Ever "pigged out" on a bag of kale? Me neither. But how about packaged snack foods? Now, I'm pleading the Fifth. Afterwards, you probably blamed yourself for having "no willpower" but when it comes to processed foods, it's not by chance that you can't eat "just one." In a contest between processed foods and your "willpower," the good money is on Big Food. That's because the game is rigged. Packaged or processed foods have been deliberately engineered, through extensive research and testing, to maximize your craving. Here's how they do it:
It's "good business" to develop products people love. In fact, one company alone invests more than half a billion dollars a year, every year, to develop products that we crave. They have been so phenomenally successful at unlocking the code of craveability, that the former Chief Scientist for Frito-Lay famously admitted, "I feel so sorry for the public."
Vanishing Caloric Density
Unsurprisingly, we're much more likely to overeat processed foods than "whole foods." Snack foods that have an airy, crispy texture like cheese puffs leave us particularly prone to overeating because of vanishing caloric density. As the snack somewhat dissolves on our tongues, our bodies don't register those fat calories, so we think we're still hungry and keep eating.
Scientists can engineer multi-sensory taste experiences to trigger your craving. And most of these ploys do not occur in nature. It turns out, craveability includes many things, including just the right color (we like our "cheesy snacks" bright orange) and the optimal degree of sweetness, known as the bliss point. We actually don't taste fat so much as feel it, and this pleasurable "mouthfeel" interacts with sweetness to help create the optimal "hedonic experience" at about 50 percent fat.
Did you know our bodies eventually tire of a specific flavor? This phenomenon is known as sensation-specific satiety. That's why processed foods like nacho chips are engineered to contain a complex spectrum of flavors. Alternatively, the "Smorgasbord Effect," explains why we overeat at buffets – the multitude of different flavors keeps us from habituating to any single flavor. So we keep eating.
A (Bad) Gut Feeling
The high-fructose corn syrup common to "regular" soda may be even worse than sugar when it comes to hunger and obesity. Artificially sweetened beverages (ASBs) masquerade as a weight-conscious alternative under the name of "diet soda," but a growing body of research suggests that the opposite is true. Even more so than regular soda, consumption of ASBs is associated with metabolic syndrome (precursors to diabetes and heart disease) and obesity, particularly abdominal fat. This may be because our hunger cues rebound in response to sweetness without the corresponding calories; or because the artificial sweeteners negatively affect the bacteria in our "gut"; or both! Food additives common to processed foods also appear to disrupt our natural bacteria, also promoting obesity and metabolic syndrome.
But there's good news — you can win back control of your weight and health. When it comes to managing your weight, sometimes the best advice is the simplest. To quote Michael Pollan, "Eat Food. Not too much. Mostly plants." Choose actual foods, rather than "edible food-like substances" with multisyllabic ingredients that your grandmother wouldn't recognize. Shop the perimeter of your supermarket and buy foods like fresh produce that come in their own natural package. This approach may be more expensive, but so is obesity. Besides, you'll also have more money when you eliminate soda (yes, including diet soda) from your diet. You may love soda, but soda doesn't love you back. But kale? You can bet kale will love you back.
Stacey Cahn is a psychologist at Philadelphia College of Osteopathic Medicine who specializes in obesity, eating disorders and body image.