Content starts here

Why Do We Eat Too Much?


Elizabeth Barrett Browning, a nineteenth-century poet, was not thinking about food when she began her sonnet "How do I love thee? Let me count the ways." Yet her sonnet always comes to mind when I count the ways I love to eat.

Eating in response to hunger is, of course, an obvious way I enjoy food. Celebratory eating associated with special occasions, such as eating a piece of birthday cake, is another. Closely related to celebratory eating is ritual eating, for example, the traditional turkey dinner with second and third helpings at Thanksgiving. Eating lunch out with a girlfriend or going out to dinner with my husband qualifies as recreational eating.

Then there's emotional eating-maybe for comfort, to relieve boredom, to combat fatigue or to stuff anger. And preventive eating occurs when I eat even though I am not hungry so that I won't get hungry later. And we mustn't forget hedonistic eating, that is, eating because the food is so delicious that we can't resist another bite or two.

Frugal eating-not wanting to waste food-can cause me to clean my plate after I am satisfied. Food preparation and cooking (a little tasting here and there) and kitchen cleanup (a little bite as I am storing food) can trigger invisible eating. Olfactory eating is triggered by the smell of something delicious, like a chocolate chip cookie still warm from the oven. Obligatory eating occurs I am under pressure to enjoy and praise a special dish fixed by a relative or friend. Lastly, "monkey see, monkey do" eating is prompted simply by watching others eat.

To gain insight into the various reasons we eat, I turned to Dr. Edward Abramson, a clinical psychologist and internationally recognized authority on emotional eating, weight control and eating disorders. Dr. Abramson has written five books on the issues surrounding eating and has authored 20 scientific studies.

I asked Dr. Abramson what percentage of our eating was a function of genuine hunger and how much of our eating falls into the other categories described above:

    In general, people eat for one of three reasons: (1) physical hunger (for example, low blood sugar, gastric motility); (2) external cues (for example, the sight of others eating in television commercials); and (3) emotional arousal.
    Experts estimate that we make 221 eating decisions each day. Most eating seems to be prompted by external cues that are all around us.
    Emotional eating is more common in women than men, but men have more trouble with portion size, so they would report more eating to satisfy hunger. Plus, any eating episode may be a combination. For example, you could start a meal because you're hungry but then continue eating because there's tasty food in front of you.

Dr. Abramson's comment that most eating is prompted by external cues is confirmed through researchers at the Max Planck Institute of Psychiatry. The production of ghrelin, the hunger-producing hormone, increased in healthy male subjects when they were shown pictures of appealing food. Simply viewing a picture of appealing food makes us hungry! (No wonder the television ads for burgers and pizza have such an impact.)

Another study at the Radboud University Nijmegen in the Netherlands demonstrated that we mimic our partner's eating speed. Researchers concluded that eating behavior is strongly influenced by dining partners.

Given these and other external pressures, how can we manage our eating and appetite? Hungry Girl, a website that provides "tips and tricks for hungry chicks" is a great resource. The ideas and products can be put to use immediately.

A longer-term project involves adopting a mindful eating style. The mindful eating approach originated with Buddhist teachers who "encourage their students to meditate with food, expanding consciousness by paying close attention to the sensation and purpose of each morsel."

Staying conscious while eating is the goal. The point is to eat without distractions-watching television, working at our desk, talking on the phone or texting a friend. Although mindful eating sounds deceptively simple, the practice is demanding, particularly for those of us who feel inefficient unless we are multitasking.

For those new to the practice of mindfulness while eating, Dr. Abramson recommends beginning with a two-minute pause in the middle of each meal during which the food remains untouched.

To manage our weight, we must manage our eating and appetite. And unless we opt for a mechanical solution (such as lap band surgery) or a chemical one (such as orlistat or phentermine, which can be taken only for a limited time), we must become aware and mindful of the invisible pressures that induce us to eat more than our bodies require.

"Consciousness of our powers augments them," according to Vauvenargues, an eighteenth-century French writer. Whether we like it or not, taking control of our health, well-being and weight demands an ongoing commitment to mindfulness.

That same mindfulness, however, can be applied to any endeavor. Maintaining an active, open attention in the present moment throughout the day is a discipline that can enrich every aspect of our lives.

When we practice mindfulness, who knows what other self-discoveries we will make? As a side benefit to learning how to manage our eating and appetite, we may discover that we are handling other facets of our lives more successfully as well. That's a side benefit worth savoring.
Photo credit: rob_rob2001 on Flickr.

Search AARP Blogs