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North Americans spend huge amounts of money on eating out: annually $2,000 per every American. Fast food restaurant meals make our life easier, but they also make us addicted to sugar, salt and fat.

A Dumpster-Diving Doctor Discovers the Secrets of Chain Restaurant Food

North Americans spend incredible amounts of money on eating out. In the United States, there are nearly 470,000 restaurants that sell $558 billion worth of food every year—almost $2,000 per year for every child and every adult in the country. In Canada, which has about 1/10 the population of the USA, there 86,915 commercial food service establishments, nearly twice the number per capita as in the neighboring United States.
  • Calorie for calorie, carb for carb, restaurant food requires your body to make more insulin than food you can make at home. Insulin stores both sugar and fat. If you consume sugar and fat at the same time, insulin will store excess fat first. Blood sugar levels will rise higher than if you at carbs without fat, and rising blood sugar levels will force your muscles and liver to become resistant to insulin—forcing your body to make still more insulin. The combination of sugar and fat makes your body store more fat, and sets up the sequence of events that can lead to type 2 diabetes.
  • Eating the same restaurant food over and over trains your brain to look for cues that sugar, salt, and fat are available. Eventually your mouth will begin to water when you see the golden arches of McDonald's. Or just seeing an apple will make you crave a favorite meal at Applebee's. Many restaurant chains now make their entrees available as frozen foods in the freezer section of your supermarket to capitalize on the associations your brain makes with their logos.
  • Restaurant food is laced with other chemicals that encourage your appetite. The buns and bread at some fast food places, for instance, list sugar and MSG as their second and third ingredients. Sugar in the bun melds with fat and salt in the meat and special sauce. Your tongue has receptors that register the savory, umami taste of MSG, and so does your stomach. Restaurant chains use chemicals that not only tickle your tongue's taste buds, they also activate flavor receptors in the stomach, small intestine, and pancreas.

Breaking your addictions to eating out can help you avoid weight gain. Breaking your addictions to eating out can help you avoid fat gain. Eating out less often can also save you thousands of dollars every year.

So how can you enjoy eating at home?

  • Eat out when you feel bad. Eat at home when you feel good. Associating restaurant food with unhappy experiences helps break your addictions to eating out. Associating homemade food with happy experiences helps reinforce your enjoyment of healthy food.
  • Save your favorite foods for special occasions. Don't make your favorite foods as a pick-me-up. Make your favorite foods for celebrations. Your brain will come to associate these foods with good times—at home or with friends.
  • Whenever appropriate, use vanilla in your home recipes. Almost all brands of infant formula are flavored with vanilla. The brain comes to associate vanilla with the security of infancy. Even tiny amounts of vanilla can influence your preference for a food. Food manufacturers know this and add vanilla to everything from ketchup to pickles to cheese sauce.
  • Use the color scheme of your favorite restaurant when you eat at home. If you are a McDonald's addict, for example, eat off red and gold plates.
  • Use the dominant flavor profile of your favorite restaurant dish when you cook at home—but make something low-calorie and low-fat. If you like the thyme and sage of Kentucky fried chicken, for instance, use thyme and sage to make a turkey meat loaf at home.
  • When you visit a fast food place, choose the location farthest from your home. The Framingham Heart Study has found that for every additional 1 km (0.6) mile women have to travel to the nearest fast-food restaurant, weight is reduced by about 1%.
And when you do eat out, try something new. You may find a new favorite food—but you won't be indulging an old food addiction.

  • Block JP, Christakis NA, O'Malley AJ, Subramanian SV. Proximity to Food Establishments and Body Mass Index in the Framingham Heart Study Offspring Cohort Over 30 Years. Am J Epidemiol. 2011 Sep 30. [Epub ahead of print]
  • Will MJ, Franzblau EB, Kelley AE. Nucleus accumbens mu-opioids regulate intake of a high-fat diet via activation of a distributed brain network. J Neurosci. 2003 Apr 1.23(7):2882-8.
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