Overcome overeating one bite at a time

By Kay H. Fischer, MS, RD, LD

Healthy food and good eating habits are critical to increase our chances of living long and healthy lives. For many of us, the problem is not a lack of healthy food, or even a lack of knowledge concerning what we should or should not eat. It is simply bad habits. In our affluent society, these bad habits do not cause us to starve to death, but instead cause us to overeat. We cannot understand and solve all the aspects of why obesity has become America’s largest public health crisis ever. We can, however, take a brief look at one factor—the misguided idea that hunger is something to be avoided.

To overcome the problem of overeating, we need to understand that eating is complex and overeating is even more complex. If we are hungry, the solution is food. If we overeat, the solution is dieting. At least, that is what we think. Why do we eat anyway? If we eat because we are hungry, then we have no problem. Overeating has more to do with habits, obsessions and emotions. This brings to mind a famous quote of Mark Twain: “Habit is habit, and not to be flung out the window by any man, but coaxed downstairs a step at a time.” So, first, we understand that overeating is a habit, and it may take some work to change. However, good habits can be developed to replace the bad, and they work to our advantage.

Now we are back to the original question. Why do we eat? There are three reasons to eat: to satisfy the needs of the body; to satisfy the needs of the mind; and habit. Now we must understand that unless we are eating to satisfy the needs of the body, we are overeating.

There are many reasons we overeat. There are environmental triggers: We see a Dairy Queen and we want to eat. We smell food cooking and we want to eat. We see someone else eating and we want to eat. We often eat without thinking, such as when we consume six cookies while watching TV and hardly know we are eating. Another factor is emotional eating. We finish a stressful day at work and reward ourselves with a big meal or we are upset with our children and have a chocolate bar.

When we eat for any other reason than to satisfy the needs of the body, we surrender the sovereignty of our conscious choice over eating, as well as common sense.1 There is a difference between hunger and craving. If we are hungry, we will eat whatever good food is available. Cravings are more specific, such as wanting chocolate or something salty. Craving is not to meet the needs of the body. Craving is to meet a need of the mind. A craving is more likely a habit. Crave-driven eating may be conscious or unconscious, while hunger-driven eating is always conscious. Hunger, as a physiological imperative, commands the presence of the mind.1

In our society, there is plenty of food. People overeat then go on a diet. Notice how often diet plans are aimed toward never getting hungry? Nobody should ever be hungry? Perish the thought! If we get hungry, we might overeat. So there is a meal, a snack, a meal, a snack, a meal and a snack. It is a proven fact that the more times a person eats in a day, the higher the overall caloric intake. The Third National Health and Nutrition Examination Survey (NHANES III) collected data between 1988 and 1994. Average caloric intake of people who ate two times per day was 1,446- 1,506 calories and increased with each feeding up to 2,540-2,575 calories for people who ate six times or more per day.2

What if we created new, good habits of eating only when we are hungry? We would soon find out that we are only hungry two or three times a day. Now we come to a new idea, which is really a very old idea. Consider the possibility that hunger can actually be our friend. It tells us when we need to eat and how much. If we are hungry, we actually enjoy eating. And if we eat thoughtfully, savoring each bite, instead of mindlessly inhaling food, we actually can learn how much we need to eat to no longer be hungry until it is time to eat again.

This brings us to a new problem. Do we even know what hunger is anymore? Has it been so long since any of us were really hungry, that we can crave food and actually think we are hungry? Here is something to try. Plan a special day with a friend. Include some interesting activity – probably not a physical activity, just something to keep your mind off food. Part of the plan for this day is to fast. No eating. Drink water, but don’t eat. See how long you can go without eating. Let yourself get really, really hungry. Write an essay on how this feels. Then eat a planned meal. Add to your essay how it feels to eat when you are hungry. The next time you want to eat, but you aren’t sure if you are hungry, or think maybe you are just craving food, read your essay then decide if you are really hungry. Now that you have had a chance to experience hunger, try a day of uncontrolled eating. Eat whenever you want. Eat whenever anyone else eats. Eat whenever you see or smell something good. Then, go back to a day of very controlled eating. Eat meals, not snacks, only when hungry. Eat only healthy food. Which day felt better? When were you more in tune to the actual needs of your body?

Food accompanies many social activities. Consider the possibility that hunger, food and social interaction are actually designed to go together. Try going to a restaurant by yourself. Sit in a corner, away from a window, with your face to the wall. Don’t converse with the waiter when ordering. Eat quickly, get up and leave. Did you enjoy that meal? Compare this to a planned meal where you take your lunch to a park on a beautiful day. Watch the people, the dogs, the birds and the leaves of the trees blowing in the breeze as you eat. Which meal was more satisfying?

We do not have to become anti-social beings in order to succeed in our new lifestyle of eating only when we are hungry. We can learn that it is okay to be hungry while anticipating some social event. If we are going out to dinner with friends, we will enjoy that event more if we haven’t snacked all afternoon. Hunger teaches us when and how much to eat. Consider the possibility that the way to overcome overeating may require some thought and planning. Eat meals only when hungry. Make conscious choices of good food. Eat with friends or family whenever possible. If eating alone, make it a special event. Eat where you can enjoy scenery or something interesting. Take a break and enjoy.

1 Somov, Pavel G., Ph.D., Eating the Moment.
2 Kerver Jean M., Yang Eun Ju. Meal and Snack Patterns Are Associated with Dietary Intake of Energy and Nutrients in US Adults. J Am Diet Assoc. 2006;106:48-53.

Kay Fischer is a registered dietitian practicing in Maine. Kay has worked with people in all stages of life, in sickness and in health, to negotiate a path to a better life with good food. She is currently enjoying her favorite job of the past 30 years, establishing relationships with children at KidsPeace Graham Lake Campus, and guiding them toward healthy weight and growth patterns. Reach out any time at Kay.Fischer@kidspeace.org.