How to End Overeating: Part 1

By Martin Brown

What can you do about overeating? The simple answer is obvious: “Don’t do it!”

The honest answer to the question is a lot more complicated than that.

We are driven to overeat by a complex system of triggers in which our brain tells us that food will make us feel better. This is a reaction that well over 95% of us have experienced. It’s a learned behavior that most likely is rooted in childhood conditioning.

You’re age five, for example, and you’re upset because it’s raining and the trip to the zoo has been postponed.  Mom pats your hand and says, “Would you like to help me make chocolate peanut butter cookies.” This is one of a thousand scenarios in which food, and the preparation of food, established a despair and relief cycle that your brain long ago came to accept as a way out of a number of difficult situations. Anxiety, disappointment, uncertainty, and a host of other unsettling situations can be relieved, briefly at least, by eating a favorite food.

This is the opening for the trap of overeating. Staying with the chocolate peanut butter cookies as our example, every part of the process can give you relieve. The 36 year old woman, who three decades ago had the disappointment of a rainy day washed away as soon as she smelled those yummy cookies baking will have much the same reaction today. Once those cookies are out of the oven and she eats the first one there is a release of dopamine in her brain, That smile that comes across her face is her brain saying “Ah!” Once that has happened the distress/relief reward link is firmly re-established and having a second, third, and fourth cookie is virtually assured. This is why it’s always easier to turn down the first cookie than it is the second or third.

As Dr. David Kessler, the former commissioner of the US Food and Drug Administration, explains in his fabulous book, The End of Overeating, if this cycle of reward, learning, and habits established in our brains is the root cause of overeating, then “drugs that act on those circuits should alter behavior and help control this impulse.”

In support of that theory Dr. Kessler relays the story of what happened in the 1990s when two drugs, phentermine and fenfluramine, commonly known as phen-fen, appeared to do just that. The drug was released into the market but was pulled in 1997 because of potentially dangerous side effects involving heart function. During it’s brief period in use, however, doctor’s across the country who prescribed it saw similar results. In case after case the drug disrupted the brain’s pathways of distress and reward and relieved individuals of compulsive urges to overeat. Patients often described the relief they experienced when this cycle of reward was broken. Suddenly a compulsion to have a warm Krispy Kreme donut, or a huge bowl of Hageen Dazs premium ice cream left them.

Unchecked, however, these compulsions to eat certain foods become all controlling. If you, for example, have a passion for cheese sausage pizza, you’ll feel the pull reach you with particular strength when passing a favorite pizza place. The internal discussion begins, “Should I stop or just keep going?” This silent dialogue you have with yourself soon becomes the dominant thought pattern and it can be broken and ended by simply getting the food you crave. Having done this the reward relief spurs you on to eat even more. No longer are you seeking to satisfy hunger pangs, if that was ever the case to begin with, but more often you’re cycling through a round of distress and reward and each bite is giving you the reward that you were craving raising the chances that you’ll reach for a second slice as well.

As Kessler rightly points out, almost all diet programs deal with specific restrictive caloric plans but ignore the fundamental question of how we lost control of our food intake in the first place. You cannot reform the habit of overeating without first resolving its root causes.

Next week in part two of this two-part story, I’ll share with you what we can do to turn off the overeating mechanism and take control of our diet and personal weight management once and for all.


Martin Brown is the Heath Channel Editor for, and co-author of The Complete Idiot’s Guide to Finding Mr. Right.

His latest book is Fit in 50 Days.

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