Do People Eat Too Much Because They Enjoy It Too Little?

Writing in The Wall Street Journal, Jonah Lehrer suggests a weight loss drug that may soon be approved by the Food and Drug Administration should cause us to rethink conventional wisdom about why people overeat. Qnexa, which in clinical trials helped subjects lose about one-tenth of their weight on average, combines an appetite-suppressing stimulant with "an anticonvulsant shown to reduce cravings for binge-eaters." Lehrer says it seems to work partly by increasing "activity in the dopamine reward pathway," which "allows dieters to squeeze more satisfaction from every bite." That explanation is consistent with a recent Oregon Research Institute brain-scan study that found teenagers who reported eating the most ice cream showed the least dopamine response when viewing and sipping milkshakes. "This suggests that they were eating more in desperate compensation, trying to make up for their indifferent dopamine neurons," Lehrer writes. "People crave pleasure, and they don't stop until they get their fill, even if means consuming the entire pint of Häagen-Dazs." He says one lesson for dieters is that "it's important to seek pleasure from many sources," since "people quickly adapt to the pleasure of any single food." 

This theory that overeaters have "hypofunctioning reward circuits" sounds plausible, although the evidence for it so far seems skimpy. But notice that it contradicts the advice commonly heard from anti-obesity crusaders such as Kelly Brownell and David Kessler, who say the problem is that food is too delicious and too varied. Rats who eat their fill of one food, they note, will begin chowing down again if given something different. Hence variety is the dieter's enemy—not, as Lehrer suggests, his friend.

These clashing perspectives are reflected in the perennial conflict between two dieting dicta: 1) avoid temptation and 2) don't make yourself feel deprived. There is some truth to both views. Sometimes I eat more just because something tastes so good, or because a new item has been introduced and I want to try it. But sometimes I will continue eating after a bland meal even though I am not really hungry, just to make up for the disappointing culinary experience. Eating is a complex behavior, and there is unlikely to be one explanation of it even for a single individual, let alone for people in general (assuming there is such a thing). That is yet another reason to be wary of government-imposed, one-size-fits-all solutions.

Back in 1998, I considered two dueling studies of smoking, one of which posited that people who get more pleasure per puff will be less addicted to the habit; the other said the opposite.

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  • ||

    "Would you like a doggie bag, white Indian?"

  • ||

    I over-eat because I love Banjos so much. But I may leave her for Guitars.

  • ||

    Don't do it! She's a slut.

  • omnibot||

    There's a paleo-diet joke in here somewhere.

  • Don Coyote||

    There's a grain of one, sure.

  • Fist of Etiquette||

    They need to come up with a weight loss drug that makes for everyone the act of eating like for men the act of sexing their women. You take the pill, eat by rote for about two minutes and then contently fall asleep. They can call it Orgasmaslimbathol 8.

  • Mrs. Etiquette||


  • db||

    " pleasure from many sources..."

    I'm in!

  • Joe Btfsplk||

    "hypofunctioning reward circuits"

    The story of my life.

  • ||

    "At least I don't work for Jews!"

  • Stale soda||

    I eat too much because eating is the most fun I have all day.

    Of course, I'm a friendless hermit, so it's easy to see how General Tso's Chicken can be the best part of my day. ;)

    Perhaps I need some hobbies.

  • cynical||

    Learn to build quadrotor drones. Then figure out how to use them for high-tech falconry.

  • omnibot||

    So why do I drink too much? I don't enjoy it enough?

  • FlyoverCountry||

    Actually, this is a thought I have heard tossed around at AA meetings. I would assume that this same type of pill could be used to 'cure' alcoholism.

  • ||

    And finally, monsieur, a wafer-thin mint.

  • Sparky||

    Fuck off, I'm full.

  • ||

    Oh sir. It's only wafer thin.

  • Sparky||

    Look, I couldn't eat another thing. I'm absolutely stuffed. Bugger off!

  • ||

    Oh sir, just--just one. . . .

  • Sparky||

    Oh alright. Just one.


  • ||

    Thank you, sir, and now the check.

  • Killazontherun||

    I'll find some measurable degree of happiness if and when food is no longer a subject of hot political debate. It' a boring waste of brain cells to be at all concerned with other people's gastronomy.

  • ||

    We apparently neglected to add the Freedom to Ingest to the Bill of Rights.

  • Killazontherun||

    Apparently, it is thought that if you heavily regulate what people eat we will solve the mortality problem and start living forever. Just seems like a silly idea to me, but then I'm no expert.

  • Randy||

    Don't stop 'til you've had enough.

  • ||

    "sometimes I will continue eating after a bland meal..."

    Yes. I found myself eating much less in India and Sri Lanka. Those spicy meals left my taste buds satisfied. Back in the U.S. I found myself eating more of the cardboard we call food because none of it satisfied.

  • ||

    even if means consuming the entire pint of Häagen-Dazs.

    The ENTIRE pint?! Monsters.

  • ||

    (isn't that the serving size?)

  • dunkel||

    also, fried chicken?

  • ||

    only a drumstick or two. I mean, after the WHOLE pint of icecream, cmon.

  • Joe M||

    I just want to know when Jacob is going to write another book. His last one was brilliant.

  • ||

    What made the biggest difference for me was eating much more slowly.

    Americans generally bolt their food. When I began paying attention, I was generally knocking back my meals in 5 minutes or so (which is pretty typical).

    Slow down and taste your food, and you eat less. You give your body a chance to realize you've eaten and feel full, that way.

  • ||

    I'm convinced that part of the reason we eat such Costco sized portions is because nothing has that much flavor so you have to eat more to be satisfied with it as an aesthetic experience. Buy artisanally-raised beef or pork and you'll get so much pleasure from it that a smaller burger or fewer slices of bacon will do.

  • ||

    Buy artisanally-raised beef or pork and you'll get so much pleasure from it that a smaller burger or fewer slices of bacon will do.

    Which works out since that's all you'll be able to afford.

  • R||

    But notice that it contradicts the advice commonly heard from anti-obesity crusaders such as Kelly Brownell and David Kessler, who say the problem is that food is too delicious and too varied.

    What do they base this on? It sounds like a bunch of Puritan bullshit to me.

  • R||

    WTF happened to my blockquotes?

    I hope reason didn't further neuter the HTML formatting we can use.

  • ||

    I recently lost 15 pounds by just cutting carbs/sugar out of my diet. It also changed the way I crave food.

  • PacRim Jim||

    We eat too much because we can afford to do so.
    It's an affordable pleasure, unlike some I could cite.
    (I suggest using Occam's razor.)

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  • شات عراقنا||



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