Why Do We Overeat and How to Fight That?
Today, I wonder why most people overeat and do this with a special gusto? I refer to a book called “The End of Overeating” by David Kessler.
The Problematic Situation
Meet Sarah, a finely-dressed American woman who is attending a seminar about Conscious Eating. She says with a nervous giggle:
“I eat all the time!”
“I eat when I am hungry, I eat when I am not hungry. I eat to celebrate. I eat when I am sad. I eat at night. I eat when my husband comes home.”
She eats and eats and eats. All that makes her feel fat and ugly and frustrated. She feels like she lacks the willpower to lead a healthy lifestyle. She doesn’t like herself. She doesn’t have a positive self-image.
Another compulsive overeater – Andrew says: – “I wake up in the morning knowing that food is my enemy and I am my enemy.” This attitude is hard to control. It’s not only Andrew. It’s not nice to be your own enemy. Why can some people keep eating to the point of being sick?
While writing his book The End of Overeating David Kessler asks himself: “Why the determination to change your lifestyle to a healthier one so easily collapses?”
Sugar, fat and salt sell.
Eating promotes more eating.
Robert De Niro compared losing weight to the struggle of an alcoholic who tries to stay sober.
The deliciousness and the smell of palatable foods–the cold creamy milkshake, the chocolate cake aroma, the crispy chicken wings sweetened with honey-mustard sauce stimulate the appetite. It is that stimulation or the anticipation of it, rather than genuine hunger, which makes us eat food long after we satisfy our needs. Especially tasting delicious gourmet releases endorphins, the body’s pleasure hormones. By eating high-sugar or high-fat foods we can relieve stress or pain and calm down. In the short run, they make us feel better than raw broccoli.
A few scientists made an interesting experiment with birds. The ethnologist Nikolaas Tinbergen discovered something astonishing. When given a choice between brooding its own small eggs and the giant egg of a much larger bird, the oystercatcher invariably chose to sit on the giant one. Why do birds prefer eggs that are biologically impossible for them to have laid?
We notice the same behavior in butterflies. A male butterfly that is courting is drawn by the female’s rate at which she flickers with her wings. But replace the female with some kind of artificial stimuli, which flickers even faster–and the male butterfly will fall in love with the artificial stimuli.
From the standpoint of evolution, a bird’s preference for a larger egg over a smaller one makes sense. Birds who have consistently chosen the small eggs are not as likely to survive as a species.
Nowadays we are eating very energy-dense sugar and fat. They are artificially created, they didn’t exist in the past, they are supernormal stimuli. Now, why would humans prefer exaggerated stimuli? Our ancestors were punished for preferring a smaller-than-normal stimulus, but not punished when they preferred a larger than normal–a lot is more desirable than the little.
The Sneaky Dopamine
When you see a food you love, the brain releases dopamine, which creates desire and craving, which arouses your urge to eat.
The people who eat habitually are like drug addicts. The food industry has evolved to provide mass entertainment. Your mouth will immediately water when you think of pizza. Purchasing indulgent food is an inexpensive form of entertainment and escape from the ordinary. Where traditional cuisine satisfies, the American industrial food is made to stimulate. It’s all about creating a lot of fun in your mouth, a lot of novelty in your mouth.
But nothing you eat is real. Chemical flavorings are the number one weapon in the arsenal of the food industry. Kessler alarms us: “Along with sugar, fat, and salt, much of the processed food we eat today relies heavily on chemical flavor.”
In the food industry advertising, it all comes down to the difference between brown cows and purple cows, according to marketing expert Seth Godin. Brown cows are products that, while perfectly adequate, are boring. But a product that’s a purple cow—now, that’s something that stands out. “The essence of the Purple Cow,” writes Godin, “is that it would be remarkable. Something remarkable is worth talking about, worth paying attention to.” For most of the human history, we survived on unadorned vegetable and animal products. Now we eat optimized and processed foods, that have very little in common to foods that naturally exist. Mathea Falco, responds to why some people only think about food. “It’s a dragon,” she says. “And the dragon is bigger than you.”
Dethroning the Dragon
There are people who don’t agree with this view. “That’s simply bemusing” – a friend of mine comments. “If those are the dragons in life, anybody could be a hero. Spoiled western people without problems, who are looking for reasons to explain how difficult their lives are in order to excuse their hedonism.” But let’s keep reading.
Feeding Like Gambling
Just as a compulsive gambler can’t place a single bet and feel satisfied, many people can’t stop after a few bites of hyper-palatable food. As soon as you pass the local fast food booth, you think how delicious a sandwich and fries would be. Excited by that thought you try to prevade the action by debating with yourself. “Yes, today I will stop. No, I shouldn’t. Yes, no, yes, no…” You think of nothing else. A discomfort settles over you. If you drop into the place and eat the hamburger, for a moment your discomfort will disappear. But the satisfaction does not last. “To think about creamy cakes is fine. What makes it a terrible obsession is the fact that you do not want this thought.” – says David Kavanagh. If you can’t cancel thinking about a certain cake, you entertain thoughts such as “What does this thought mean? It means I am a very weak person.
A bad person. I am somebody, who cannot succeed at a diet.” It’s the white bear problem – if you tell yourself to not think about white bears, soon that’s all you will be thinking about. So focusing on not eating makes us eat more.
These days we center events on food. It’s always there.
The Framework Which Saves Us
How vulnerable are we?
In order to control our brains, we have to be mistrustful of our brains. They are vehicles which invite us to stuff that in evolution was completely useful, but now has gotten totally out of control. It all begins with the knowledge that we have a moment of choice – but only a short moment. We should develop the capacity to say no to our brain in the first place.
Reversing the Habit
In the beginning, you will need to control your actions carefully, but in the long run, you will replace one set of habits with another. Awareness is the first step. Identify all the stimuli that start the chain of habit.
Then you say to your organism:
“Thank you! I am aware of that urge. And now is a moment for decision. Am I going to pass through this door and accept the invitation? Or am I going to walk through another door.”
The second component of habit reversal is engaging in competing behaviors. You need to know exactly how to respond when your brain receives an unwanted invitation.
The third component of habit reversal is being conscious of the long-term consequences of our actions.
The fourth component of habit reversal is support: family, friends, colleagues…it’s embarrassing to overeat in front of them.
The fifth component of habit reversal is setting rules, which provide structure and redirect our attention. We know we shouldn’t eat fat, salt, or sugar if we want to lose weight, but that is not enough. Prepare for actions in a risky situation–if I receive this cue, I will act like this. It is a tool for refusing invitations to the brain.
To alter our behavior we need to change our emotional appraisal of delicious food. We begin this process, by recognizing our capacity to assign food a value, either good or bad. If we learn to view the pursuit of salt, fat, and sugar in a negative light and to turn away from it, we can reverse a habit.
Mind you changing that kind of behavior requires heroic efforts. Change your mindset from: “that will be fantastic” to “that’s the most disgusting thing in the universe, I don’t want to be near it.”
Conditioned hyper-eating is a biological challenge, not a character flaw. Overeating may also be hereditary.
Other Approaches to Overeating
One of the approaches to fight it is planned eating. It consists of four elements – replacing chaos with structure, just-right eating, choosing foods that satisfy you and eating foods you enjoy. What you have to do is develop a set of meal plans and a repertoire of satisfying foods and choose foods in proper quantities.
Choose foods that satisfy your hunger. Identifying these is a very personal thing. Eat foods that you enjoy, do not force yourself.
You might consider this as a game against a powerful opponent. Make a list of the foods and the situations you can’t control. Refuse all the foods and situations you can not control. Stay away from restaurants, don’t buy highly processed foods at supermarkets. The more time you spend thinking about how to react in the face of the urge, the greater the chance you will finally give in. Once you begin the inner debate “Should I or shouldn’t I?” you have lost the game.
Engage your beautiful mind with something else entirely.
I will weigh less tomorrow if I don’t eat this.
Eat what your body needs to run. Know how a food will make you feel. Never say you are on a diet because that means temporary deprivation.
Eat small. Hindu women eat 5 times a day, and their portions are equal to what they can hold in the palm of their hand.
I read the entire book The End of Overeating, and I was surprised I didn’t have a revelation. I think David Kessler complicates things. As Mary Poppins says: Why do we always complicate things that are really quite simple.
I think a Chinese man I met online, who has won the battle with kilograms, summed the important stuff up for me in just a few words:
“Well, losing weight is both difficult and easy.
The most important thing is: to eat less and do more exercise.”
You can do it!
Bibliography: The End of Overeating by David Kessler