Ways to Think about Overeating & Solutions: Exhaustion, Appetite, Obligation
Why do we overeat?
When I say overeat, I don't mean we necessarily pig out on huge amounts of food all the time. Some thin people eat a lot more than some fat people, but their metabolism is such that they can burn off any excess calories as heat.
What I mean is that even if we don't eat a lot, we eat more than we need for the amount of exercise we get. Thus, the only way we can lose weight is to eat less, even if we're not eating a tremendous amount now.
So the question is why we're eating more than we need. Only when we understand why we overeat can we take steps to remedy the situation.
Many people who don't have weight problems assume that overweight people all have emotional problems that cause them to overeat. In some cases, this may be true. Think of the cliché about the woman who breaks up with her boyfriend and goes to the freezer to eat an entire carton of ice cream.
But many overweight people don't have emotional problems. They're quite happy with their lives, except for the nagging to lose weight they get from almost everyone else.
Think of the days when fat women were considered desirable, or when fat men were considered to have high status because it meant they could afford enough food. Did all these people have emotional problems that caused them to gain weight? I don't think so.
Many people who don't have weight problems assume that overweight people simply don't have any willpower. But if that were true, anyone who was overweight would also have other signs of willpower deficit, an inability to refuse anything pleasurable, such as lots of unnecessary possessions, tremendous credit card bills, drug addictions, and probably sexually transmitted diseases as well.
Again, there are probable some people who fit this picture of lack of willpower, but most overweight people do not. In fact, many have lost weight by maintaining very strict diets that require a tremendous amount of willpower for a long time. The problem is that they get exhausted by the effort, the diet gets abandoned, and the weight comes back.
Imagine that you're out for dinner with 5 friends. They all order dessert, and they're all normal weight. You also order dessert, but you're overweight. Does that mean you have less willpower than your friends?
One reason some people overeat is that there's something wrong with their appetite control. One woman had a thin boyfriend who used to keep forgetting to eat unless she reminded him. He was thin.
Obviously, it's easy to stay thin if you're never hungry. But if you're hungry all the time, it's very difficult. I discussed this problem here.
Some people overeat because they were raised to believe that wasting food is a sin. "Think of the starving Armenians," we were told when I was growing up, although no one could explain to me exactly how cleaning my plate would help the starving Armenians. Habits like cleaning your plate are difficult to change. If you eat at restaurants that give you huge servings and you can't waste food and don't want to lug around a doggie bag, it's easy to overeat.
One solution to this problem is to carry your own doggy bag. I carry what I call a "doggie box," a tightly closing compartmentalized plastic container that fits neatly into a cotton purse, so I don't need to lug around a huge Styrofoam container that can tip over and leak.
Some people overeat because they're eating the wrong kinds of food. For example, many people with metabolic syndrome and type 2 diabetes do better with low-carb diets, but they're told by dieticians and medical people that they should eat diets low in fat and high in carbohydrate.
People with normal beta cells can cope with the high carbohydrate loads, but in those with defective beta cells, this type of diet can lead to rapidly fluctuating blood glucose levels. The blood glucose fluctuations, in turn, will lead to hunger, in some cases to low blood sugar after meals, and the hunger and shakiness caused by the low blood sugar leads to more eating. A vicious circle ensues.
I tend to overeat because of boredom. Having something to eat is often more interesting than vacuuming the living room or mowing the lawn. When they go on vacation, most people gain weight. When I go on vacation, I usually lose weight, because there's so many interesting things to do between meals, and so little I can eat at most restaurants because of my low-carb diet.
I'm sure there are many other reasons to overeat. The trick is to do some self-analysis to find out what it is that triggers overeating in your own particular case. If it's because you can't stand to waste food, it won't help to get counseling about nonexistent emotional problems. You need to learn to waste or to figure out how to take the extra food home for a second or even third meal.
If you overeat because of boredom, it won't help to get a lot of lab tests of your various hormone levels. You need to find something more interesting to do than eating (if you find it, let me know).
We're all different, and we all have slightly different triggers and slightly different solutions to the problem of overeating.
What are yours?