By Jennifer Ward, RD, LDN, CLC, CPT
It was close to the end of spring semester of my freshman year of college and, I just weighed in at my heaviest at an annual doctor’s visit. I couldn’t figure out why. I was on the crew team and doing double training sessions most days. I walked about 4–5 miles per day across campus just to get to my classes. And I rarely ate sweets; I was only eating two meals a day.
Looking back, that semester was unique. Prior to that time, I had always eaten breakfast consistently. That spring, our practices were switched from afternoon to the crack of dawn, 6:00 AM. I would wake up and rush to catch a ride to practice with no time to eat. I would barely get back to campus on time for my first class. Then I had a second class which ended after the dining common closed and so did my chance to eat breakfast. I could have bought food, but being a college student with a tight budget, I chose to wait. I attended my third class after which I finally had time to eat my first meal of the day.
Looking back I realize by the time I did eat, I was absolutely ravenous. I consistently went back up for seconds and thirds. I would often add large salads and bowls of cereal to each meal as well. When I arrived back at my dorm room after going out to eat at restaurants, I was also eating bowls of cereal. I felt so guilty about how much I ate that I would go running on an overly stuffed stomach, which made me feel even worse, both emotionally and physically. When I went home to visit my parents for a weekend, the first thing I would do is go into the kitchen and eat snacks for an hour. I was also a vegetarian, but when every meal turns into an eating festival, not eating meat doesn’t keep the weight from piling on.
I didn’t understand what it was that drove me to become obsessed with food, but I did know that I didn’t want to continue the cycle. I made a pact with another teammate that we would stick with single servings at meals. The pact coincided with the end of the crew season, which put me back into my regular pattern of eating breakfast, a light lunch (whatever I happened to sneak out of the dining common at breakfast time) and dinner. Within two weeks, my weight started to drop, but most importantly, my obsession with food and the urge to overeat dissipated.
About six years later, when I started my dietetic internship, I read my first issue of the Journal of the American Dietetic Association, which contained an article titled The Psychological Consequences of Food Restriction. The article described a study with men at a healthy weight who lived in a dorm for six months and were forced to lose 25% of their initial body weight so that the effects of starvation could be studied. The article went on to describe how the men in the study became irritable, lethargic and obsessed with food. After the study was over, the men who were previously healthy eaters reported having a newly found lack of control over food.
Reading the article made me realize that, during my freshman year, I was going way too long without eating, which lead to extreme hunger and driving me to overeat to the point of feeling overly stuffed. This chronic overeating could have eventually turned into an unhealthy level of exercise, opening up the possibility for injury and burnout. It doesn’t matter whether starvation is self-inflicted or enforced by others, or even if weight loss is a goal or not. Starvation fuels the desire to overeat.
As one of my most successful clients put it, “The key to not overeating is to not get too hungry.”
Different meal and snack structure and timing work for different people. Research shows that the meal structure that appears to work for most people to promote a healthy relationship between food and weight loss is three meals per day, with two healthy snacks in-between those meals to keep appetite in check.
Not everyone who emotionally struggles with food starts out overweight with the intent of losing weight. Understanding a little bit more about the sources of emotional eating and how an obsession with weight originates can provide some insight as to how to correct the problem and find the path that leads back to being at peace with food, and one’s own body.
The documentary Super-Size Me is still among my favorite movies. The motivation for the movie came from two teenage girls filing a lawsuit against McDonald’s for causing their obesity. The plaintiffs had a shot at winning if their lawyers could prove that McDonald’s representatives want consumers to eat there for every meal and if doing so was unreasonably harmful. So Morgan Spurlock (the maker of the documentary) ate every meal at McDonald’s for 30 days. Within two weeks, Morgan reported feeling depressed, but when he ate he felt better. He gained over 24 pounds in 30 days, but it took him about 14 months to take it off.
Hardly anyone eats every meal at McDonald’s, obviously. However, so much food that is accessible to the American public today is not really food. It is food-like products, which are of quality that is comparable to what is commonly offered at fast food restaurants. David Kessler, MD, the author of “The End of Overeating”, reveals in his book how so many of the food products in the grocery store and on the menus of chain restaurants is purposefully and deceptively engineered to make them tasty and addictive, all with the intent of generating profits.
There are individuals who are simply eating food that is not food and, over time, becoming addicted to it, gaining weight, and struggling to break the cycle of overeating. They incorrectly think they lack willpower or that there is something wrong with them. There isn’t anything wrong with them, other than the fact that they are eating food that is not “real” food.
Eat real food. Take the products designed to create an addiction to overeating out of your diet.
To share another freshman college food experience, my mom sent me a care package that included a family-size box of Wheat Thins. Twenty-four hours after opening them up, they were gone. I accused my roommate of dipping into the box, but she didn’t even know I had it. To me, Wheat Thins are addictive, and despite what I tell myself, there is no portion control when it comes to them. So I had to label them as “not a food for me”, and I am way better off for it.
I have never had clients tell me that they had a food addiction to spinach or carrots or bananas or broccoli. When people eat real food, they eat what they need and then they stop. That is not the case with cookies, candy, crackers or snack foods. When it becomes unprofitable for companies to make nutritionally deficient, addictive products, then healthy eating will become a whole lot easier for everyone.
Make positive, non-food related associations with special events.
Many have heard about the study with Pavlov’s dogs. Pavlov discovered that dogs salivate when offered food. He started pairing food with the ringing of a bell, and over time, the dogs became conditioned to salivate when just hearing the bell.
American culture works the same way. It is all about automatically linking special events or times with unhealthy food. This is not only a popular pastime, but is viewed as a coveted right. A few examples of this include: eating a hot dog at a baseball game, cake at a birthday party, fried dough at an amusement park, hamburgers and hot dogs at a picnic, cookies at Christmas, and let’s not forget popcorn at the movies. The problem is that linking events with food factors out hunger as a consideration, and it significantly increases the incidence of eating when food is not needed at all.
For every event with food, there is also a non-food reason to enjoy it. The baseball game can be about just enjoying the game. The amusement park can be about the rides. And the movie can still be great even without the popcorn. Focusing on the non-food aspect of events will lead to just as much enjoyment without overindulgence and the guilt that so often follows.
Just stop and think before you eat.
Indulgence is a naturally human trait, but it works better when it is done less frequently and with purposeful intent. Keeping the portions small never hurt either. The first bite of an indulgent food is always the most satisfying. Also, before eating something, try asking yourself, “How will I feel in two hours if I eat this?” And don’t underestimate environment and accessibility. Sometimes, the place or environment you find yourself in can contribute to overeating or getting trapped in that emotional obsession with food and body weight.
If you want to increase your odds of success, make it easier to do the right thing and make it inconvenient to do the wrong thing.
A woman I started working with a few months ago went from an active job to a desk job. In a very short period of time, she gained twenty pounds and incorrectly assumed that weight gain was inevitable. Even with working out, she felt that she would not be able to compensate for sitting all day. That was until a co-worker, who kept bowls of chocolate candy on his desk, was switched to a different department. Within a month, she lost eight pounds. She had no idea how much chocolate she had been eating just because it was there.
What is in sight and accessible will be eaten. What is out of sight and is not accessible will not be eaten.
Use the “if I want to do X, then I need to do Y” principle.
For example, for an individual trying to break their night time snacking habit; if they want to snack after dinner, they can (this is the “X”). However, they can only do it if they turn off the TV and eat in the kitchen (this is the “Y”). Ultimately, TV-watching will win out at least some of the time. The other benefit is that just sitting at a table and eating is pretty boring compared to indulging while watching a show.
Healthy eating, attaining results, and being at peace with food should not require epic feats of strength or massive willpower. Thinking before acting, strategically choosing foods, and creating an eating pattern that reduces the urge to overeat can improve the odds of success. Use this information and share it with others so that healthy eating is achieved with “ease” rather than force.
For more weight loss and nutrition tips, subscribe to our newsletter!