Why We Overeat Part 1: Feast & Famine

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We have all found ourselves excessively full in front of an empty plate after a meal that we barely remember eating.

We will reach for more food even though we are no longer hungry, the chip basket at the restaurant keeps getting refilled and we keep grabbing more.

It's  not that the occasional over indulgence will lead to chronic health problems and weight gain, but overeating on a daily basis is a direct contributor to many of the health problems. Those health problems include obesity, Type 2 diabetes, Cardiovascular disease, hypertension and metabolic damage.

We all have the same mechanisms  that help us regulate the amount we eat on a daily basis. When we have eaten enough nutrients, our gut signals our brain to turn hunger off  because we are well nourished this system works efficiently for most folks.

The question begs to be asked what causes some people to eat way more than their body needs while others can push the plate away when they are full ?

The first of this three part blog series I’m going explain how hunger works, how we are hardwired to overeat at times and how modern foods impact overeating.

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How Hunger Works

Before we can talk about what might be going wrong in the hunger and satiety system it is important to get some context  of what hormones are at play, and how hunger is designed to work for people to balance the amount of food we eat.

Your stomach is empty and you have used up the fast acting energy. The stomach recognizes that we need fuel, and in response releases the hormone Ghrelin.

The hormone ghrelin interacts with the neurotransmitter in the brain neuropeptide Y (NPY). NPY turns on the desire  to eat and  we feel hunger signaling that we should eat.

After we eat a meal to satisfy our hunger ghrelin levels drop and Leptin is released from the stomach and fat tissue.

Leptin decreases the desire for food even further, and makes you feel full and well nourished. In a perfect world this is how our hunger and satiety is designed to work, however we do not live in a perfect world.

Primal Brains and Modern Foods

With this well developed system in place to help us regulate our energy balance in the body why can it be so easy to have a second bowl of ice cream or another handful of chocolate almonds even though we are full and satiated ?

To gains some insight into this questions lets take a look back in time. It is helpful to understand how our very distant relatives navigated their environment to ensure survival, and how that impacts us today.

When it comes to how our ancestors used to eat they regularly encountered feast and famine scenarios seasonally. When food was available they knew to gorge and eat as much as they could because those resources would not be available in the future.

We are hardwired to crave the taste of  energy dense foods to promote gorging.This was our way of knowing we needed to eat as much as possible to gain fat in preparation for famine.

From an evolutionary perspective we are hardwired to crave and gorge on these energy dense foods while they are available to ensure survival through  famines.

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Using An Evolutionary Lens

Here is an example of how it worked in nature for our ancestors. When you saw a dense source of carbohydrates like fruit it meant it is late spring or summer and it is time to overeat and reproduce.

You eat lots of that fruit because the sweet taste signals this it was a safe and energy dense food. The sugar content of the fruit raises your blood sugar and the pancreas responds to the surge in blood sugar by releasing insulin.  

Insulin makes sure immediate energy reserves are met, and the rest of the sugar is sent to short term storage in your liver and muscles.

The short term storage is limited, and the extra sugar is converted to cholesterol and body fat as long term storage. Your body knows that with these energy dense foods available winter must be around the corner and it is time to prepare for a famine by gaining weight.

You have enough in short term and long term storage to get through tomorrow. This cycle is repeated on a daily basis while supplies last as an evolutionary advantage for times of famine.

The carbohydrate rich diet that we have adopted along with the low fat craze has dramatically tipped the macronutrient scale going against our biology.

Our hunter gatherer ancestors thrived on a seasonal diet for many years. The low fat craze along with the adoption of processed carbohydrates is a perfect recipe for more sugar we are designed to handle and in turn overeating and disease states as an adaptation.

We can use fat and carbohydrates for energy, if you remove one from the diet it means that we must rely on the other for all your energy.

Carbohydrates are fast acting source of energy but fat is a much longer burning source of energy. Fats help us to regulate our energy and keeps us feeling much fuller for longer. When fat was removed our foods we were forced to depend of processed carbohydrates as our source of energy all day long.

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All Feast And No Famine

Our modern lifestyle is a mismatch with the hardwired feast and famine mentality. Today there is no famine, we are missing an important part of the equation that helps us to keep our energy balanced and prevent year round fat gain.

Energy dense foods were only available for part of the year as hunter gatherers, then they were gone until next year.

We now have energy dense foods  available 24 hours a day 365 days a year. Our ancestors energy rich foods  contained nutrients, vitamins and minerals that satisfied and nourished them.

Our modern energy dense foods, provide many calories with very few nutrients.

Nature is smarter than we are and provides cyclical eating to help us manage our energy balance. It is an evolutionary advantage to get fat for certain parts of the year, but because our energy is out of balance we stay fat year round.

Not only have we abandoned cyclical eating, but we eat  processed foods that hijack the reward center in our brain because of how they are designed to taste.

The man made foods that hijack the reward center in our brain are very addicting as well. That addiction leads to overconsumption of foods on a yearly basis keeping us much fatter and sicker than we are supposed to be.

The addiction and food flavor design is a rabbit hole for another part of this series though.

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Quality Impacts Quantity

The quality of foods that we eat have a large impact on the amount of food we are going to eat. The calories from foods that stimulate the dopaminergic pathway such as bread, pasta, grains, sugars and other processed can promote overeating.

These processed foods block the leptin signal turning off hunger and  cause people to overeat. On the other side foods such as healthy fats, veggies and protein are all high satiety foods that leave people feeling fuller for much longer.

The quality of food that you consume have a different metabolic effect on the body and hormones. Two meals with identical calories but one highly processed and the other from natural whole foods will interact with hormones and satiety very differently.

When we eat meals that contain processed carbohydrates it causes a surge in blood sugar, and the hormone insulin is released to store the extra sugar.

Excessive insulin in the body will block the signal of leptin telling the brain that we are full and satiated. Therefore the hunger signal stays turned on. This allows us to overeat foods that are designed to help us store fat, when we overeat like this on a daily basis it is a recipe for obesity and disease.

If you’re tired of working hard, and not getting the results you want, I can help you adopt the simple habits necessary to reach your health, fat loss or muscle building goals. 

These habits are based on getting you to your goal in a sustainable fashion that can be maintained, while keeping you accountable and supporting you along the way. 

Get on a Strategy Call with me to Discover how to achieve your health or fat loss goals, and make them yours to keep this time around. 

Whether you decide to work with me or not I can guarantee you will leave this call with more knowledge on how to achieve your goals than before, nothing to lose. Everything to gain!


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