I first brought up this subject in Part 1.
Stephen Guyenet at Whole Health Source has an 8-article series on food rewards and obesity. As he points out, and it is important to stress, food reward is not the ONLY cause of obesity. There are a number of lifestyle factors, such as stress, sleep status, and exercise. Plenty of genetic and epigenetic influences (the genes your folks gave you, and what you have done with them). And developmental factors such as your childhood nutrition, and your mother's nutritional status when you were in the womb. But food reward is one which has changed markedly in the last thirty years, over exactly the timeframe that food reward through restaurant food, fast food, and junk food has skyrocketed.
So what's wrong with something tasting good? As humans, we're hardwired to seek out sources of sugar/starch, salt, and fat, and consume them when available. Availability was pretty scarce in the olden times (really olden) when our ancestors hunted animals that were mostly lean, and collected foods that were very rarely sweet. Modern fruits are just bags of sugar compared to wild fruits: compare a sweet apple and a crab apple. Salt was rare unless you lived on the seacoast.
Now, we live in a caveman's dream: sugary, fatty, salty foods available at every turn, three meals and innumerable snacks per day. Very high reward factors here, lots of happy dopamine on offer. Modern foods are also engineered to have highly-rewarding textures and flavors. We like crunchy and melty, especially in combination. Grilled cheese sandwich? M&Ms? This highly-rewarding food doesn't need much chewing; just a few lovely bites and down it goes.
So what's wrong with something tasting good? When it tastes TOO good, it overcomes your body's natural tendency for homeostasis (your fat set-point). Your body has several mechanisms for keeping your weight stable over the decades of your life. Good thing you don't have to take care of this matter yourself: even 10 calories daily more than your body needs would put on the pounds over the years. Even using a gram scale and counting every step would not allow you to control your input to this exactitude.
Leptin is a very important player in this arena, although discovered only recently, and there are many things that researchers don't know yet about how it works. But as a practical matter, numerous studies have shown that you can fatten rats quickly by giving them supermarket food: cookies, crackers, chocolate, etc.
Think of the foods that you just can't leave alone. Oatmeal among them? That's plain oatmeal, no salt, no sugar, no funny flavors? I didn't think so. Make a list of the foods that are very hard for you to resist. Probably chocolate, ice cream, chips and crackers, pizza; maybe soda, maybe particular fast food sandwiches; maybe chips and salsa. Each person's list is a little different, but there are big commonalities: fat, sugar/starch, salt.
In fact, if you are concerned about your weight, make that list now. Try for a list of ten foods or food categories that give you the most trouble. Write it on a 3x5 card and stick it to your frig.
Although these foods are highly addictive to you, you always have an opportunity to say no to them. That's before you get into the argument with yourself: I deserve this, I've been working so hard. Once you start the argument, it's hard not to eat the food because that means saying that you do NOT deserve this, and nobody wants to hear that. Not having them in the house is a good first step. Control the source. Not going to the restaurant that layers sugar on fat on salt on sugar on fat and adds the big flavors.
I have a secret for you. If you can stay away from these foods for a few weeks, they will lose most of their power over you. Try sugar: really stay away, not even a teaspoon, no fruit juice (just flavored sugar), no soda, no sugar in your coffee or tea, no ice cream, cookies, etc. And if you are a really hard case, no artificial sweeteners which can keep that craving alive. Strangely, after a few weeks, you won't crave it. Other foods start to taste sweet to you. Your tastebuds recover from their sugar surfeit. So the pain of giving up these "rewarding" foods is limited to a few tough weeks.
If you want to try this, here are five steps to take (thanks to Stephen Guyenet). I wouldn't rush into Level 5. Start with Level 1. That will be enough challenge to start with. See how it goes. Then maybe Level 2.
Level 1: the low-hanging fruit. Avoid your addictive foods, sugar, candy, pizza, baked goods. Minimize calorie-containing beverages, such as soda, juice, and sweet alcoholic drinks (wine or milk is OK). And don't snack. Snacks are for children.
Level 1 will almost certainly stop your weight gain, and probably turn it around.
Level 2: In addition to Level 1, eliminate packaged processed foods. Minimize restaurant meals, and when you do eat out, choose simple foods (not the layered loaded sugar-fat-salt bombs). Avoid seed oils (corn, canola, soy, sunflower, and safflower). Olive oil is OK. Try to cook most of your foods at home, from simple ingredients.
If this is not enough to start you losing weight and losing cravings, take it to the next level.
Level 3: In addition to Levels 1 and 2, make your cooking even simpler. Don't add fat to your foods. If the food has fat, like meat, that's OK. Don't butter your vegetables. Reduce your grain consumption, especially foods made of flour such as bread. Potatoes and sweet potatoes are recommended instead, but don't use butter or sour cream. If you want fat, such as butter, eat it separately, away from meals (preferably unsalted).
I can see the eyes rolling on this one. "Why would I eat a baked potato if I didn't get to put butter, sour cream and salt on it?" Aha!
If you have successfully settled yourself at each of the above levels for a period of time, and want to go farther, here are the last two.
Level 4: (yes there's more) Eat single foods. The end of cuisine, right? No vegetable medleys. No herbs and spices on the food. Broccoli. Ground beef. Baked potato. There you go. Don't salt your food. Do have some salt separately, 1/2 tsp in a glass of water once a day. Salt is necessary for life. Cook food by gentle methods: no deep frying, no sauteeing in oil, no grilling. Roast at low temperatures, simmer or boil. Don't drink any calorie-containing beverages. Only eat foods that taste good when you are hungry; avoid foods you would snack on if you weren't hungry and they were available.
Level 5: Eat just three foods, simply cooked. One kind of meat or protein food, one kind of starch, one kind of green vegetable. NOTE: Don't do this longer than a couple of weeks. Get bored with them. You'll eat less, and only enough for your body's needs. Eat your three foods at each meal.
So there you go. Some things to try. Traditional diets (of local foods) generally have one staple starch, one or a few staple meats, seasonal vegetables in varying quantities. These simple diets sometimes have a staple condiment that they use to add flavor to their bland food. We'll talk about traditional and local foods in the next segment.