Billi Gordon Ph.D.

Obesely Speaking

Thanksgiving: Danger in the Brain

You can never get enough of something that is almost right

Posted Nov 24, 2014

By Dr. Gordon

Typically, compulsive overeaters throw out healthy eating habits with the Halloween decorations as we head into Thanksgiving and do not come for air until New Years.  Thanksgiving is and it is not our favorite day of the year. It is our favorite day because we love food, and it is a food fest. It is not our favorite day of the year because we are slaves to our food addiction and it brings us face to face with our master and our chains. Not only that, it does it publicly or in front of family. The truth is we do not want others to see our ugly relationship with food, nor do we want to dwell on our addiction's darker side.  

When researchers gave animals palatable foods, which are equivalent to our holiday foods, the animals binged[1]. Palatable foods causing bingeing animals tell us that bingeing is an innate human tendency. For example, a single morsel of high-sugar and high-fat palatable food triggers binge eating in rats[2]. Likewise, it only takes that “one bite can’t hurt you” of a rich dessert to trigger binge eating in compulsive overeaters. Substance dependence studies in humans and animals have shown this same outcome. Thus, holiday foods are more dangerous to compulsive overeaters than to normal eaters because of the nature of our addictive relationship with them.  Normal eaters do not have an addictive relationship with food. Hence, they might have a few rich desserts, which are just not a viable option for compulsive overeaters.  

It gets worse: the absence of palatable foods and food restriction in rats increases their tendency to binge when palatable foods are present[3]. Therefore, you know what that means. If a compulsive overeater is on a diet before the holidays, which we always are; when the holidays roll around and they break out the goodies, which we have not been eating, it flips the binge switch. Thus, it is a neurobiological problem for us.

Also Holidays are stressful. Palatable foods alleviate stress.  Thus high stress in the company of fatty foods equals a precarious environment. 

However, holiday meals more about symbolic eating than feeding for fuel. The difference between the non-obese and the obese is that the obese binge more often.[4-8] It is the holidays, and we love palatable foods. You simply cannot eat enough on Thanksgiving to throw you off your game. It is not humanly possible. The problem is we start bingeing on Thanksgiving and do not come up for air until New Year’s Day. That has to do with neurobiological alterations to our reward system.[9] 

What We Want Versus What We Need

 A low calorie meal substitute for traditional fatty foods is not right for most of us on Thanksgiving. The problem with compulsive overeaters is that we use food for things for which food is an inappropriate substitute, such as love, or alleviation of boredom. Thus, every day is Thanksgiving for us in a way. We are not satisfied because food is almost the right substitution for loneliness, boredom or sexual frustration, but the operative word is almost.

You can never get enough of something that is almost the right thing.[10, 11] That is why eating non-palatable foods do not work for us. Feeling excluded and eating carrot sticks while everyone else feasts does not work for us either. Eating traditional holiday foods is among the ways people participate in family. What then is the solution because bingeing eating for over a month is not a viable option either.   You must establish new traditions, organized around healthy food and exercise for the Thanksgiving. You should aim to substitue exceptional for excess. Gobble gobble, and remain fabulous and phenomenal.     

Image by Dr. Gordon

Sidebar:  Recently Psychology Today was named the Top Website for Psychology and I was named one of the “30 Most Influential Neuroscientists Alive.”  Thank you very much. I am truly honored, and very grateful to be included on that list with such great scientists.    

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 1.      Corwin, R.L., N.M. Avena, and M.M. Boggiano, Feeding and reward: perspectives from three rat models of binge eating. Physiol Behav, 2011. 104(1): p. 87-97.

2.      Spangler, R., et al., Opiate-like effects of sugar on gene expression in reward areas of the rat brain. Brain Res Mol Brain Res, 2004. 124(2): p. 134-42.

3.      Carr, K.D., Food scarcity, neuroadaptations, and the pathogenic potential of dieting in an unnatural ecology: binge eating and drug abuse. Physiol Behav, 2011. 104(1): p. 162-7.

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5.      Stunkard, A.J. and K.C. Allison, Two forms of disordered eating in obesity: binge eating and night eating. Int J Obes Relat Metab Disord, 2003. 27(1): p. 1-12.

6.      Ramacciotti, C.E., et al., Shared psychopathology in obese subjects with and without binge-eating disorder. Int J Eat Disord, 2008. 41(7): p. 643-9.

7.      Napolitano, M.A. and S. Himes, Race, weight, and correlates of binge eating in female college students. Eat Behav, 2011. 12(1): p. 29-36.

8.      Kagan, D.M. and R.L. Squires, Eating disorders among adolescents: patterns and prevalence. Adolescence, 1984. 19(73): p. 15-29.

9.      Williams, D.L., Neural integration of satiation and food reward: Role of GLP-1 and orexin pathways. Physiol Behav, 2014.

10.    Willard, M.D., Obesity: types and treatments. Am Fam Physician, 1991. 43(6): p. 2099-108.

11.    Canetti, L., E. Bachar, and E.M. Berry, Food and emotion. Behav Processes, 2002. 60(2): p. 157-164.