Most people find eating enjoyable and comforting. That’s one explanation for why it can be so tough to stop at just one portion — especially if a food is particularly sweet, savory or especially fun to eat (i.e., crunchy and satisfying or melt-in-your-mouth and delicious). This can present a challenge for people who want to eat healthier, are looking to control their weight, or eat a certain way for athletic performance.
One of the biggest reasons we love eating — and certain foods in particular — comes down to our biology, explains Akua Woolbright, PhD, a nutrition expert and national nutrition program director of Whole Cities Foundation. “We are hardwired to enjoy experiences like eating because it’s essential to our survival as a species,” she explains.
We’re also programmed to seek calorie-dense foods when we’re hungry, according to Woolbright. “This was a very useful survival mechanism for our ancient ancestors during times when food was scarce and had to be hunted and gathered.” Over time, humans developed a preference for foods that would satisfy them for longer periods: ones that are high in calories, and often in fat and carbohydrates, too. “If they had to choose between a bunch of bananas or a bunch of berries, they were programmed to choose the bananas because they would give them the biggest reward for their time and effort,” says Woolbright. This is part of the reason we automatically desire or crave higher-calorie foods over lower-calorie ones.
Of course, things are a bit different these days. “Our food landscape has drastically changed,” notes Woolbright. “We are no longer choosing between the banana and berries; we are choosing between the banana and the banana cream pie.” These choices are all around us, and often, choosing a more calorie-dense food is significantly more convenient.
First, your brain tells you it’s time to eat. “The drive to eat is fueled by a connection between the mind and the body,” notes Katherine Kimber, RD. “Nerve cells of appetite are located in the hypothalamus of the brain where a variety of hormones and neurotransmitters are triggered to make us eat.” It’s important to note many people believe the choice to eat (or not eat) is a completely conscious one, but really a powerful biological drive is also at play, says Kimber. When we eat after our brain tells us to, we are completing a biological feedback loop.
As you begin eating, certain physical sensations innately feel comforting. “The satisfaction we connect to chewing and swallowing is developed early in life,” says Cara Harbstreet, RD. Though we don’t consciously think about it often, it’s linked to some of our earliest memories of breastfeeding or being bottle-fed, explains Harbstreet. “The suckling movement of the mouth, tongue and lips progresses to biting, chewing and otherwise manipulating food with our mouths, and eventually becomes second nature for most of us.”
While you eat, your stomach begins to expand. “Stretch receptors in the stomach signal to the brain we are becoming full,” says Harbstreet. “These receptors are neurologically linked to the brain and help us to understand when we are nearing or at physical fullness.” These receptors also trigger certain feel-good hormones, yet another reason eating feels pleasurable.
Your brain also reaps rewards once you’ve eaten. “Dopamine is an important chemical messenger involved in reward, motivation and memory,” says Kimber. “Since eating plays an important role in our survival, it’s no wonder dopamine plays a part in eating.” Research shows that food, especially sugar, lights up the brain’s reward centers, stimulating dopamine and making us feel pleasure, explains Kimber. “This release of dopamine means our bodies are rewarded for eating food. Eating is subsequently seen as ‘good behavior,’ leading us to seek more.”
Most people don’t experience cravings for lettuce and chicken breast. Instead, we often crave foods high in carbohydrates and fat. There’s a good reason for that. “We have a powerful neurotransmitter (a type of chemical messenger in the body) involved in making us seek out carbs,” says Kimber. It’s called Neuropeptide Y (NPY), and the reason it makes us crave carbs is carbs are the body and brain’s preferred type of fuel. NPY is typically elevated after any imposed period of food deprivation, including an overnight fast from dinner to breakfast. You might have noticed the longer you go without eating, and the hungrier you get, the stronger the craving is for carbohydrate-rich foods, says Kimber.
“Fat is another nutrient that brings about good feelings due to the desirable texture it brings food, but also the hormones it prompts to release when it hits our digestive tract,” says Kelly Jones, RD. We need fat for satiety hormones, or the hormones that help us know when we’re full, to be released.
It’s not just about biological mechanisms; we also have emotional attachments to eating. “There’s a lot of nostalgia associated with foods based on the social and celebratory experiences we may associate with eating,” says Jones. For example, “ice cream after a baseball game as a child, soup that your grandmother made when you were sick, or a pie you enjoyed making with a loved one at the holidays — these memories elicit happiness when specific foods are consumed.”
Our brains are very good at linking experiences with positive, neutral or negative memories, adds Harbstreet. “If the experience is associated with connection, community, a good meal and so on, it can drive us to seek that same pleasurable experience again.” Sometimes, we might eat a given food when we’re feeling low because it’s associated with one of those positive experiences. Of course, this phenomenon goes both ways: If a meal ended in food poisoning, you may try to avoid having that experience again by avoiding the food that caused it.
The good news is finding pleasure in food can be a positive thing. In fact, if you focus on it, you may find it easier to reach your goals. “The more pleasure we get from food, and the less restrictive we are, the easier it is to stop eating when you are full, and have a more pleasurable experience,” says Kimber. Here are three tips for doing so:
“Fill up on whole foods, including colorful produce and whole grains that are high in fiber, advises Woolbright. “Fiber helps us feel fuller and more satisfied, provides important nutrients to the body, and helps remove toxins and excess dietary sugar and fat from the digestive system.” Similarly, protein can help us with satiety to curb overeating. Aim for at least 10–20 grams of fiber per meal, recommends Woolbright.
Intermittent fasting is popular and works for some people as part of a structured weight-loss plan, but randomly skipping meals can lead to cravings that are hard to ignore. “Eat consistently throughout the day, so your cravings don’t set in, and you can stay ahead of them,” Woolbright recommends.
“If you tend to be in a cycle of restricting food intake and going on diets, only to end up bingeing and feeling like you’ve failed, remember that restricting foods you love is stressful,” says Jones. “While it sounds counterintuitive, the more you allow all foods, the less likely you may be to overeat on them or turn to them regularly.”
Remember, physical fullness alone doesn’t always turn off our drive to stop eating; satisfaction is also involved. “That means it’s possible to feel full without feeling satisfied,” explains Kimber. For instance, maybe you ate a big salad, but you really wanted a steak, says Kimber. You might continue eating more after you’re done with the salad since you’re searching for that feeling of satisfaction, even if you’re not really hungry.
Given the biological and psychological mechanisms at play, there’s no reason to feel guilt or shame when you eat for pleasure. “It’s human, and we can better connect with our own humanity when we recognize that,” says Harbstreet. Though it can take time to get comfortable with this, the payoff is big: “The end result is a more peaceful and calm relationship with food, with less chaos or emotional turmoil associated with eating.”
For example, prioritizing a well-balanced diet 80% of the time and enjoying higher-calorie (more carbohydrate- and sugar-rich) foods 20% of the time is a good way to ensure you meet your overall health goals without feeling deprived. If you need more guidance on where to start, a registered dietitian can tailor an individualized plan.
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