Why You Can’t Stop Eating…Literally

I have an obsession with cupcakes that is so intense, sometimes, I think that it borders on addiction. If someone offers me an adorable little sugary cake of pure bliss, there’s just no way I can refuse. And, whenever I have a craving for one, I won’t be able to stop thinking about it until I satisfy my inner voice screaming, “feed me cupcake!”

Not to mention that once I’ve consumed a few bites of one, it’s all downhill from there and I find myself consuming way more calories than I would have prior. Frosting is my gateway drug and I cannot control myself when I’m near it.

Up until now, I always thought my problem was completely mental and something I just had to force myself to get over. Then, I read an article in the Washington Post on Dr. Kessler, a Harvard-trained doctor, lawyer, medical school dean and former commissioner of the Food and Drug Administration, who spent months dumpster diving behind chain restaurants such as Chili’s to find out the real amount of fat, salt and sugar used to make dishes like the Southwestern Eggrolls.

What he discovered (and details in his book, The End of Overeating) was surprising and clued me into why this high intake of sugar had such a great effect on me…

“Foods high in fat, salt and sugar alter the brain’s chemistry in ways that compel people to overeat.”
So it’s not just me! The sugar is actually f-ing with our brains! Sweet, sweet validation (no pun intended).

Apparently “highly palatable” foods — those containing fat, sugar and salt — stimulate the brain to release dopamine, the neurotransmitter associated with the pleasure center of our brains. Over time, the brain gets wired so that dopamine pathways light up at the mere suggestion of the food, such as driving past a chain restaurant (or bakery!) and the urge to eat the food grows larger. Once the food is eaten, the brain releases opioids, which bring emotional relief. Together, these little bastards (dopamine and opioids) create a pathway that can activate every time a person is reminded about the particular food.

This sounds complicated but actually makes sense when you think of what happens when you eat a meal or treat you’ve been craving. I can almost feel my body sighing as I inhale a cupcake. The process described above is also why, Kessler thinks, many restaurants put so much fat, salt and sugar into their foods, hence the reason for his dumpster diving.

And the details from these excursions are pretty gross: “The labels [from boxes] showed the foods were bathed in salt, fat and sugars, beyond what a diner might expect by reading the menu, Kessler said. The ingredient list for Southwestern Eggrolls mentioned salt eight different times; sugars showed up five times. The “egg rolls,” which are deep-fried in fat, contain chicken that has been chopped up like meatloaf to give it a “melt in the mouth” quality that also makes it faster to eat. By the time a diner has finished this appetizer, she has consumed 910 calories, 57 grams of fat and 1,960 milligrams of sodium.”

That’s pretty sick considering that’s just the appetizer BEFORE the actual meal.

I have a completely different outlook on my cupcake addiction after reading this article. Yes, it’s fine to indulge from time to time. But, many of the “indulgences” that we think are totally fine are extremely bad for our bodies. I think Kessler said it best in this quote at the end of the article: “We need to make a cognitive shift as a country and change the way we look at food. Instead of viewing that huge plate of nachos and fries [or box of cupcakes!] as a guilty pleasure, we have to . . . look at it and say, ‘That’s not going to make me feel good. In fact, that’s disgusting.’ “

Cupcake, I’m looking at you.

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