The Neuro-Anthropology of Over Eating
The food industry has been growing for the past decades. Big Food companies have been making more and more sales and profit, be it Quick Service Restaurants (e.g. McDonald’s) or packaged food producers (e.g. Nestle). They aim to keep growing year on year.
This means people are buying, and eating more and more food. Why?
The answer lies in the root causes of eating. What triggers us toward over eating?
The obvious one is hunger. But this does not change in time. The world’s population has not become hungrier in the past decade. If anything, we should be less hungry because of the copious amounts of food.
Why do we eat more and more?
There are three types of triggers that explain all of our modern over eating:
- Because the food is there
- Because we are stressed
- Because we are with people
Each of these triggers corresponds with a Paleolithic algorithm for survival and with a chemical in the body.
1. Because the food is there
Algorithm: Opportunistic Energy Maximization
Dopamine is the neurotransmitter of motivation. People often think of it as the chemical of reward. It does signal reward. But more importantly it signals motivation to perform actions.
Dopamine is behind you reading this article. It’s behind closing the article to look at social media. It’s behind going for a run. And behind staying on the couch, bingeing Netflix and icecream.
Food is a very strong dopamine trigger. Why? Because the dopaminergic system evolved to motivate pro-survival activities. It makes us want to do things that helped us survive. Now it activates to make us want to do activities that our unconscious algorithms believe would contribute to survival.
It evolved in the Paleolithic and has not changed significantly since then. Survival and reproduction then was relatively simple: you had to avoid immediate death and then ensure sufficient energy. Food is most of the second part.
Throughout the whole of human history it was advantageous to eat whenever we saw food. It was scarce and humans had no way to store it for later.
Trigger: seeing food or being reminded it is easily available
Thus whenever you see food, your Paleolithic algorithm of opportunistic eater activates. You secrete dopamine to motivate yourself to grab and eat the respective food. Resisting this impulse is an effort.
Why it leads to overeating now
Not all food had the same survival value in the Paleolithic. Thus not all food has the same dopaminergic effect.
Our bodies evolved to prefer food that is naturally scarce and high in energy. The effect is now we are much more motivated to eat high calorie foods with lots of sugar. We also want ultra-processed food as this means it provides more energy with less effort. We want combinations of fat+simple carbs because this combination is practically impossible through foraging, but both fat and carbs are high-energy macronutrients.
Then there is fructose. Humans, as well as other animals, evolved to gorge when they taste fructose. This was a key survival feature. Fructose was scarce, found in honey and fruit. It was much more likely to be found in Autumn before the cold winter. Animals who could gorge on the fruits of autumn to get fat for the upcoming winter, had much higher survival chances.
When you taste fructose, your body goes through biochemical transformations with the purpose to eat all the food in sight. It blunts satiety signals and pushes on hunger signals. It promotes fat-store creation. It is in a way a fattening superserum. Like the supersoldier serum made a weakling into Captain America, fructose makes a lean human into a fat human.
Where do you get fructose now? It’s half of sugar. All the sugar you eat is half fructose. It’s abundant. And it’s addictive due to the mechanism outlined above.
In short: seeing foodstuffs that are ultra-processed sugar+carbs+fat+salt and ultra-processed activates biochemical mechanisms to make us eat them
2. Because we are stressed
Chemical: Glucocorticoids (usually referred to as Cortisol)
Algorithm: Energy Recovery from Stress
Stress is a situation of danger and threat. All stress was physical danger until very recently. Our ancestors were stressed because they saw a lion or they had not eaten in two days.
When you feel stress, the body releases first adrenaline. This gets you ready if you have to run or fight in the next few moments. Then it releases glucocorticoids. These mobilize the body resources for physical action, diminish processes that are not immediately important such as digestion, focus the mind on short-term actions and scanning the immediate surrounding. They put your body in a hyperactive turbo mode. This helped our ancestors survive the stress.
This overcharge primes the body for intense energy consumption. In the recovery phase, meaning after the stressor has been resolved or enough time passed without any more threat, the same glucocorticoids promote eating to recover energy. This ensured that our ancestors behaved to survive repeated stress by increasing their eating to compensate for the excess energy use.
Why it leads to overeating now
The recovery phase happens regardless whether you did any actual effort during the stress situation.
Most of our stress now is not physical. You get stressed because of a work email, because of a message, because of traffic, because of too many tasks.
But the body does not know that. Glucocorticoids still prompt extra eating even when there was no excess energy consumption.
You overeat after a work email like you do after a run from a lion.
On top of that, the modern world creates more stress. Our Paleolithic ancestors dealt with more serious sources of stress. But they were much fewer. We are now constantly bombarded with stimuli that create stress, such as: always-on work, constant social media, information overload, never-ending messaging, COVID, news.
The recovery eating from stress is no indiscriminate. It pushes us towards easily digestible, high energy foods. Because these foods are much more abundant and accessible now, and we get more stressed, we eat more.
In short: excessive emotional stress of modern life activates mechanisms to overeat
3. Because we are with people
Algorithm: Need for belonging
We have a deep powerful need to belong. It’s why we constantly seek validation from others.
This need comes from the fact that in the Paleolithic humans did not survive alone. They could only survive in group. If the group exiled you, you died. Thus we seek to bond with people around us.
Food sharing is a deep bonding activity. Food was critical to survival. To share food was to be with the people you trusted most. It forges emotional connections.
Oxytocin is the so-called molecule of love. It triggers feelings of togetherness and bonding.
I believe food sharing triggers high oxytocin release. As far as I know this has been measured in chimps. I could not find studies on humans. If you know of any, let me know.
Eating a meal together, even if you are not directly sharing food with the other person, would also trigger this mechanism.
Why it leads to overeating now
It has the smallest effect of the three. And it only leads to overeating because of the other two.
The idea is that you eat triggered by various signals. Then you meet with other people. You want to bond with these people, and they with you. This motivates you to eat with them, rather than do other activities.
This is why eating is such a common group activity. And why it’s so effective in building camaraderie.
The problem is that in modern times of abundance and frequent eating, socialization does not correspond to hunger. So you eat for the bonding, even though you are not hungry.
In short: you eat with other people to forge relationships
What can you do to reduce overeating?
Obviously it’s about counteracting the first two of these forces. Physical socialization is already rather low, no need to refuse meeting friends to lose weight.
What can you do?
1. Filter incoming information
The first trigger relies on information about available food reaching you. If it does not reach you, you are not triggered.
The second trigger is about information that causes stress. Again, if it does not reach you, you are not triggered.
Thus establishing filters for information reduces triggering data. What does this mean in practice:
- No notifications
- Create clear and ruthless rules about the types of news you consume
- Social media rules of engagement. If you scroll mindlessly, you are the victim of the algorithm. Either eliminate social media, or stop the feed.
- Adopt an attitude of ‘just in time information’ instead of ‘just in case’. Dismiss all information that does not serve a purpose to you right now for the goal you are actively seeking
2. Clear eating rules
The default mode is opportunistic conformist hedonistic eating. You eat when food is available, when you feel bad and what you see others eating.
2.1 Set clear eating intervals
You probably heard about intermittent fasting. Besides its direct health benefits, it also makes you resistant to outside triggers for eating.
You set a clear eating schedule, say from noon to 7 p.m. And you decide you don’t eat outside this interval. This means any trigger for eating outside these times will likely fall flat.
But it can also make you resistant to triggers within the interval. When you know you have limited time to eat, you become more choosy about what you eat. After all, you are not an infinite hole to stuff food. If you eat two bags of chips on impulse at 5 p.m., you might not be able to enjoy the planned meal with your girlfriend at 6 p.m.
2.2. Set clear food rules
If you eat whatever, you are easy prey.
If you have clear rules for what you eat, then it becomes much harder to trigger you.
I don’t eat sugar. I have not eaten it in over 6 years. I don’t get triggered by candy ads or cake-stores. I am hardly triggered by any food advertising to be honest because I learned most foods have sugar so it has become irrelevant.
Of course some people have food rules but still get triggered and break them. This is because their rules are too fuzzy.
If you decide that you don’t eat junk food for example, that’s a bad rule. Junk food is a vague term. It makes you have to decide each time you are triggered whether that product is junk food or not. You will get tired. You will break your rule.
Food rules have to be so simple and clear that an algorithm could follow them for you. No sugar ever is simple. A robot could pick foods according to it.
I don’t want to go into depth on what these food rules should be. It’s a rabbit hole. But look at what type of foods both dopamine and glucocorticoids push you to eat: ultra-processed sugar+carbs+fat+salt. If you want to eat less, you should establish rules that limit these types of foods.
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