From Pleasure Eating to Binge Eating, a Story of Evolution
We didn't always have food at our fingertips like we do now. Imagining what food would be good, planning how you could get it, which store to go to, dreaming up your next meal or snack to accommodate any taste preference or desire you have at the moment; it wasn't always like this.
Early in our evolution, up to about 10,000 years ago when our ancestors first began planting seeds and growing wild crop, we had the never-ending task of getting enough to eat. To ensure our survival, we evolved with reward centres in our brain to encourage behaviours that were of utmost importance- reproduction, being accepted within our tribe, and eating nutritious food, especially foods of higher density which provided more energy. A concoction of brain chemicals would send feelings of pleasure, satisfaction and reward when we moved toward that which would best ensure our survival.
For about 300,000 years modern humans lived within the limits of food availability, over time learning to alter their landscape, farm, cook bread, ferment, preserve, domesticate animals, share and sell food, and divide community rolls, all while finding more protection within larger societies, and having more time to create and evolve knowledge. The good life was upon us.
This never-ending motivation of humans comes from three underlying forces- to seek that which is pleasurable, to avoid that which causes pain, and to conserve as much energy as we can, all with the goal of survival.
Fast forward to 1894, Cornflakes, 1926, Spam, 1950's, chicken nuggets, 1957, high-fructose corn syrup, 1959, Tang. We've been getting good at this stuff. Then comes the first recorded account of binge eating- 1959.
As the evolution of food has continued, so has our motivational triad - seeking pleasure, avoiding pain, conserving energy. Today we're able to access highly pleasurable, high energy, concentrated foods, at any time, from the comfort of our car if we wish. We can even choose this option to escape pain- if you're having a bad day, are suffering emotionally, feel stressed or lonely- food solves it, at least temporarily. Not only are those options available to us, but this availability of highly concentrated and highly processed food seems to trap our motivational system for pleasure. The extreme pleasure that these foods give us essentially raises the bar of desired pleasure that we seek. Instead of travelling far and wide and being rewarded with small (but worthwhile) amounts of pleasure for finding important food and then seeking it again, we're being heavily rewarded simply for hanging around, eating highly processed, factory made foods.
In fact, this evolution of highly processed foods being available follows a similar evolution of when thinness started to become 'in'. Now that's a tough one. Every signal from the primitive survival part of our brain is telling us to access this highly pleasurable food for its (assumed) survival needs, and at the same time we're told from society at large to watch what we eat. This conflict of desires- to be thin, but also to consume modern concentrated foods until satiation (a natural response), is exactly what sets binge eating in motion for the majority of people who struggle, and it perpetuates the binge eating cycle. The feelings of regret and lack of control for eating too much of the exact foods that our brain rewards us for eating, sends most binge eaters into a quest for control and restriction- which significantly decreases the amount of pleasure their brain has become used to receiving. Enter, cravings and urges to binge.
The modern landscape and availability of these highly rewarding foods makes it hard to stop eating them. They're everywhere, we start eating them when we were kids, and it's socially acceptable and often encouraged. This push-pull of desire- desire to eat the food for pleasure, and desire to restrict the food to satisfy modern beauty standards has us caught in a loop we can't seem to get out of. And often the more one tries to restrict their food intake (think dramatic diets, fasting, vowing to not eat this or that), the more the survival part of one's brain is activated to steer you back to the calorically dense, pleasure foods. It's a smart move from an evolution/survival standpoint, but a tough one to navigate in our modern world.
In order to navigate this pleasure-flooded world of food, we have to take a step back and understand that our brains are doing what they're designed for. Food gives us pleasure, it can distract us from pain, and we're able to access it without exerting too much energy. The availability of modern food is everything that we could ask for, from a motivational-triad and evolution standpoint. But the pleasure doesn't last for long. For binge eaters it's followed by negative emotions, feelings and thoughts, and many physical repercussions too. And this painful follow-up to overeating- the despair of weight gain, the shame, the depressed feeling that can set in, leaves us seeking pleasure yet again to escape the pain.
When we're ready to get out of this cycle, we have to be willing to feel a less-than desirable amount of pleasure. Basically, it may suck for a while. Think of the headaches when you stop drinking coffee. Think detox, cravings, thoughts that you don't care and you can live with the weight and depression as long as you get that ice-cream. They'll be waiting for you. But when you see them as that primitive part of your brain simply doing its job- to encourage you to get highly concentrated foods, you'll be able to distance yourself from the cravings, and over time your brain will adapt and re-set it's pleasure calibration. Then, our modern foods become over-stimulating, too much to handle, your tolerance for such stimulating food will go down. And that bowl of strawberries, or your morning oatmeal will satisfy you fully and create gentle feelings of pleasure and well-being. And eventually, your innate desire for well-being and pleasure will lead you to ways of fulfilling that desire outside of modern food- connections with friends, accomplishing goals, personal growth, making yourself proud, chasing dreams.
Though our brain may get the message that highly concentrated food is the end-all be-all, it's far from it. There are much greater rewards to be found outside of our primitive drives, and the feeling of true well-being is much more satisfying than any fleeting pleasure that food can give us, no matter how hard the food industry tries.