I have clients come into my office wanting to know “why” they overeat. The felt sense is if they know why, then they will be lead to the methodologies that they need to implement in order to effectively change their behavior and free themselves from overeating. That systematic and natural way of thinking works well with most things, but may not be quite as effective when we look to change behaviors that are directly impacted by our thoughts and feelings.
For example, if you come down with a bacterial infection, you know that antibiotics will do the trick and if you discover that the jeans you put on this morning are uncomfortable, you can change them for a more comfortable pair. When change requires an inquiry and discovery of our thoughts and feelings, the “why” and “how” is just the start of the journey.
Our propensity, unfortunately, is to deny, avoid or disregard our uncomfortable thoughts and feelings (i.e., frustration of sitting with a craving or urge, facing that we have the impulse to eat much more then we wanted or intended to, etc.). Barriers such as reluctance, fear and/or hopelessness need to be unearthed, processed and worked on if we are looking to achieve long-term sustained changes.
If it were so easy, we would all have effective behavioral change nailed down. As imperfect human beings, we all relate to having personal challenges that make behavioral change feel arduous, disappointing, frustrating, and at times, downright impossible. It’s the very behaviors we can identify as having a hard time working on, committing to and sticking with.
We fall into a cycle of making change, and then periodically or for the long haul, slipping back into old patterns of behavior which are all too familiar and unnerving. This cycle typically trails along with deep personal regret, shame and disappointment. Overeating most definitely fits into the category of behaviors that prove challenging for us.
So let’s tackle the question of why we overeat. As Judson Brewer, in his informative TED talk on simple ways to break a bad habit (www.ted.com/talks/Judson_brewer_a_simple_way_to_break_a_bad_habit) explains, it is learned and becomes a habit. The nuance behind it is that we are triggered (see the enticing food), engage in eating behavior and then get immediately rewarded by the behavior (experience pleasure because it tastes so incredibly good which satiates our appetite, we feel better emotionally because it helps to meet an emotional need, etc.).
We commit to memory the reward process and continually chase that pleasure (the first delicious bite, the immediate joyfulness, etc.). This is why it is so difficult to change the behavior — because it’s what we have learned, what’s become engrained in our memory and the associations we then naturally make when we eat.
To expand on what I stated above, overeating might have been learned and utilized as a coping mechanism to deal with emotions (i.e., emotional eating). It could have been the way we learned to cope with sadness, disappointment, frustration, joy, or some other emotion. It serves as a good distraction and can be an effective (yet maladaptive) way to keep emotions at bay.
Food and eating is also part of the fabric in our society and can be a sign of status. It’s part of the way we celebrate holidays, religious celebrations and rituals, birthday parties, and special occasions. The inclusion of food is a major part of the way we socialize in general.
Whether we are going to a Super Bowl party, a 4th of July BBQ or our friend’s 40th birthday party, food is usually plentiful. It’s what we arrange for and what we expect to be there when we are invited to others.
Second, snacking can be addicting. Because snacking on something sweet, salty, or crunchy is pleasurable, it stimulates the brain’s reward centers through the neurotransmitter dopamine, exactly like other addictive drugs, and releases the body’s own opioids in the brain, sending signals that it needs more.[i]
Studies have proven that certain foods can be addictive. That’s why people binge on potato chips, chocolate, or cupcakes more often than on carrot sticks and apple slices. Brain imaging using PET scans showed that high sugar and high fat foods work just like drugs such as heroin, opium, or morphine. People also develop a tolerance of sugar; they will need more and more to get satisfied.[ii]
Research shows that when given a choice, rats were more attracted to sweetened water than to cocaine or heroin.[iii] In order to understand biochemistry, when a person consumes glucose, a type of sugar, it spikes the blood sugar and creates a high insulin reaction. High insulin then blocks leptin, the appetite hormone, so our brain doesn’t get the “I’m full” signal and instead thinks that we’re starving. Our pleasure-based reward center becomes activated, which drives us to consume more sugar. This explains why individuals may have difficulty controlling the consumption of foods high in sugar when they are continuously exposed to foods containing sugar.
Lastly, our minds trip us up. Because food can be so incredibly satisfying and addicting, we gain mastery over rationalizing our behavior which keeps us enrolled in this cycle/habit. From speaking to adults and children, I came up with forty rationalizations for why individuals justify their overeating. Some are, “watching what I eat is too hard”, “it’s low-fat/fat-free”, “I will make up for it later”, “I’ll burn it off later”, “I don’t usually eat this”, “it’s free”, “everyone else is eating it”, “I am anxious/tired/sad/upset/bored”, “I will just eat these few nibbles”, “it’s a special occasion”, “I’m treating myself”, “I can start eating more healthfully again tomorrow”, “I really want it”, “no one will know”, “I’ll end up eating it eventually”, “healthy food doesn’t taste as good”, and “it’s freshly baked/cooked”. I expect these rationalizations and others sound all too familiar, for good reason, because we all utilize them.
So now that we can say that we know the main reasons why we overeat, why is it still so fundamentally difficult for us to change our behavior? As I started out saying, this is a journey. A quick fix, like just focusing on diet and exercise, as we previously were led to believe (and for which there are a plethora of resources available) would do the trick, we now know, falls short. The psychological and emotional factors that directly create and impact our barriers and keep us in this perpetual cycle need to be addressed as well.
For real incremental, long sustaining change to occur, we need to be open to discovering, processing and working through these barriers. Look out for future blogs and my book that is currently available for pre-ordering and will be published March 22nd, “Free Your Child From Overeating” 53 Mind-Body Strategies For Lifelong Health Using Cognitive-Behavioral Therapy, Acceptance and Commitment Therapy and Mindfulness to tackle the psychological and emotional barriers that keep us stuck. I welcome you and am excited for you to join me on this journey!
[i] Hayman, M. (2014). “Food Addiction: Could It Explain Why 70 Percent of Americans Are Fat?” Dr. Mark Hyman (blog) and Huffington Post. October 16, 2010. drhyman.com and huffingtonpost.com.
[ii] Volkow, N.D., Wang, G.J., Fowler, J.S., et al. (2002). “‘Nonhedonic’ Food Motivation in Humans Involves Dopamine in the Dorsal Striatum Methylphenidate Amplifies This Effect.” Synapse, 44(3), 175–80.
[iii] Lenoir, M., Serre, F., Cantin, L., and Ahmed, S.H. (2007). “Intense Sweetness Surpasses Cocaine Reward.” PLOS ONE, 2(8), e698.
Ahmed, S.H., Guillem, K., and Vandaele, Y. (2013). “Sugar Addiction: Pushing the Drug-Sugar Analogy to the Limit.” Current Opinion in Clinical Nutrition and Metabolic Care, 16(4), 434–39.
Madsen, H.B., and Ahmed, S.H. (2014). “Drug Versus Sweet Reward: Greater Attraction to and Preference for Sweet Versus Drug Cues.” Addiction Biology, published online March 7, 2014.