BERLIN (dpa) — For many, the ideal end of the day looks something like this: legs up, a boob box, and a bag of chips. Often, however, the fist quickly becomes empty. Why can’t we stop before the whole bag is empty?
Because eating especially fatty or sweet foods makes you happy, explains Martin Smolch, a nutrition expert at the Institute of Nutritional Medicine at the University of Lübeck and at the University Hospital Schleswig-Holstein. Intestinal cells contain sensors for sugar and fat.
When the food particles get there, an electrical impulse is sent through the nerves to the brain. Then the messenger dopamine is released there. Dopamine increases appetite and creates feelings of happiness. And the brain reacts especially happily when sugar and fat are combined in food. Some experts talk about the so-called Nutella effect.
The preference for sweet and fatty things dates back to times of scarcity. “It used to be that food was generally scarce and hardly available, especially in winter,” explains Smallish. Fat and sugar are the main sources of energy. “People who responded well to this and ate supplies in times of famine therefore had better chances of survival.”
Studies show that humans have an innate preference for sweets, Smolich says. Even unborn babies in the womb smile when a pregnant woman eats something sweet instead of something bitter. This character is also logical: in nature there is almost nothing sweet and poisonous at the same time. Poisonous plants and fruits usually taste bitter.
Another factor is cultural patterns. In some areas, a beer after work is part of it – “This also applies to chips,” says Christoph Kloter, who was a nutrition psychologist and psychotherapist at Fulda University of Applied Sciences until his retirement. “Because in our culture they stand for comfort, relaxation and fun.”
Plus, habit plays a role, Clotter says. “When I go to the supermarket, I’ve always chosen the same type of yogurt for years. Or when I come home from work, it has to be something sweet.” Last but not least, food is often used as a manager of emotion. “If we sit alone in front of the TV in the evening and feel lonely, the sadness goes away,” says the psychiatrist. At the end of the day, there may be a struggle with your partner — but not with the refrigerator.
A recently presented study showed just how strongly these habits have become ingrained in the brain. Fatty and sweet foods activate the reward system so powerfully that the brain learns to subconsciously prefer such foods, a team at the Max Planck Institute for Metabolism Research in Cologne reported in March. “Our measurements of brain activity showed that the brain rewires itself through the consumption of french fries and the like. It subconsciously learns to prefer rewarding food,” explained study leader Mark Tetjmeier.
So it can be difficult to break ingrained patterns and not open the bag of chips, but instead maybe get a healthy apple, says Armin Valet of the Consumer Advice Center in Hamburg. Chips are also among the foods with an internal addictive factor: “Chips obviously contain taste-enhancing substances. Flavors in particular are suspected of eliciting a stronger desire. Yeast extract, formerly glutamate, has a similar effect.”
The urge not to touch the bag of potato chips — or at least eat a small portion of it — must be correspondingly strong. Among other things, it is important that feeding does not occur on the side – that is, in parallel with watching a movie or a mobile phone – says nutritionist Smallish. It is also important to get support from a counselor or someone you trust. Because, as Armin Valet comments: In the event of a craving, the next bag of chips is usually just a short distance away.
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