Highly Palatable Foods - Why You Can't Stop Eating Them.

Highly Palatable Foods Cupcakes

Learn exactly what eating highly palatable foods does to your brain to make you eat more + how to stop it happening to you. Six minute read.

Why can’t you stop eating foods that you find really Tasty?

Ever asked why you can’t stop at just one damn piece of chocolate? Or one handful of chips?

If you’ve ever wished that you had more discipline around junk food, you’re not alone. Most of my weight loss clients have wished at some point that they would be more disciplined with their eating. Unfortunately, this leads to the false belief that the reason why they can’t stop eating is that there is something intrinsically wrong with them + their ability to control themselves around food. In their mind the solution to weight loss therefore revolves around trying to be more motivated, more controlled, more strong, or worse…trying a different, more restrictive diet. The problem is, when that diet fails, or when the weight comes back on years later, all that’s left is the belief that they didn’t work hard enough. Cue the shame + self recrimination.

But there are physiological reasons why you struggle to stop at ‘just one’ + understanding the underlying reasons why this happens is the key to avoiding overeating, resisting temptation + eating healthily long term. The effects that highly palatable foods have on your brain are potent, so much so that it is difficult for many people to override, not just you. Your mind is being held ransom by these foods + this completely changes the approach you should take in trying to lose weight.


What are highly palatable foods?

Highly palatable foods are (usually, but not always, processed) foods that contain high amounts of sugar or fat + often combined with salt + lots of flavourings. So why is it that these foods make you go crazy for them + why can’t you stop at just a small amount? The reason why you can’t stop at one doughnut, a handful of chips, one mini sausage roll, one piece of chocolate or a mouthful of brownie is that these foods are all….well….highly palatable (well duh, I hear you say, no one ever said ‘I’m having some serious cravings, I just want to sit on the couch + snack on some steamed broccoli’). Ok, so it’s no secret that they taste great, but there’s more to it than that. This deadly mix of ingredients has a series of incredibly potent actions on your brain that make it extremely difficult for you to put away the Oreo packet + leave you wanting more way beyond that one evening of vulnerability.


Highly palatable foods activate The reward centre in your brain.

High sugar, high fat foods affect your brain differently to normal food. In both animal + human studies, highly palatable foods have been shown to increase the release of several neurotransmitters responsible for making you feel extra good when you eat them, even if you’re not all that hungry. From an evolutionary perspective, food has to be inherently rewarding (otherwise we wouldn’t seek it out), but these types of food are especially rewarding, simulating the release of dopamine, serotonin + endogenous (made by your body) opioids - neurotransmitters that are also involved in reinforcing a drug addiction. Some animal studies have shown rats to eat palatable foods even when they are put in ‘aversive environments’ i.e. even when then were given the option of eating them in the face of being mildly electrocuted.

The problem is that stimulation of the reward system also influences your memory, learning + perceptions about the food + it’s hedonic (i.e. the pleasure it brings you) value. Back in hunter gatherer days this was an essential survival mechanism. Food had to be experienced as both pleasurable + memorable so that we would return to it + feed ourselves again but these days food is way more accessible. In some people, highly palatable foods have even been shown to ‘rearrange’ this reward system signalling making the food appear even more palatable to them over many other foods + exponentially increasing their perception of the food’s value as a reward, not just a way of satiating hunger.

The more you eat the more you want?

The theory that many of us make our eating decisions based on reward-related decision making is a nice way of explaining why you might overeat. From an early age, whenever you had a choice between foods, your brain weighed up the reward that it thought it might get from it. Initially this would have simply been about which foods would best relieve you from the feeling of hunger, but over time you learnt that these ‘high value’ foods make you feel better not just when you’re hungry, but also when you are seeking relief from other aversive states. Because of reward based learning, your brain learnt that when you eat certain foods, you get relief from whatever discomfort you’re feeling (anything from sadness + fatigue right through to boredom or lack of stimulation). This can set up an eating habit rather than a conscious decision making process, which are in fact completely different processes within the brain. Ultimately it means that many of your decisions to eat are based on habit or alleviation of discomfort rather than satiating your hunger.

Continuing to eat highly palatable foods frequently + long term is also thought to induce adaptations similar to those that happen in drug addictions. There are still questions around whether compulsive food eating is chemically similar to drug addiction, however there are some similar characteristics between the two. One of those is the potential for adaptation to occur with chronic consumption of highly palatable foods. Just as drug addictions can result in the desire for more + more of the drug over time, it is thought that the same effect may happen with highly palatable foods.

HIghly palatable foods disrupt appetite + satiety.

If you’re also able to eat highly palatable foods well beyond when you’re full, it’s because they also have an effect on your perception of fullness. High sugar + fat stimulates hunger peptides in the brain, making prolonged eating way more likely. This means you’re likely to take longer to recognise that you’re full (not to mention that you often eat high sugar + fat foods quickly, meaning you can consume greater volumes before your stomach recognises how much it has in it). This effect may be more pronounced for saturated fat + sugar in high concentration. In addition, highly palatable foods decrease satiety (fullness) signals in the brain but not in the gut. Meaning you are more likely to feel full but still think you’re hungry. The story just gets worse + worse!

If this weren’t enough to work against, highly palatable foods have been shown to reduce your acute stress response, meaning they actually can alleviate your stress (albeit for a a short amount of time) making you more likely to reach for them at any time you feel under pressure, tired or busy.

lose weight, manage cravings + stop overeating.

Addressing the specific physiological processes that come into play when you eat highly palatable foods is an incredibly powerful tool to avoid overeating + lose weight long term. Even though the jury is still out as to whether certain foods are ‘addictive’, there are strategies that you can borrow from this field to aid you in creating change. It can also explain why some dieting strategies may not have worked in the past for you. If you take on a diet without having strategies in place to overcome or manage consumption of highly palatable foods or compulsive eating, then your likelihood of ‘falling off the wagon’ when you do give in to temptation is high.

Every individual is different + your drivers for eating certain foods will be unique, so it is important to gather some data about yourself first before designing a strategy. Usually my clients move forward with several different strategies based on their specific vulnerabilities + some of these strategies can include:

  • Understanding the times/places/scenarios when you can’t moderate yourself, tell someone about it who can help you avoid those situations or have a plan in place for when you’re in those situations. For example, if after dinner snacking is your most difficult time, make sure you’re consistently having a high protein dinner (so you are full), make sure snack foods are out of the house + drink a cup of tea/water instead.

  • Starting to really understand the cues that trigger your overeating habits. Ask yourself what situations trigger you to eat those foods + what reward you get out of it. Go into detail here: Are you usually alone or with people? Are you tired? Are you bored? Are you out at night? Is it because you’re trying to avoid something? And then ask what that reward gives you. Is it because you want a pick-me-up? Is it because you feel sad + want to feel happy? Is it because you want to avoid doing a certain job? When you know these you can begin to take on strategies to work your way through them.  

  • If you think your control over highly palatable foods is so diminished that it is destroying your ability to live a happy life, the solution is not another diet. Reaching out to a psychologist or counsellor who specialises in addiction or disordered eating will provide you with much more targeted + useful support to build your toolbox rather than continuing to restrict yourself over + over again.

  • Eat blander foods + in their natural state as possible. Foods found in their natural state have lower levels of these highly palatable compounds. Rarely do you find fat, sugar, salt + spice all put together in the one natural food.

  • Avoid the combination of the especially potent combination of high sugar, high fat in 50:50 ratio where possible. Foods like doughnuts, cheesecake, icecream, baked goods (both wholefood baked goods + commercially baked goods) that have relatively equal amounts of sugar + fat will all ping your reward centre like crazy reinforcing that habit loop over + over again.

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I'm a clinical nutritionist committed to helping women who care about their heath end their battle with their weight so they can get on with doing the things that matter most.


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About Zoe Morosini Nutrition | Brisbane Nutritionist

Hey! I’m Zoe Morosini, a Brisbane (Australia) based nutritionist on a mission to show every woman that want to lose weight that she doesn’t have to lose her mind trying.

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