Eating for joy, because we like the flavour of something is nothing new; the Romans were well known for their festive banquets that went well beyond the pure scope of keeping the body alive. While in their case there was an added political dimension to their indulgence, in modern times numerous studies have been able to show how certain foods, in particular those containing sugar and/or fat, can change our brain’s chemistry and get some of us to overeat.
Since the 1980s, research has been able to establish several types of hunger and there are two that seem particularly relevant to our scope. Hedonic hunger, a relatively new nomenclature created by Michael Lowe, a clinical psychologist, is a type of appetite that stems from the brain, which keeps telling the body to have more and more, even when the body is satiated.
On the other side of the spectrum, we have metabolic (or homeostatic) hunger, which, research has shown, is mostly regulated by the hypothalamus and is, in everyday parlance something like: “I feel stuffed”.
When we combine the two types of hunger, we also need to look at another part of the brain; the so-called reward circuit which, as the name implies, is where we release pleasure-related neurotransmitters such as dopamine. When we feel pleasure, such as during sexual intercourse, we want to repeat that experience. With food, the same mechanisms are activated.
Food: a sweet and sour mix?
Maybe not so much a sour affair, but rather a fatty one. During much of humanity’s history, finding enough food to survive was a real challenge. Sweet and fatty foods were of paramount importance to allow us to do so. As a consequence, when these foods were available, we would overindulge to make sure we could survive.
Anecdotally and veering off a little, many of you living with a dog, will recognise similar behaviours in our canine friends. When food is available, Fido will go for it, regardless of whether it is being offered by your hand or the kitchen counter. Pooches don’t differentiate: available means available. You never know when the next meal will become accessible; that potent instinct is still there.
But let us come back to the two-legged mammals: humans.
This survival instinct was obviously extremely useful when we were living as hunter-gatherers, however, nowadays, with the availability of cheap foods that at times contain both sugar and fat, this function is coming back to haunt us; it makes us ignore the “enough signal” from our stomach, with the well-known consequences of alarmingly high death levels – and counting – throughout the world.
Other factors for overeating: a dishy masala
We are expanding because we eat more, packaging gets bigger (as in family size), and we see others eating and the amount they eat, the price of food and the time to consume a meal.
Tips to stop overeating: a hot potato?
Probably not so hot; just a tablespoon of common sense and a sprinkle of desire to change for good. If you decide to follow these steps for a few weeks, you will notice results, both in terms of your desire and ability to eat lots of food and also in terms of your “position” on the Body Mass Index. Bear in mind that the brain has an adaptation circuit referred to as neuroplasticity. In simple language, this means that the brain can develop new neuronal paths whenever we ask it to do that. So, if we tell our brain: “Focus on eating at least 200 grams (7 oz) of vegetables and/or fruit with every meal” we will have laid the foundations for change. If we repeat this sentence over and over, those new pathways will be established.
So, how do we go about the sweet craving? Personally, I tricked myself into it in a very sweet way; I started exploring dried fruits, such as dried figs, dates and raisins. When I have a really intense sweet craving, a handful of raisins do the trick. I would suggest you have a handful because dried fruits are relatively high in calories, so, while you might be eating a healthy form of sugar, you are still ingesting many calories. Talking about calories, I still love to have a little bit of chocolate; however, I have taught myself to buy only the pure types, from 72% cocoa contents upwards, which means much less sugar. If you find yourself having cravings for some dessert, here is a small list of healthy alternatives to the sugar bombs, that perhaps can inspire you to explore your own.
No meal enters my body without having been measured first (OK, I admit, sometimes that extra piece of panettone sneaks miraculously past the scale). Measuring portion size is a “clear winner” for me because it means that no extra calories go past the scale. For example, I have learned that a standardized portion of pasta is equivalent to 80 grams (2.8 oz) and that every main meal needs to feature some 200 grams (7 oz) of fruit and/or vegetables. In your favourite search engine, ask for “standard quantities for traditional (enter your cuisine, such as Italian or Ghanaian or Indian, etc…) diet” and you will get several returns, often with free, downloadable PDF’s that you can then print and keep in your food preparation area as a reference.
If you have balanced meals, your cravings will be much lower or disappear altogether. Foods rich in fibre tend to make you feel satiated for much longer than foods that are more processed, such as bread made with white flour versus whole wheat bread. If you wish to know more about the metabolic mechanisms that are activated by some of these meals, read more about “foods that make you hungrier”.
So how do we decide if a diet is appropriate for us? Culture, preferences, and availability are obviously some of the factors. Personally, I have a preference for the Mediterranean diet (this link takes you to a PDF with an excellent description of what it is and what it does for you), which I grew up with. It is obviously known to be one of the healthiest on the planet hence, I would strongly argue in favour of it for most of us. However, if you look at “ideal” Mediterranean and Asian food pyramids, you will see that they are extremely similar, with a strong emphasis on whole grains, fruit, and vegetables. I have made two diagrams that are simplified versions, just to highlight the similarities. So, if you wish to stay healthy, you can mix and match them, as they provide the same benefits, always with the scale in your hand. If you wish to know more about nutrition, you can check out Oldways, a non-profit that talks about the commonalities in global diets.
Practise mindful eating
Before we delve into how to practice it, let me define it. One definition that I particularly like is offered by the Harvard school of public health: “Eating mindfully means that you are using all of your physical and emotional senses to experience and enjoy the food choices you make”.
So how do we practice mindful eating? Here are a few tips:
- Feel the food. Use all senses to “connect” with your meal, see its colour, smell, and texture before you start preparing and again when it ends up on your plate. Just looking at your meal will automatically slow you down as you will be soaking up its beauty, just like when you admire something that you find beautiful. Think of a painting or a person you are attracted to.
- Chew slowly and put your fork down. Chewing slowly not only helps the digestion process but makes you more aware of what is in your mouth. Putting down your fork means you make a deliberate choice to bring more food to your mouth, which in itself is a form of mindfulness.
- Listen to your body. When it says: “I am full” that means, well, you guessed it, that you are full.
- Express some form of gratefulness for the meal you are preparing or getting. Gratitude is one potent generator of oxytocin, also referred to as the love hormone. I would also say the happiness and joy hormone. Watch this video in which Simon Sinek, author and motivational speaker, gives examples of how thankfulness and oxytocin make us feel so much happier: generosity, kindness and gratitude.
- Meditate. Consider meditating for a few seconds on the meal you are about to experience, while expressing gratitude for it, for those that produced the raw ingredients, for the soil that supports its growth, etc…While to some of you this might sound a bit “cheesy”, you will be setting in motion that love hormone, oxytocin, in your body
- Get rid of the diet mentality. It doesn’t work in the long run. Let me differentiate between the, at times, the confusing meaning of the word diet. There is “diet” as used to define a general set of foods eaten by one or more specific groups of people, like for example the Mediterranean diet or the Asian diet. Then there is “diet” as in sticking to a certain specific set of food for a specific period of time to obtain a benefit, often the latter being weight loss. These diets seldom work and cause individuals to regain whatever weight was lost in the first place, and often to put on even more as this article in the US library of medicine shows. So, what to do instead? Maybe with the help of a dietitian, come up with a weekly food plan, with meals that you find appealing and that you look forward to eating in the long run. Of course, it’s also important to mention that physical exercise, stress level, peaceful sleep and several other factors are fundamental in keeping the extra weight off.
- Emotional eating is not that emotional. When we resort to emotional eating, this often is because we want to soothe some emotional pain so, instead of looking inside at the emotional elements that are hurting, we look inside the fridge for something to comfort us and we set in motion those reward systems that I talked about earlier on. We release dopamine, one of the “feel-good” neurotransmitters. How to stop this? Catch yourself and be honest: “I am heading to the fridge to eat something because I want to release the emotional pain I feel inside”. Next, move to full honesty with yourself: “I want to relieve the pain that I feel when my partner said/did/didn’t do…”. In other words, explore your pain and ask yourself if eating to make yourself feel better is going to remove the emotional pain. Obviously, the answer is no. Substitute this learned behaviour for others, such as taking yourself for a walk to release some of the tense energy, or calling a friend or a helpline to relieve the emotional pressure. If you overeat to shut down the nagging voice in your head that keeps talking you down, practice a more caring form of self-talk.
- Eat with people who don’t overeat. While it might sound obvious, many studies have focused on this simple trick. When we are in the company of people while having a meal, the atmosphere is usually relaxed and we tend to eat more (see social facilitation). However, deliberately choosing to have a meal with people who don’t generally overeat has a positive reinforcing effect on our own food intake.
While there are many reasons why we might want to overeat, there are also as many ways to stop ourselves from doing so whether we seek the help of a friend when we have an almost unstoppable craving or whether we have a cold shower, all systems to change our strategies are fair game when it comes to overeating.
Have you practised anything that helped you break a habit? If you wish to discuss this subject in further depth, feel free to drop me a line.
Jerry Zondervan is a self-relationship counsellor.