Understanding the "Habit" of Overeating

Gretchen Becker Health Guide
  • Gary Taubes, author of  Why We Get Fat, Good Calories, Bad Calories, and several major articles on diets in the New York Times, remarked in replying to questions about his latest Times article on sugar, "I, too, find it easier to not eat any sweets at all than to try to eat them in moderation. My wife can order a dessert after dinner and have two bites and be done with it. I can't."


    Taubes, like many of us, apparently puts on weight easily, and he's chosen a low-carbohydrate diet to control his weight.


    So I was thinking about why some of us can eat two bites of a dessert and stop and others of us can't. Of course, I can't speak for everyone else, but for me I think there are several reasons.

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    One is a form of sugar addiction. I can get along fine without sweets. But if I eat one bite, I want more. This is like the proverbial potato chip addiction. Who can eat just one potato chip?


    I once tested my "willpower" for avoiding sugar. This was before I was diagnosed with diabetes, but like so many people, I wanted to lose a little weight and had given up desserts. I went into a bakery, but despite the bakery smells, I didn't really want any of the stuff. Out of curiosity, however, I bought a bag of cookies.


    Got home and smelled the cookies. Still didn't really want them. Then I ate one cookie. And I immediately finished the bag, even though the last ones didn't taste very good.


    So the "sugar addiction" is powerful.


    But there's another factor at work for me. That's habit.


    I can't stand to waste things, especially food. I've always been bewildered by diet books that tell you to start by going through your kitchen and throwing out everything that isn't on their diet. I think, "How can anyone throw away perfectly good food?"


    I don't know where this horror of waste came from. My first memories are from the World War II era, when food was rationed, especially meat and milk. I thought my mother had my brother only so she could get extra milk ration coupons even though she was nursing him. Because meat was rationed, we raised a couple of sheep and some chickens, and my grandfather shot rabbits in the woods, which we were told was chicken so we wouldn't worry that he'd shoot the Easter bunny by mistake.


    I don't remember the adults ever talking about running out of food, but maybe they did. Or maybe I was able to sense their worry even if it wasn't verbalized.


     As children we were told to clean our plates. At school we were reminded of the "starving Chinese," although like children everywhere we couldn't understand how finishing some vile green gelatin dessert would help starving people anywhere. One time we tried to box up the stuff and ship it to China, but our plans were thwarted.


    I recall my mother eating up the few spoonfuls of potatoes or peas in the serving dishes because "It's not enough to put away and I hate to waste it."


    In graduate shool, trying to live on an $1800-a-year fellowship, I never wasted food, and if some social gathering included free food, all the graduate students stuffed themselves, hoping to survive on less food the next day.


    In a restaurant, I'd clean my plate even if there was more than I wanted (in those days, people didn't ask for doggy bags). Once when I was in high school, my brother and I went to a Chinese restaurant. I finished my portion, including all the rice, even though I was stuffed. My brother couldn't finish his (and he was a good eater), so I finshed his as well.


    Two years later, my brother went back to the same restaurant. The waiter came over and asked where his sister was. He was flabbergasted and asked how the waiter remembered me. He said, "We'd never seen anyone so small eat so much, and we've been talking about her ever since."

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    It's nice to be famous, but I'm not sure that's the type of fame I'd like!


    Unfortunately, this habit has persisted, although I no longer partake of the carb-laden offerings as I'm controlling my type 2 with a low-carb diet. And I've learned to take my own doggy bag with me when I eat out because I hate those big Styrofoam containers.


    Obesity is associated with poverty. One reason is that when money is tight, you eat cheap food, and cheap food is starchy as well as fatty. You can get a lot more calories in a fast-food restaurant than you would for the same price in a more upscale place.


    Cheap restaurants usually serve huge portions, trying to make up in quantity what is lacking in quality. You can serve a wafer-thin burger plus a lot of lettuce and a huge bun and a big portion of french fries and the customers will feel satisfied. The upscale place has several shrimp, artfully placed on a heated plate with a few slivers of exotic vegetables and a sauce. That probably satisfies you if you sit at a desk all day. But if you're a farm laborer, you wouldn't feel full with such food.


    So I'm wondering how much of "overeating" (which is a controversial word because a portion size that would represent overeating for one person might not be the same for another) is the result of habit.


    If you grow up in a family where getting enough food is an issue, and you learn from the earliest days not to waste, does this habit persist into adulthood even though you're trying to lose weight and you know you shouldn't eat as much?


    Do affluent people start off with an advantage because they know there will always be plenty of food tomorrow so they don't need to eat much today if they don't feel like it? Are poor people handicapped because they've gotten into the habit of cleaning their plates and feel guilty if they don't?


    Of course not all rich people are thin and not all poor people are fat. But there does seem to be an association between poverty and overweight. We need to figure out how to fix this situation.


    One solution is doggy bags. Another is small plates, so you can clean your plate with a lot less food. For some reason, I find that scraping up the last bits of food on a plate, like the slurping of the last bits of a milkshake with a loud noice that I did as a child, in part to annoy the adults, is very satisfying.


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    I think another solution is awareness. If we realize why we eat, we may be able to figure out how to do less of it.



Published On: April 26, 2011