We need to resist the stimuli tempting us to overeat

Our relationship with food is complex. Eating is voluntary — and mandatory. Either way, we indulge. More than 67 percent of us are overweight, significantly so in many cases.

Treat the information I'm about to provide with a certain respect. I have some ideas about how to get rid of that roundness in the area of your mid-section. To do so, I'm borrowing heavily from a June issue of Time magazine, a cover story on "The Science of Appetite."

Here's the focus. Historically, human beings have had too little to eat rather than too much. Our earliest ancestors worked hard to provide food for themselves and when found, they gorged. They were never sure food would be available (soon, or at all). Because of them, you might say, we're "hardwired to overeat."

Whether you buy into the concept or not, appetite regulation is tricky. It's especially problematic because food is absolutely everywhere. It's advertised in magazines and on billboards. Restaurant options abound and grocery store aisles overflow. (Think how hard this is for someone who is truly hungry and has minimal resources for purchasing food.).

I think we no longer understand what hunger is. We usually just eat. The Time magazine article outlines seven ways our bodies tell us we're hungry, even when we're not.

1) Time of day: You're hungry at noon because that's the time you've always eaten, i.e. we feel absolutely entitled to breakfast, lunch and dinner.

2) Sight: We see pictures of foods (a slice of lemon meringue pie in a magazine) and the photo triggers desire. We just must have that piece of pie. And, usually, we do.

3) Variety: Lots of us have a not-easily-satisfied desire for sweets. Dessert seems like our due, even after a large, filling meal. Research shows incorporating something sweet into a meal (a bit of fruit in a salad for example) can neutralize a sugar craving and help avoid the dessert trap

4) Smell: We're shopping and we're drawn to the cinnamon bun aroma from an in-mall bakery. We follow the smell and end up with sticky, gooey, sugar-coated fingers.

5) Alcohol: There's no absolute science behind the idea that "drinking stimulates appetite" but most people don't argue with the suggestion it often does.

6) Temperature: We eat more when it's cold. Sometimes restaurants are even accused of keeping their thermostats low so patrons will order a bigger meal. Eating warms us up.

7) Refined carbohydrates: Consumption of specific foods (certain pastas, for example) results in a craving for more food, mere hours later. We get a big glucose hit and we're satiated, but not for long.

We need food to survive. I make that statement and usually follow it with "but not so much." I think I might be wrong. As we age we should place a greater emphasis on nutrient-dense food (more vegetables, fewer chocolate truffles) and really probably should avoid malls and magazines, overly air-conditioned rooms and refined carbohydrates. Or, how about this: gorge on foods with a low-caloric load like, maybe, an entire plate of colorful vegetables?

And when you're done, eat half a chocolate truffle.

Sharon Johnson is an associate professor in the College of Health and Human Sciences at Oregon State University and on the faculty of the OSU Extension Service. She can be reached at s.johnson@oregonstate.edu

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