The New Fat Hazard
New research finds overeating is linked to positive personality traits-like being unusually engaged with the world. Susan B. Roberts on the surprising collision of personality and willpower.
Tell me if this sounds familiar.
You had lunch only a while ago, but at the café where you go to get a cup of coffee to help you feel less stuffed, there’s a huge chocolate chip cookie with your name on it, and you can't resist. Later, you go out to dinner and end up having two glasses of wine—and half a basket of bread—before even getting started on an entree. The next morning, you wish you had resisted, but as your day gets moving the rollercoaster starts again.
This scenario is a symptom of an incredibly common problem called “disinhibited eating.” As a group, disinhibited eaters are people who are unusually tied into the world around them and, when it comes to food, are more vulnerable to the everyday temptations of the high-fat, high-calorie goodies that surround us than those lucky folks to whom a full table is just a full table.
Surrounding yourself with a personal microenvironment that decreases opportunities for disinhibition creates a hunger-free, more-satisfied metabolism.
Disinhibited eaters frequently struggle with their weight, often gaining 40 pounds or more between the ages of 20 and 50. For these people, more than other folks, learning how to deal with our toxic food environment makes a world of difference. And by this, I mean learning how to comfortably control it rather than engage in futile battles of willpower with it. If you’re someone who tends to eat just because there is food for the taking, even if you’re not the least bit hungry, read on.
The scientific evidence for the importance of the food environment in weight control is compelling. More than a century of research and a Nobel Prize (given to Ivan Pavlov in 1904) tell us that our food environment has a major influence not only on what we eat, but also on our metabolism, hunger, and fullness. That’s because we actually have two separate systems for controlling what we eat. The first is an internal body-to-brain system that sends out signals if we need more calories. But just planning to eat the right stuff isn’t enough, because we also have a second, external system that channels signals to our brain that are triggered by the sight and smell of food in our immediate environment. What this means is that the environment has a handy control lever in our brain and body, telling most of us—but especially disinhibited eaters—that we should eat even when we don’t need to.
When a disinhibited eater (and I count myself very firmly in that group) looks at a juicy steak or a warm brownie, our eyes and nose signal our brain to activate a whole constellation of metabolic changes that control our hunger, our desire and need for food, and even how large or small our stomach is (and therefore how much food we need to put in it to feel full). Which is why, when you order Chinese takeout containing twice as many calories as you need, you need to eat most of it just to feel adequately full. The reverse is also true: We are actually less hungry and have a smaller stomach that gets full more easily when food is scarce.
Why on earth should we have two systems controlling what we eat? The need for an internal system is obvious: When our body is running short of fuel, our brain needs to know about it and push us toward the nearest deli. But an external system as well? We can only speculate, but needing to eat more food when more was available was probably an efficient survival strategy in times before an industrialized food system made food available at all times. Viewed through this perspective, disinhibited eaters are not doing anything abnormal. They are simply especially clued into what is going on around them, and therefore need to also be clued in to how to prevent these urges.
Disinhibited eating is usually also unhealthy eating. When our external control system prods us to eat, it often pushes us toward high-calorie, carb-and-fat-laden goodies that reward us with dopamine and other addiction chemicals. You do get satisfied eventually, but have to gobble down food in huge amounts before the fix of edible tranquilizers and stomach distention feels like enough.
Today, despite this abundance of food constantly activating our external control systems, it’s possible for disinhibited eaters to stay in control of what they eat and their weight. The secret? To surround yourself with a personal microenvironment that decreases opportunities for disinhibition and creates a hunger-free, more-satisfied metabolism. Six simple rules can take disinhibition out of the equation.
1. Create a truly weight-harmonious home food environment. For every high-calorie food in your pantry, ask yourself: Can I eat this regularly without overeating and gaining weight? If you can’t say “yes,” throw it away. Will your housemates object? If so, make the changes in easy stages, leaving behind some unhealthy items that don’t tempt you personally.
2. High-cal toppings can actually help you lose weight. True, things like grated parmesan cheese, dark chocolate, crystallized ginger, and even bacon bits might be loaded with calories, but they are exceptions to the throw-them-out rule. Most of us don’t eat toppings alone (at least not in large amounts), making them perfect residents in a disinhibition-free kitchen plan—they give additional flavor (and satisfaction) to healthy foods that might otherwise seem plain. I would even put sugar-free ice cream in this category—it isn’t great eating by itself, but when mixed in equal amounts with a high-fiber cereal it makes a deliciously crunchy, satisfying dessert that my patients say curbs cravings for other less-healthy foods with hundreds more calories.
3. Create a more harmonious space when you do eat out. The physical closeness and accessibility of food are so important for your feelings of temptation and disinhibition. Research has shown that even things like whether the lid of the ice cream is on or off the container affects how much we eat. So whether you are eating out at a friend's house or a restaurant, try to keep a few feet between you and the appetizers, and micromanage what gets on your plate. (Covering leftovers with your napkin is a great way to reduce perception of available food.)
4. Bring in more healthy variety. Research from my lab and elsewhere shows that eating a wide variety of satisfying low-calorie foods, such as fruits, veggies, legumes, and lean proteins, and a low variety of high-calorie items helps keep weight down. And since you can’t eat what doesn’t exist, the first step in all of this is a mindful shopping trip to the grocery story. Being disinhibited about apples and salads is a sure benefit to weight loss.
5. Clean up your car and work environments. None of us eats only at home, so apply the same rules to your car and your office.
6. Save your treats for when you’re away from home. Making your personal space temptation-free doesn’t mean you have to give up everything you love. Indeed, going out for dessert can allow you to keep some major metabolism controllers out of your personal space.
Dr. Susan Roberts is a professor of nutrition and professor of psychiatry at Tufts University, and author of a new approach to weight loss called The Instinct Diet. A group of dieters being tracked in Boston lost an average of 16 pounds and two clothing sizes during the eight-week program despite continuing to eat out.