22 Nov 2020

Struggle with compulsive eating? Hyper-palatable foods might be why

Do you struggle with comfort eating, stopping at ‘just one’ and saying no even when you’re full? You’re not alone. Nutritionist Marcelle Rose explains why 'hyper-palatable' foods are the reason it’s so hard to avoid overindulgence and gives us some tips for what we can do to regain control.

Why are certain foods so tasty?

Have you ever tried to eat a crisp and stop at one? 

Like many processed junk foods, crisps contain a combination of carbohydrates, unhealthy fats, salt and often sugar that affect our brain-reward circuitry. 

These overpower the appetite signals that tell us when we’re full. These foods have been coined hyper-palatable foods because of their powerful effects.

In 2019, researchers from The University of Kansas defined for the first time what exactly constitutes a hyper-palatable food. Lead Professor Fazzino and her team conducted a study that found most processed foods commonly consumed in Europe and the US meet these criteria

Specifically, they found a hyper-palatable food is one where “the synergy between key ingredients in a food creates an artificially enhanced palatability experience that is greater than any key ingredient would produce alone.” says Professor Fazzino. That extra sense of yumminess if you like.

Food companies producing these foods have capitalised upon this and have well-designed formulas for foods to increase the amount we eat.

Scientists believe they can activate our brain neuro-circuits in a similar way to cocaine. 

Yep, let’s repeat that - these foods hook us in just like cocaine.

These foods may therefore have the ability to overcome our satiety and fullness signals that tell us when to stop eating. That’s why it’s so hard to stop at just one...or two or three!

Are low or reduced sugar, fat or salt foods better?

I would forgive you for thinking foods labelled low or reduced sugar, fat or salt would be excluded from this rather special food category. 

Unfortunately not. The same study found that 49% of such foods also met the criteria for being hyper-palatable. 

Understandably, it feels almost impossible for most to navigate the food aisles and avoid these brain-hacking food products.

Most people I work with to overcome compulsive and emotional eating feel guilty and blame themselves. They feel society blames them for having no willpower, failing at diets and not being ‘good’ enough. 

However, the battle is so much more complex than having willpower. The addictive nature of these hyper-palatable foods is one of the many components making it so hard.

If this is your struggle, I want you to know you are not alone. 

It is possible to take back control and overcome the cycle of overeating, binging and dieting for good.

compulsive eating

Tips for overcoming compulsive overeating

Here are some of my top tips to get you started:

  1. Bring mindfulness into your life

Being mindful means really being aware of what you are eating as you are eating it. (We've got a handy explainer on mindfulness on our blog if you'd like to know more about it ~ Katie)

Be conscious of the taste and how it makes you feel.

This is key to the process, and by learning to eat mindfully, you will be able to observe whether you are physically hungry or emotionally hungry. If it’s the latter – think about what you might really be needing.

Eating mindfully also helps you to slow down and digest your food effectively, allowing your body and metabolism to function at its best.

Deep belly breathing is an excellent tool to use prior to eating to help you move away from your stress response and into a ‘rest and digest’ state. 

  1. Understand your triggers

Your triggers may be associated with a certain place, at a certain time of day, speaking to a particular family member, colleague or friend etc.

These might include sitting down to watch TV in the evening after dinner, having a difficult conversation while having a cuppa, or passing a particular shop.

Whatever your triggers might be, once you become aware of them, you can begin to troubleshoot the upcoming situations by being prepared or doing something differently.

  1. Avoid restriction

Restricting food is far more likely to lead to bingeing.

It’s essential to eat regular balanced meals each day to allow your body to get into the rhythm of expecting when its next meal will be.

Regulating your blood sugar in this way reduces intense cravings and the urge to overeat.

This also applies if you do have an episode of binging or overeating – show yourself compassion, listen to your body and choose to nourish yourself with a balanced meal when you are hungry rather than punishing yourself with food deprivation. 

Marcelle Rose is a nutritionist who helps people overcome the cycle of overeating, binging and dieting. She can be contacted at www.marcellerosenutrition.co.uk

A version of this article previously appeared on Marcelle’s website.

Last updated: 22 November 2020

Photo by Marta Dzedyshko from Pexels

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