Processed Food, Supernormal Stimuli, and Obesity

Obesity has dramatically increased in the U.S. over the past several decades, and what Americans eat has a lot to do with it. In this article we’ll look at the links between processed food, supernormal stimuli, and obesity.

The following chart shows the trend, taken from the CDC.


Surprisingly, the percentage of people who are merely overweight, with a body mass index (BMI) of 25 to 29.9, has remained fairly steady. But the percentage of the obese, with BMI >30, and morbidly obese, BMI >40, has radically increased.

Naturally, the question is, why?

The following chart may be part of the answer. It shows the top ten sources of calories for Americans, and comes from the National Dietary Guidelines, 2010.


Virtually everything on here is garbage: high carbohydrate and/or high sugar, or cooked in cancer-causing vegetable oils, and with little nutrient content.

Grain-based desserts was the top calorie source. This category includes “cake, cookies, pie, cobbler, sweet rolls, pastries, and donuts”. Even in the old days, before people cared much about healthy eating, everyone knew that these kinds of foods made you fat.

Bread, pasta, pizza, and burritos are prominent among food sources. These are more empty calories that raise blood sugar and insulin and predispose to obesity.

Soda, energy drinks, and alcohol are the top liquid calorie sources.

Before you get too excited about “chicken and chicken mixed dishes”, thinking, finally, some protein, this category includes “fried or baked chicken parts and chicken strips/patties, chicken stir-fries, chicken casseroles, chicken sandwiches, chicken salads, stewed chicken, and other chicken mixed dishes”. In other words, mainly a lot of processed, frozen, and fast-food junk.

Processed food and supernormal stimuli

Why do people eat this stuff? I can think of a few reasons.

  1. It’s cheap: bread and other high-carbohydrate food made with flour doesn’t cost much. The cheap factor also makes for higher profit margins for food companies, so they push it.
  2. They don’t know any better. When the establishment told us that cholesterol and saturated fat was bad for us and caused heart disease — which we now know to be utterly false — they also told us that sugar and carbs were benign — we also now know that to be false. So people eat this junk thinking it won’t hurt them.
  3. It’s everywhere. Given that most fast-food joints and grocery stores sell mainly this junk, and that that is what most people eat, it’s difficult to eat anything but the norm. I can attest to this. If you want to eat healthy, most of the time that will mean preparing your own meals and eating at home.
  4. It tastes good, and people with low impulse control don’t care about what they eat today will do to them tomorrow.

On this last note, that it tastes good, most people would certainly like to be lean, but they also want tasty food, and are unwilling to make the compromise.

Food companies have designed their products to be super tasty, even if that taste is of what we might call a low-rent, vulgar taste. This is the principle of supernormal stimuli.

Nobel Laureate Nikolaas Tinbergen developed the concept of the supernormal stimulus. He found, among other things, that birds would prefer to incubate a large, gaudy, artificial egg rather than their own. The artificial egg was more appealing and made the brain circuits associated with incubating behavior light up even more than the real eggs did.

In humans, pornography is an example of a supernormal stimulus that overrides the Coolidge effect.

The same concept can be applied to food. The junk food purveyors have taken great care to make their artificial foods as tasty as possible. Through intensive research, they’ve discovered what will do this.

Sugar is one such supernormal stimulus. It’s present in only small amounts in the ancestral environment, but because we seem to be attuned to seeking it out, putting large amounts in food makes that food extra tasty.

Arguably, other foods like pizza and donuts fall into the same category: combinations of ingredients that make for such tasty food that we can’t resist.

An end to the obesity epidemic?

Nope. Ain’t gonna happen.

How to avoid being a victim of the obesity epidemic

The obesogenic nature of the kind of foods that most people eat means that you must largely avoid them.

Because of the supernormal stimuli embedded in them, the best course of action in my opinion is to avoid them at all costs. Supernormal stimuli cause addiction, and they may make your steak and eggs, foods that you should be eating, less appealing.

For most people, unless they have plenty of money to throw around, this means preparing food and eating at home. Avoid the center of the grocery store, where processed junk and soda are sols, and shop around the outside, where you’ll find whole, unprocessed food like meat, cheese, eggs, and vegetables.

I have found a few options for eating out, such as a whole grilled chicken at my local Mexican eatery, but generally most eating out options are more expensive if you don’t want processed high-carb food.

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Processed Food, Supernormal Stimuli, and Obesity | Technology and Longevity Feed says October 4, 2016

[…] Original Article: Processed Food, Supernormal Stimuli, and Obesity […]

jer says October 4, 2016

supernormal stimuli is the root cause of so many ills in society. it explains so much… the key thing to realise is that people know something is wrong while doing the behaviour. “it’s so good but so wrong” is the refrain of the modern age. i think it’s hard to say that people dont know that what they are doing is wrong (as the saying indicates). it is not an invisible insidious disease. and yet they cannot stop. they choose to ignore the consequences. it is rather nihilistic.

they have the correct logic – they know it will end badly. but the reward centre tells them to screw logic, it’s about the feel good factor. and the reward centre generally wins. it doesnt matter what negative information is shown them. it’s despairing.

and save for the most determined single minded people, the only way the behaviour will stop is if the stimulus is removed completely. out of sight. out of mind. the emotions at work cannot be reasoned with and cannot co-exist with the logical choice as they will triumph in the end.

am i “projecting”? probably!

    P. D. Mangan says October 4, 2016

    I’m not immune from the lures of that stuff. My strategy is, as you say, to keep it away from myself and when I’m around it not to indulge.

Montgomery says October 4, 2016

Supernormal stimuli are also the basis for practically all profitability – and ruling power of our superiors.
Today, people are not leashed into submission; they are tempted into it.
The great fear for most people is not to starve or freeze – today’s motivational terror is to experience a lack of pleasure – the dread of not continually triggering the pleasure center in the brain.

Immediate gratification, ever more intense, ever more immediate, is the track we’re on.
People reward themselves with pleasures in ever higher frequency, with ever higher doses.
In many, mere minutes pass before the next snack, the next porn, the next entertainment, the
next smartphone check is sought and used.
Philosophers ages ago proved that hedonism is a lie; yet most people do not care.

It reminds me a bit about the rat experiment in which rats got an electrical wire right into their brain’s pleasure
center – when they pulled a little lever, a tiny current was induced, and the reward center was triggered.
All rats only pulled the trigger, doing nothing, not even drinking water or sleeping, until they died.

Sugar, sugar water, and electronic entertainment seem pretty much to work for humans the same way.

Montgomery says October 4, 2016

Maybe a way to deal with it is hatred.
I know it sounds – weird, but it works for me quite well.

I feel attacked by … smug people above me who are, as I see it, try to exploit me, try to make me
into a submissive marionette through the lures, the emotional, pleasurable traps and snares they
put out to get people.
Be it gambling, fast food, entertainment – it all shares a common aspect:
Some (probably) superior people try to enslave, manipulate and exploit inferior people,
reducing them to kind of animals by what is basically Pavlovian conditioning.
Behind every vice, and almost all pleasures, we have a powerful industry.

I am not a leftie, and I am not a friendly person: If I could manage it, I would exploit and manipulate
inferior, weaker, more stupid people, too. The profit in that is way to high, and all morals are, as far
as I know, only smoke and mirrors to further the interests of a minority over a majority, basically
a ruling technique.

I see it as this:
If someone boxes my hard in the face, I react with aggression and hate – and this is a motivational
energy, a momentum to defend myself.
The superior people, with their “offerings” of pleasures to indulge in – which ultimately will make me
into an ill, weak, submissive slave of them – are of the same category: They are an aggression, an attack
on me, an effort to subdue me under their will.
And from there I get the mental power to resist many a temptation they throw at me, because I always
can use my hatred to gain the motivation to overcome their temptations.

Maybe the great push in media to “listen to your heart” and “love” is also about enslavement:
“Listen to your heart” is basically “do what you feel”, e.g., impulsivity, lack of cognitive control, lack
of impulse control, indulgence in whims.
“Love” is basically a submissive drive – certainly not aggressive or unruly. “Love” has to do a lot
with being a slave. Also, in the evolutionary sense, love is just a brain mechanism to kill off inferior
life – for those who are not “lovable” (fit, successful, beautiful) are not being loved.

Emotionally, a constant base level of hatred, of wrath, of healthy egoism, even if it sounds weird, is possibly the better way to emotionally self-regulate to deal successfully with the world.

As a living being, one’s motivation must come from somewhere – and hatred, carefully controlled, has
a lot of advantages, not the least being that it can be made into an unlimited supply, which is not
true for all other forms of motivational emotion-regulation I am aware of.

In the very least, I think that at least a level of defiance, as a mild form of hatred, must be the base
of personal achievement and resisting of the organized destructive temptations one is exposed to today.

    Jonas says October 5, 2016

    Actually, I kind of agree. Although in my case not displayed as downright hatred, my default position is definitely against when someone tries to shove a new, stupid product or braindead idea down my throat. So with this reasoning, the (vain, if you will) drive to preserve one’s autonomy might be, literally, what allows us to remain, slim, strong and attractive.

Vicente says October 4, 2016

“most people would certainly like to be lean, but they also want tasty food, and are unwilling to make the compromise”

I am not sure people know there is a compromise to be made. Are they correctly informed about what to eat to be healthy and to control their body weight? IMO, most people aren’t because official recommendations are BS.

    P. D. Mangan says October 4, 2016

    Vicente, you have a point, and I think that’s at least a partial explanation. But it’s a common experience for me and others when we explain that we don’t eat bread (or whatever) to hear the reply, “I could never live without bread (or whatever)”. So I think many people wouldn’t change. Lots of others are very resistant as far as explanations; for instance when I recently published my article on the benefits of high cholesterol at The Mission, one commenter said it was crazy and another called me a charlatan. So, some people won’t change, others won’t listen, and some don’t have correct information but would change if they got it.

      Vicente says October 5, 2016

      That’s exactly what my uncle told me when I advised to him a LCHF for his recent T2D. But he doesn’t have correct information because the sources he trusts, i.e. medical doctors, are not telling him what his options really are. As long as the official sources are giving people wrong information, I am not sure we can blame the victims, even when WE have told them they are being fooled and that their medical doctors are wrong.

garymarHIT says October 4, 2016

All very true.

Actually, I now naturally shop the outer perimeter of the supermarket on my weekly shopping forays. Fruits and vegetables are at the entrance, followed by fish, meat and dairy at the back and far side. Natto and pickles and eggs on the very outer edge of the inner aisles. Then I’ll dart into the dense aisles to pick up some vinegar, wine, and of course some snacks!

I got this from going semi “Paleo” about 6 years ago. Paleo for me was just a kind of stepping-stone to eating whole foods. As you say, you’ve got to cook it yourself. Although we do indulge in thin-crust pizza delivery from time to time (vegetarian only, the meat is way too salty).

BeesMakeHoney says October 5, 2016

What about all of the people that eat like this but aren’t obese, or even overweight?
Why are they outliers? What is different for them?

    P. D. Mangan says October 5, 2016

    For starters, only 30% of the population is at normal weight, and even many of these are so-called metabolically obese. One would have to do a more precise comparison to see how much of this kind of food is eaten by normal weight vs obese people. But one characteristic of people who don’t become over weight with food like this is probably good insulin sensitivity. Accordingly, many of them are young. Finally, different genotypes will mean that people respond differently to a given diet, some gaining more weight than others.

Jokah Macpherson says October 5, 2016

On the topic of supernormal stimuli, I’ve started using a similar strategy on food cravings that I used for porn cravings. Just like I would ask myself, “If you’re really this horny, just jerk off without porn,” and usually be forced to admit the sexual release wasn’t what I really craved, when I’m feeling really hungry I’ll ask myself if I’m hungry enough to scarf down, say, a bowl of collard greens, and usually the answer is no, I’m not actually hungry, I’m just craving the hit that comes from eating a chocolate-chip cookie.

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