Our Own Mouths Betray Us

In the previous post, we saw how babies arrive with an innate love of sweetness, which generally does not fade with age, but all too often grows more extreme. As the author Michael Moss points out, along with sweetness we also crave variety, so it is no surprise that a grocery store’s cereal aisle contains a couple of hundred permutations of grain-based, air-expanded, hyper-sweetened products with which to start our days.

The thing is, sugar is packed with calories, and evolution has taught us to associate calories with staving off death — even if, in truth, the individual already weighs 300 pounds. Our oldest impulses are based on very simple principles, like “fuel equals life.” Moss says,

We have sensors in the gut and possibly in the mouth that tell us how many calories we’re eating, and the more calories there are, the more excited the brain gets, which makes us vulnerable to the processed-food industry’s snacks, jam-packed as they are with a day’s worth of calories we can eat in one sitting.

We previously mentioned another work by Moss, The Extraordinary Science of Addictive Junk Food, wherein the author revealed that one fast-food company alone employed 500 chemists, technicians, and psychologists devoted to studying the crunchiness, mouth feel, and the perfect snapping point of a chip in order to get us to consume more of their hyper-processed pseudo-foods.

More dark magic

Moss also explained how we are hypnotized by a factor called vanishing caloric density, where if something melts quickly in the mouth, the brain does not register that it is actually fuel. Since, like the body, the brain needs fuel, it gives the okay to just keep eating that stuff all day long.

The book Salt Sugar Fat, which Moss published in 2013, spilled all the secrets about how clever chemists conspire to render us helpless before their products. The public became familiar with such erudite terms as “mouth feel” and “bliss point.” In another context, Moss wrote about the sneaky allure of a fat/sugar combination, saying,

I couldn’t resist drawing an analogy to the realm of narcotics. If sugar is the amphetamine of processed food ingredients, with its high-speed blunt assault on our brains, then fat is the opiate, a smooth operator whose effects are less obvious but no less powerful.

Fat, sugar, and salt all can influence the brain’s chemistry in the direction of overeating, says epidemiologist Dr. Adam Drewnowski, who directs the University of Washington’s Center for Obesity Research. To a recent textbook, Dr. Drewnowski contributed a chapter titled “Human Perceptions and Preferences for Fat-Rich Foods.” Jed Diamond says,

He found that eating foods that are high in fat content, particularly those that also were sweet and salty, stimulated the same brain centers as drugs like heroin. In fact, the same drugs that block the desire for heroin block the desire for fatty foods.

As Dr. Drewnowski noted, the generic drug naloxone, typically used to reverse an opiate overdose, can also suppress a person’s desire for opiates. In the same way, it can even reverse or suppress a person’s taste preference for sugar/fat mixtures.

This is interesting in light of the fact that just this week, the Food and Drug Administration okayed its sale (brand name Narcan) without a prescription. Will we now see droves of overweight people crowding the pharmacies in search of naloxone in hopes of squelching their food cravings?

Your responses and feedback are welcome!

Source: “Op-Ed: Big Food wants us addicted to junk food,” LATimes.com, 06/06/21
Source: “Are Fat, Sugar, and Salt the New Heroin, Meth, and Cocaine?” Medium.com, 09/22/20
Image by mroach/CC BY-SA 2.0

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OVERWEIGHT: What Kids Say explores the obesity problem from the often-overlooked perspective of children struggling with being overweight.

About Dr. Robert A. Pretlow

Dr. Robert A. Pretlow is a pediatrician and childhood obesity specialist. He has been researching and spreading awareness on the childhood obesity epidemic in the US for more than a decade.
You can contact Dr. Pretlow at:


Dr. Pretlow’s invited presentation at the American Society of Animal Science 2020 Conference
What’s Causing Obesity in Companion Animals and What Can We Do About It

Dr. Pretlow’s invited presentation at the World Obesity Federation 2019 Conference:
Food/Eating Addiction and the Displacement Mechanism

Dr. Pretlow’s Multi-Center Clinical Trial Kick-off Speech 2018:
Obesity: Tackling the Root Cause

Dr. Pretlow’s 2017 Workshop on
Treatment of Obesity Using the Addiction Model

Dr. Pretlow’s invited presentation for
TEC and UNC 2016

Dr. Pretlow’s invited presentation at the 2015 Obesity Summit in London, UK.

Dr. Pretlow’s invited keynote at the 2014 European Childhood Obesity Group Congress in Salzburg, Austria.

Dr. Pretlow’s presentation at the 2013 European Congress on Obesity in Liverpool, UK.

Dr. Pretlow’s presentation at the 2011 International Conference on Childhood Obesity in Lisbon, Portugal.

Dr. Pretlow’s presentation at the 2010 Uniting Against Childhood Obesity Conference in Houston, TX.

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