was offering patients a financial incentive to stick to a diet and lose weight. Whilst various people made good points about the pros and cons of such an approach, what really struck me was the passion with which some of the views were held.
Do we see Food as a Reward?
From a psychological perspective there have been many studies over the decades of the role of positive and negative reinforcement in shaping behaviour. Most of us will remember from our school days the teacher discussing how some scientist or another was able to teach birds/cats/dogs to strike a lever by rewarding them with an item of food. Indeed many of my generation will remember our parents doing much the same thing with us. However such efforts only work if we experience the food as being rewarding, which most of us do.
In recent years we have discovered much more about the internal workings of the brain and studies have shown us the mechanisms that seem to be in play when it comes to how the body views food as a reward.
For example, a team of psychiatrists at the University of California investigated the impact of sugar consumption on an area of the brain known as the primary gustatory cortex. The study which was published in the October 2013 edition of the American Journal of Psychiatry shows that sugar prompts a dopamine rush, which most people find pleasurable, but that the degree of this rush and the resulting positive feelings that arise from it varies from person to person. The researchers believe that this may be one factor in explaining why some people are more prone to developing eating disorders such as anorexia and Bulimia.
Why is it Difficult to Resist Treats ?
From a nonclinical perspective this study may tell us much about how some people struggle to resist tasty treats such as chocolate and candy whilst at the same time being able to exert control in other areas of their lives. It may be that these are people who experience particularly intense dopamine hits as a consequence of sugar intake and therefore find food highly rewarding in comparison to the average person.
It seems likely that for such people any program that doesn’t offer the opportunity for an individual to substitute other high reward activities for the sugar that they may be forgoing as part of a weight management program is unlikely to be successful in the long term.