The Priming Reflex: How to Control Your Appetite (And Turn Your Back on a Million Years of Evolution)

Why do "appetizers" make us hungrier, when in theory they should make us less hungry? Why is it so easy to keep picking and nibbling at the food in front of us, even when we're full? And why do we always have room for dessert?

It's all because of priming.

Psychologists use the term priming to explain why people become reflexively hungry in the presence of a large supply of tasty food.

There's a simple logic to why this trait exists. Back in prehistoric times, food was scarce and infrequently available. That delicious mammoth that your tribe just roasted up might just be your last meal for a while. Having the ability to summon an enormous appetite so you could consume extra food would significantly increase your odds of surviving until the next mammoth roast. That's why it made a ton of sense for our brains to develop adaptations which would enable us to eat far beyond satiety when the (infrequent) opportunity arose.

In the modern era, however, we are constantly surrounded by cheap, palatable and energy-dense foods. And this has turned the priming reflex into a singularly harmful adaptation. It drives us to wolf down our food, ingest calories far beyond our needs, and worse, do it again the next day, the day after that, and the day after that. After all, the food never runs out, and neither, it seems, do our appetites. As a result, priming has become one of the key drivers behind the global obesity pandemic.

What can you do to help fight off the priming reflex? How can you stop it from subverting your health and your diet?

1) Wait.
Everyone knows that the sensation of fullness occurs with a lag. Your stomach always waits a good twenty to thirty minutes before it decides to tell your brain that it's full. This time lag is in fact a key part of the priming reflex, because it makes it lot easier to eat beyond satiety.

The trick is to recognize that those twenty to thirty minutes are the most precious minutes of mealtime. They offer you a fulcrum moment: you can overeat during that time and hardly notice, or you can take your time, slow down and eat sparingly for the first half hour of your meal. These delaying tactics will allow your brain to catch up to your stomach, helping you push away from the table without eating too much and without feeling hungry or deprived. (See more ideas on how to avoid overeating at the dinner table.)

2) Think, don't react.
Remember, priming is just a reflex. It's nothing more than an autonomic urge. You, however, are are much more than the product of your reflexes and urges: you're an intelligent human being, blessed with an enormous cerebrum that sits up on top of those unruly, instinct-based parts of your brain. If you use your higher brain to intellectualize the urges and appetites you experience, you'll find that your unhealthy instincts and reflexes suddenly have a lot less power:

"I know that chili relleno platter looks amazing to me right now, but if I eat the whole thing I will feel awful in an hour. If I split it with my friend, then I'll still get to taste plenty of food, and I won't regret it later."

Having a quick internal dialog like this is a great way to bring higher-order mental processes into an eating situation. If you can train yourself to have a higher-brain conversation like this each time you sit down to eat, you'll find it a lot easier to outwit the priming reflex.

3) Notice.
Finally, build a habit of using noticing and mindfulness techniques every time you sit down to eat. Pay close attention to the taste, smell and sensation of your food, starting with the very first bite. Chew slowly and carefully, and take the time to savor and enjoy the full experience of eating. Do this throughout your meal.

Mindful eating is in fact a perfect synergy of all three of today's eating tips. It helps you enjoy your food on an intellectual (higher brain) level, rather than a reflexive (lower brain) level. It slows you down. And most importantly, while you're carefully chewing your food, you're also chewing up the clock, making it all the more easy to use up that critical 20-30 minutes of critical "fulcrum time" while your brain catches up to your stomach. Result? You will eat much less, yet still leave the table perfectly satisfied with your meal.

Remember, hunger is often a highly misleading mental state, and the priming urge causes us to experience hunger far out of proportion to our nutritional and caloric needs. With the help of our higher brains and a few minor habit changes at the dinner table, we can permanently put the priming instinct where it belongs--in the dustbin of human history.

Wait, think and notice, and recognize that hunger doesn't have to be mindlessly obeyed.

Related Posts:
Applying the 80/20 Rule to Diet, Food and Cooking
Ten Strategies to Stop Mindless Eating
Guess What? We Spend Less Than Ever on Food
A Recession-Proof Guide to Saving Money on Food

I owe a debt of gratitude to David Kessler's The End of Overeating: Taking Control of the Insatiable American Appetite for prompting me to think about the issues in this post.

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Laura said...

Thank you for this thought-provoking post! A whole host of life experiences (really great experiences) has left me with a bad habit (really bad habit) of eating too fast and, consequently, too much. Your post has given me something to think about when I sit down to a meal, which is another thing I have to force myself to do and which is also helpful in making me think about what I'm eating. When I don't sit down, I tend to graze, which is as bad as eating too fast. Sigh. It's always something, eh? :-)

Chloe (Naturally Frugal) said...

Great post CK! I am definitely guilty of eating too fast, especially when I let my hunger get out of control. Recently I've been trying to focus more on enjoying my food and slowing down my meals, even if I have to set a time in order to make the meal last.

Daniel said...

Laura, thanks for your insights. I think most of us are guilty of mindless eating at one time or another.

Hi Chloe, thanks as always for reading. One of the techniques I use is to chew my food for longer. I also try to make a habit of deliberately setting my fork down and just sitting there at the table for a moment or two during each meal. It really helps me slow down.


Charmian @ Christie's Corner said...

Reaaaalllly interesting post. Given this information it makes sense that obesity rates have increased as the sit-down dinner disappears.

While I'm occasionally guilty of mindless munching, I find appetizers fill me up and try to avoid them. On the other hand. I almost ALWAYS have room for dessert...

My Year Without said...

I, too, loved Kessler's The End of Overeating, as well as Wansink's MINDLESS EATING. Great post really reeled me in!

Daniel said...

Hi MYW, thanks for stopping by! Yep, both books are worth reading to learn how our brains can really entrap us into eating more than we want or need. Thanks for your comment.