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Why Snack Food Is Addictive: The Grand Unified Theory of Snack Appeal
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May 11, 2011
1:48 am
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snack ˈsnak (n) - a small amount of food eaten between meals

As I've pointed out before, snacking makes you both fat and weak. And as the beginning of "Eat Like A Predator" states, much of the purpose of a paleo diet is to let you avoid snacking entirely:

Predators gorge and fast; prey grazes.

Rephrased for modern humans: Predators eat meals, prey grazes on snacks. This means you need to eat meals which will carry you through to your next meal, but that won’t make you tired or sleepy.

So why is it so difficult to stop snacking? Why is snack food so uniquely addicting? Why can…

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May 11, 2011
6:50 am
Josh
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Another great article JS, excellent work. Between your site and Mark's Daily Apple, anyone could find the framework required to make the immense (and rewarding) paleo steps toward a healthier future.

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May 11, 2011
8:03 am
Peggy The Primal Par
Guest

You paint an entertaining (almost supernormal) picture as usual! I love it!

The points you make will be my arsenal at parties while defending my refusal to put their junk food offerings in my mouth.

Thanks for pointing us in the direction of Fat Fiction. There are some interesting theories bubbling over there, without a doubt.

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May 11, 2011
8:11 am
Beth@WeightMaven
Guest

This is a great piece! The only quibble I have is whether this is true only of snack foods -- or whether there's also a gradual blurring between "snack" foods and "meal" foods. Seems your thesis holds for the latter as well!

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May 11, 2011
8:11 am
Asclepius
Guest

Great post (again!). The diet industry is built on failure. I see most 'neo-foods' as being premised upon a similar approach - triggering reward receptors whilst ensuring malnourishment.

You can't beat eating 'close to the ground'. It keeps things simple.

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May 11, 2011
10:29 am
Katie @ Wellness Mam
Guest

another great post, as always!

Always makes me sad to see people checking out at the store with carts full of things that aren't even food, and then feeding these things to their kids! For kids especially, cooking healthy meals and preparing food by hand is a great opportunity to teach about nutritious food and how/why to make healthy eating choices. Our kids love helping in the garden, and their idea of a snack is running out and picking a radish or some spinach to eat.

As for foods one can spear- my husband took our son (age 4) hunting this year and they got a deer. Our son was fascinated with the whole process of butchering the deer and making sure nothing went to waste (they tanned the hide for a Christmas gift). Now he asks me at dinner what kind of dead animal we are eating...sigh

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May 11, 2011
3:46 pm
julianne
Guest

@Katie, I get asked that too buy our kids. No illusions that they are eating dead animals. My daughter does get upset though when I buy chicken hearts. About 30 is a tray - which represents 30 dead chicken, just a bit too much death to contemplate at one time.

@J S. Great piece - thanks so much. It frightens me the amount of snacking geared to children's lunchboxes in the snack isle at the supermarket. Cakes and biscuits masquerading as healthy snack food.

I completely concur with nutrient deficiency and weight problems. I noticed about 20 years ago that if I found myself eating when not hungry - a multi-vitamin usually cured the problem. This book is a good little read http://www.gabrielmethod.com.au/ The first of his rules is to add high nutrient food to your diet, before making any other changes like limiting junk food, the theory being that nutritional deficiencies cause you to eat and to hang on to fat.

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May 11, 2011
6:46 pm
Chris
Guest

I'm known to be able to stuff a few pounds of meat down my gullet in a sitting - but 50 eggs?

Plus we all know that a New York steak with a melted pat of butter tastes way better than Pringles (or Doritoes, or Oreos - yup I went THERE)

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May 12, 2011
1:16 am
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Josh:

Thank you!  The articles I write are gradually forming a coherent picture as I fill in the gaps, and I'm absolutely honored that you consider me on a level with MDA.

Peggy:

Others have written on the subject before (Guyenet, for one) but I don't recall anyone putting it together with protein and nutrient deficiency.  And I hope that drawing more attention to Mike's ideas gets some of the heavyweights to really dig into the theory and see how well it holds up.

Beth:

No, it applies to any food...although it's most apparent with snacks.  People expect to feel at least somewhat satiated after meals...but the "heart-healthy whole grains" propaganda has caused an alarming number of people to think they should feel satiated after eating lentils and brown rice, and to feel guilty that they don't.

Table bread is the classic example of junk food with a meal.  So is eating pasta with meatless marinara...I wonder how many pounds of fat have been gained at Fresh Choice and Olive Garden over the years?

Asclepius:

Exactly.  There's a parallel with consumer culture here: you want to sell people as much as possible -- but without actually satisfying any wants or needs -- so they'll keep buying more.

Katie:

Kids instinctively eat real food -- I know I always tried to pick the meat out of the stew -- but when their parents are starting their day with breakfast cereal and packing them Lunchables and their school is full of vending machines, the conditioning is pretty strong.

"What kind of dead animal are we eating today, Mom?"  I laughed.  People think their kids can't handle the truth: in reality, they're only reflecting your own squeamishness.  

Julianne:

Very interesting!  I'll have to look at the Gabriel Method some more.  And I agree: nutrient deficiency makes intuitive sense.  Even butterflies know to lick water off mineralized rocks, so it's hard to imagine that we don't have pre-conscious systems that cause us to seek out whatever we're deficient in.  The problem is the supernormal stimulus of the cookies in the cupboard, which we see and eat before we can find whatever it is we really need...just like the birds that can't resist sitting on the big fake plaster egg.

Chris:

It seemed like a nice round number.

JS

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May 15, 2011
9:55 am
Juan
Guest

@JS Thank you for a nicely written piece that is remarkably brief considering how broadly informative and well reasoned it is. (Concision defined!) I am definitely putting this one in my quiver. Putting together your own thoughts along with the highly likely aspect of malnutrition, or at least, sub-optimal nutrition that accompanies all the non-foods and birdseed we are told to eat makes a whole lot of good sense.
By the way, I wanted to let you know that I read The Gnoll Credo and truly enjoyed it. I am recommending it and your blog to anyone who will listen...or are within earshot. Also, I enjoyed your interview with Angelo Coppola on This Week in Paleo. Your star is rising!!

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May 15, 2011
4:20 pm
Katie J
Guest

I broke a 21 hr. fast a little while ago and I wanted a snack. My snack was a couple of stuffed jalapeno peppers wrapped in bacon. After I ate I was sitting at my computer drinking a glass of iced tea and I had a physical sensation come over me. From head to toe a slight shiver and then total relaxation and a feeling of profound peace. It was akin to a sexual or religious experience. A most satisfying snack.

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May 15, 2011
6:00 pm
Link Love | fabulous
Guest

[...] Why Snacking is Addictive.  I’m not a huge snacker, but this makes so much sense. [...]

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May 16, 2011
12:28 pm
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February 22, 2010
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Juan:

Thank you!  I'm always trying to put the many different parts of dietary and behavioral science together to form a picture that people can understand and act on.  Anyone can write a diet book that says "do this, and this, and this"...I want people to understand how their mind and body work so that they can make good decisions for themselves, and not be bamboozled by the next diet book (or blog) that tries to drag you a totally different direction.

I'm glad you enjoyed The Gnoll Credo!  Gryka's wonderful, isn't she?  I greatly appreciate the word of mouth: since neither Oprah nor the New York Times took notice, readers like you telling others is the only way people will know about it.  And, frankly, I'd rather people buy the book based on genuine enjoyment than on media hype.  "The next big thing" has a way of becoming "last week's news".

JS

PS: Juan was too modest to link his website, but he's a strong portrait artist whose work can be viewed at juanmartinez.com.

Katie:

Bacon is magical, isn't it?  It's what we put on other things to make them taste better.  

I think if you wrap bacon around anything, it becomes a meal, not a snack.  Whatever it was, it now contains complete protein and a big dollop of animal fat.

I'm about a day and a half into a fast myself.  Not sure how long I'll go or what I'll break it with, but odds are good that bacon will be involved in some way.

JS

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May 17, 2011
6:07 am
Juan
Guest

@JS
Thanks for your kind comments in return! Although art is my profession, fitness and nutrition are certainly amongst my hobbies (obsessions, maybe?). I read tons of books and blogs in these fields, as I know you and many of your readers do. The real knack, however, is to piece it all together so that others might cotton on to the truths of it. And, you seem to possess that trait as well as, or better than, anyone. Again; concision. Or in other words, you're doing the work for us and I, for one, recognize and appreciate that.

As far as The Gnoll Credo is concerned, well, although the story is unique and compelling, I think its implications might be too disquieting for, say, Oprah and perhaps not dystopian enough to attract the jaded cognoscenti of the NYTimes. (How’s that for wildly assumptive generalizations?). In any case, I shall do what I can to spread the word.

And, finally, bacon. There simply is no food or dish that cannot be enhanced by the addition of bacon. It’s the new black.

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May 19, 2011
10:14 am
Paleo Pepper »
Guest

[...] Why snacking makes us both weak and fat [...]

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June 21, 2011
5:43 pm
Around the Web, Food
Guest

[...] JS Stanton has an outstanding post at Gnolls.org: Why Snack Food Is Addictive: The Grand Unified Theory of Snack Appeal. [...]

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June 22, 2011
12:53 pm
Juan
Guest

Aside from everything you stated above, junk food also messes with us our hormones. High Fructose Corn Syrup (HFCS), which is found in basically every snack there is out there, blocks the messenger (leptin) that tells our brain to stop eating. This is the reason why we feel like we can eat snacks and fruit drinks for ever.

Really enjoyed the post. Helped me gain some new weapons.
If you want to read more on HFCS why it is a poison you can read my blog post at http://www.thesuperherobody.com/weight-loss-resources/fructose-is-not-glucose/

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June 23, 2011
1:09 am
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February 22, 2010
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Juan:

Yes, I've seen the Lustig video before.  But it's not just HFCS, it's anything that contains large quantities of fructose.  Orange juice is basically just Coca-Cola with a couple vitamins.

JS

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July 1, 2011
6:35 am
Snack Time « F
Guest

[...] at this site, but if you haven’t  take some time to check out this article from Gnolls.com- Why Snack Food Is Addictive: The Grand Unified Theory of Snack Appeal. They also discuss the idea that is, the supernormal stimulus of taste. It’s an interesting [...]

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July 4, 2011
9:49 pm
fleeber
Guest

You make mention of the same studies found in Deidre Barrett's book Supernormal Stimuli without a single mention. For shame.
http://www.amazon.com/Supernormal-Stimuli-Overran-Evolutionary-Purpose/dp/039306848X

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