New Study Sheds Light on Overeating

Girl eating cupcake

Most of us have had the experience of having a strong craving for something at one time or another. Some food item or beverage that sounds particularly good. A new study brings forward a possible reason why we sometimes overconsume that food or beverage.

In a study conducted in Cologne, Germany (1), researchers used PET scan technology to see the areas of the brain that were activated by dopamine release, a brain chemical associated with pleasure, reward and satisfaction. The study subjects were given either a milkshake or a tasteless beverage, and then the PET scan tracked dopamine release once when the beverage was first tasted and then again when it reached the stomach.

In an interesting and somewhat counterintuitive finding, the researchers found that the higher the desire for the milkshake, the lower the release of dopamine from the stomach.

What this might indicate is that for some people, a highly desired food or beverage could lead to overconsumption due to the greater amount needed in the stomach to release sufficient dopamine to feel satisfied or sated.

If this study holds up after further research, it will add to the number of other factors known to play a role in some people’s struggle with overeating. These physical and emotional factors include:

  • When individuals consume highly desirable foods there is often the tendency to consume them more quickly as well. This can result in overconsumption due to insufficient time for our stomach to signal the brain that satiety has been reached.
  • These same foods/beverages may also be overconsumed due to an emotional drive or emotional need being met, at least temporarily, by the taste, pleasure, and satisfaction of that item.
  • Conversely, if a highly desired item does not live up to expectations, one might continue to consume it in either the hope that it will get better or to make up in volume what is missed in the sensory experience.

Instead of ignoring a craving for a delicious-sounding food or beverage for fear of losing control, it can be helpful to try giving yourself permission, the choice, to enjoy that experience, and to do so by slowing down and paying attention to what it is about the item you truly enjoy. Focus on the present and all of your senses and the pleasant associations connected with the experience, not necessarily relying on the amount to determine when you’re finished.

Hopefully being able to include foods or beverages that we truly enjoy can lead to greater fulfillment, not frustration! 

ABOUT THE AUTHOR


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Hilmar Wagner, MPH, RDN, CD

Hilmar Wagner is a Registered Dietitian/Nutritionist (RDN) and Certified Dietitian (CD) in the state of Washington. Hilmar joined the Emily Program in 2006, and currently serves as the Training Coordinator for Nutrition Services and Clinical Outreach Specialist. In this role he initiates and coordinates training of new dietetic staff, dietetic interns and continuing education for nutrition services for all Emily Program locations. He has presented on a wide range of nutrition topics at local, regional and national conferences. Hilmar received his Bachelor’s degree in Nutrition/Dietetics and Master’s in Public Health Nutrition from the University of Minnesota. He has worked in the field of eating disorders for the past 12 years. Hilmar has extensive experience working with clients of all eating disorder diagnoses in both individual and group settings. He has a particular interest in mindfulness and body-centered approaches to eating disorder recovery.

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