It’s happened to us all. After a frenzy of lustful grabbing and furious crunching, we find ourselves at the bottom of a jumbo bag of chips.
“How did that happen?” we ask fuzzily.
“What’s wrong with me? Why can’t I stop?”
But, before going into full-fledged self-loathing mode, consider this.
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.
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.
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 brain to our mouths to our bellies.
Processed foods are highly craveable, immediately gratifying, fun to eat, and easy to over-consume quickly (and often cheap).
Processed foods will also look and feel different from their whole food counterparts, depending on the degree that they’re processed.
There are four sneaky ways processed food can make you overeat. Often, we’re not even aware of how much these factors affect us.
That’s why, awareness = power.
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.
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. 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. Choice excites us. 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:
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.
Just think about the ease of eating whole foods versus processed foods: Whole foods require about 25 chews per mouthful, which means that you have to slow down. When you slow down, your satiety signals keep pace with your eating and have a chance to tell you when you’ve had enough. Which is probably why you’ve never overeaten whole foods. Processed food manufacturers, on the other hand, aim for food products to be broken down in 10 chews or less per mouthful. That means the intense, flavorful, crazy-delicious experience is over quickly, and you’re left wanting more—ASAP.