Hyperpalatable foods more likely to become addictive

By Margie Mansure (reporter@mountaintimes.com)

Article Published: Aug. 15, 2013 | Modified: Aug. 15, 2013

We are surrounded by hyperpalatable foods.

As the name implies, they’re intense in flavor: mostly fat, sweet or salty and often engineered by food scientists with strong flavor enhancers added. Highly processed foods, some fast food and sweets qualify as hyperpalatable.

Recent studies on food and addiction using brain scans reveal that hyperpalatable foods can stimulate brain reward systems in similar ways to drugs of abuse, such as cocaine and nicotine.
Dopamine is a neurotransmitter that brings us pleasure, being released in the brain when we enjoy or anticipate enjoying food. This is an important mechanism that has enabled us as individuals and a species to survive when we faced unpredictable food supplies and potential starvation. So, if we discovered an apple when foraging for food and it was delicious, the next time we spotted an apple, we would have a strong drive to eat it.

In today’s environment, it may be easier to locate fruit-flavored candy than actual fruit. Calorically dense food is found almost everywhere and doesn’t require us to be physically active, but our biology hasn’t changed much in the last 200 years. Eating hyperpalatable food brings us pleasure. If you enjoy an order of French fries and later see them advertised, looking so tasty and crisp, you may begin to crave them. If we habitually overeat these kinds of foods, eventually, the dopamine response becomes dampened. That weak response may make overeating even more likely. Sort of like chasing a “high,” this happens to alcoholics and cocaine addicts, who crave more and more of their substance.

The theory is that if we feed ourselves normal food found in nature, most people won’t overdo it. People who eat food that’s as close to nature as possible have fewer food cravings, partly due to the fact that their nutritional needs are being met. It may take a while to get away from the hyperpalatable food cycle, but well worth the effort.

Start by adding fruits or vegetables to your diet slowly, until you are eating at least five servings a day. You will be more likely to meet your micronutrient needs and have less room for hyperpalatable food. Also, don’t let yourself get too hungry. Having healthy snacks between meals reduces the drive to eat.

Exercise is known to increase dopamine receptors in animals, which could help reduce food cravings. Even light exercise like walking is enough to see results.

Here is a tasty, whole food recipe to try. Adding almond butter to cauliflower tastes delicious and makes it more satisfying than most vegetable dishes.

Curried Almond Cauliflower

1 head cauliflower, cut into florets
½ cup almond butter
2 tablespoons olive oil
1 tablespoon curry powder
¼ teaspoon salt

Preheat broiler with the oven rack 3 to 4 inches away from the heat. Stir together almond butter, curry powder, olive oil and salt. Toss cauliflower into mixture. Spread in a single layer on a cookie sheet. Place under broiler for 8 to 10 minutes, checking half way to see if it needs to be flipped.
Should be tender and golden brown. Serves 6.

Margie Mansure, M.S., R.D. is a registered dietitian/nutritionist and extension agent with N.C. Cooperative Extension. She offers personalized classes to improve the health of citizens in Watauga County through worksites, schools and community groups. For more information, email margie_mansure@ncsu.edu or call (828) 264-3061.

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