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Why We Overeat The Wrong Foods:

How to Manage Emotional Eating and Cravings

Why We Overeat The Wrong Foods:

How to Manage Emotional Eating and Cravings
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Motivations For Eating:

Why do we succumb to the pull of over-eating or to eating poor quality foods when we logically know better? Many people with successful educational achievements and careers seem totally powerless over items such as chocolate, potato chips or calorie laden beverages as though spinning out of control. There are several key factors in this process.

There are two key physical systems that influence our drive to eat. The first is the homeostatic, or metabolic system, that balances energy (calorie) intake and output. It's command center is located in the hypothalamus of the brain, which receives signals from the peripheral body concerning available nutrients and fuel, derived from the gastrointestinal tract and fat tissue. The job of the hypothalamus is to regulate appetite to achieve homeostasis, or balance in the body. Although this metabolic system is vital for survival, it does not work alone.

The second physical system is known as the hedonic, or pleasure-reward system. Many of us eat in the absence of hunger and large fat storage or body fat (metabolic need). Our brains are hard-wired to seek pleasure as essential for survival from the time of our ancestors, because those with the strongest desires to seek food procreated and passed on their genetic lineage.

The hedonic system of the brain is located in the meso-limbic system. Neuro-imaging has proven that all it takes is one smell, sight, taste or emotional trigger to release a brain chemical called dopamine that stimulates a drive to eat something that instantly feels good. The release of dopamine is believed to coordinate many aspects of food reward, including increased arousal and attention, psychomotor activation, and conditioned learning or habitual automated responses. (pp 4-9)

Modern day food producers exploit our hedonistic drives using sugar, fat and salt as we try to feel better and eat emotionally to relieve stress or seek comfort. Alcohol and drugs of abuse do the same. Many research studies show links between food and drugs. As an example, the opiate suppressive drug, Naloxone, can block and counter the effects of binge eating (p 13). This is why emotional eating can feel like a food addiction.

Our patterns of eating over time creates neural pathways in the brain, forming habits and automated behavior that may not be easy to change. We actually re-wire the brain to promote compulsive eating by overloading the brain's dopamine pleasure center. Over time this decreases the sensitivity and down-regulates the reward system.

Compulsive eating or drinking then sets in to regain a sense of reward. Our braking systems for eating are weakened and we can develop tolerance, getting less reward until we increase the amount of food. And unfortunately, people can experience temporary somatic signs of withdrawal when they cut back. This is why people may complain that cutting down on carbohydrates makes them feel shaky, tired or depressed (pp17-20).

The food industry tends to point a finger at the consumer, blaming them for lack of control. But the food manufacturers have tweaked their products to load them with hidden sugar, fat and salt with the precise amounts necessary to make them very tasty and palatable. This is one reason why eating processed foods can be risky. The consumption of highly processed and refined foods can trigger an excessive release of dopamine with calculated amounts of combined ingredients to reach a bliss point (pp 33-35). Grocery stores typically devote a large amount of space to highly profitable sweet beverages, salty snacks, and dessert items.

Foods That Trigger Dopamine:

The concentrations of sugar and fat in many processed foods are not found in natural, whole foods. Natural foods also contain other more nutritious substances such as fiber, vitamins and trace minerals. Not all carbohydrates and fats are created the same, having different metabolic effects. The quality of food depends on the nutrients such as fiber, the glycemic index, the chemical formulation, and how they affect the hormone balance in the body.

Animal research has shown that subjects will work very hard for foods combining fat and sugar, and even more so when salt is added in. We all know what happens when we eat a hamburger, French fries and a soda at a fast-food restaurant. Withdrawal symptoms from diets high in sugar can occur, but is not seen with switching to lower fat diets in animal research studies. ( p 134)

Carbohydrates and Sugar:

The refining of carbohydrates into sugar allows for rapid digestion and absorption quickly dumped into the bloodstream, which alters our brain chemistry and mood. Carbohydrates increase the concentration of an amino acid called tryptophan in the brain. Tryptophan is a building block of serotonin, a chemical transmitter that gives you feelings of calmness and happiness. When you eat simple carbohydrates contained in most sweets, your brain is flooded with serotonin. In other words, the food itself is triggering the reward feel good center in your brain. For a short time, you feel fantastic. It's a form of emotional eating for self-love through food.

As a way of increasing sales, food manufacturers lace foods like yogurt and spaghetti sauce with sugar and can contain more sugar per serving than sweetened cereal. Complex carbohydrates take longer and more energy to digest so have a lower glycemic load. In the US, about 50 % of the increase in caloric intake is associated with sweetened beverages (p 80). These are empty calories without nutrition, do not provide the same amount of satiety as solid foods, are easy to consume even without hunger, and replace necessary water. Sweetened beverages are well known to increase the risk of metabolic syndrome, a precursor to diabetes. Large intake of sugar is also associated with cardiovascular disease, such as hypertension.


Fat enhances the palatable aspects of flavor, texture, and aroma of many foods. It helps to merge and smooth the ingredients of a mixed food source, as well as extending the shelf life of products. Fat aids in the absorption of Vitamins A, D, E, and K and phytochemicals such as beta-carotene. Fat helps to maintain the integrity of skin and cell membranes. It synthesizes multiple chemicals and hormones in the body. The brain is 60% fat by weight. Although we don't taste fat directly, it is included in most comfort foods that we binge on because it adds to the bliss point. Fat consumption can decrease sad feelings by 50% on the magnitude of anti-depressant medications. ( p 133)
Fat has twice the caloric load of 9 calories per gram compared to 4 calories for carbs and protein. However, low fat diets tend to cause people to gain weight because the fat is replaced with processed carbohydrates. Furthermore, the missing fat provided a sense of fullness and satiety. We need healthy fats, such as olive oil, in order to get sufficient amounts of essential fatty acids.


Salt, sodium chloride, is essential for normal body function. It maintains fluid balance, helps transport nerve impulses, and is important for contraction and relaxation of muscles. It brings out the flavor of foods, maintains food moisture, enhances texture such as crispness, and increases thirst. The problem with salt is consumption in excess of what we need.
The food industry considers the right amount of salt as a magical ingredient that provides a cheap burst of flavor and is the easiest way to make low nutrient foods palatable. Obesity researchers believe that salty foods have contributed to the obesity epidemic in the US by making poor quality foods taste good. And once we get used to the taste of high sodium foods, other foods taste bland. Beyond obesity, excessive salt consumption is directly associated with hypertension. Statistics reveal that 75-80 percent of sodium in typical American diets comes from processed foods and not what is added during food preparation or consumption (p 231).

Good News:

Hypnotherapy is an excellent way to empower your awareness, emotional release and overcome the barriers to achieving your goals. Hypnotic access to the subconscious brain can help you to re-wire and re-program habits that no longer benefit you so you can have the life you most desire. Improving your self-esteem is an important objective of weight control by addressing the drive for emotional eating to nurture yourself by filling up with food. Oftentimes the root of low self-esteem is developed in early childhood, which can be resolved using Parts Therapy as a hypnosis method.

Reference: Willett, PhD, RD, Gina. Sugar, Salt & Fat. Biomed General, Concord CA. 2015.

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