Posts Tagged ‘Overeating’

How many times a day should we eat?

May 26, 2010

I stated in my last post that we cannot trust “hunger” as a cue for when to eat. But how do we know when it IS time to eat?  For me, and I suspect for many others, the three-meals-a-day “rule” works well.  In fact, I believe that for most people who struggle with weight control, eating more often, “grazing,” or snacking between meals only adds to the problem.

Now, many of you believe that six or more small meals per day, or three meals plus two or three snacks, is best (e.g., see comment by Personal Trainer on my last post).  And for some people there is a medical reason for eating more often than three times per day (e.g., people with dyspepsia, GERD, hypoglycemia, etc.).  Some of these medical indications are valid, and some are not.  I won’t get into that here.  What I do know is that the more we snack, the more likely we are to consume excess calories (see this research report).

A survey reported this year in the American Journal of Clinical Nutrition found that in the thirty years between the 1970s to the early 2000s, for adults and children, the average time between eating occasions shrank by one hour (most recently, 3 hours apart for adults and 3.5 hours apart for children).  Daily calories for both groups increased from roughly 2,090 in the 1970s to 2500 in the 2003 – 2006 period.

Calories from snacks more than doubled: for adults, from 200 calories per day in the 1970s to 470 calories in the recent time period; for children, from 240 to 500.  A significant portion of snack calories came from beverages.  It can be assumed that these numbers are underestimates, since surveys usually under-report the number of calories consumed.  [The above research was described in the May 2010 issue of Nutrition Action Health Letter]

It makes sense to me that the more often one eats, the more one is exposed to temptation and calories.  Also, we know that “willpower fatigue” occurs, so that the more often we have to decide what and how much to eat, the less “willpower” we are left with by the end of the day.

One known cause of overeating, which is also closely related to snacking, is “emotional eating.”  The solution to that problem is mindful eating, plus tending to emotional issues in a more appropriate way.

Personally, one of the most effective things I have done over the years to maintain my weight in a healthy range is to eliminate snacking.  It takes some getting used to — for example, eating dessert just before bed was a long time habit for me — but it really makes a difference.  And I haven’t developed hypoglycemia, insomnia, or any other health problem as a result.

If eating three daily meals (assuming the portions are reasonable and the food is mostly “healthy”) works to maintain weight, would two meals be even better?  Apparently not, according to several studies.  People who skip breakfast, for example, tend to weigh more than people who don’t.

Why “Eat only when you’re hungry” won’t work

May 15, 2010

During a recent social event, the conversation turned to weight loss and dieting. One of the women said she read a new book and it had “the answer” to her problem of weight gain: eat only when you’re hungry.  Many books and weight loss plans, in fact, emphasize this point, offering various tips and methods to define “hungry” and help the reader learn what kind of hunger, exactly, they should satisfy and what kinds they should ignore.  The worst books (in my opinion) give the message that people gain weight because of various psychological or “spiritual” hungers that we try to assuage with food.  There is little to no consistent science to back up these claims, and I believe the message does much harm, because it implies an almost magical answer to the problem  of overeating.  When it inevitably fails to work, the victim of this propaganda is left with yet another cycle of failed dieting and increased weight.

As recently as hundreds of years ago, most people did need hunger as a cue to begin eating, because their days were full of physical labor and food was not always readily available.  But, in recent decades, this situation has changed dramatically.  Now, most have relatively low levels of physical activity and the availability of food has increased exponentially — to the point where there is a glut of high calorie, low cost “food” in our faces continually.  We rarely get hungry in the old sense of the word, because these cleverly marketed and subsidized foods (high in sugar, salt and/or fat) overwhelm our biological regulatory systems.  Instead, we develop cravings and hungers triggered by environmental cues and implanted “beliefs” from our culture, no longer based on biological requirements.  In a sense, we get “addicted” to unhealthy foods and lose our ability to trust our hunger.

So, what can we do?  Easy — and difficult.  Train ourselves to ignore these contrived temptations; limit our exposure to them (most importantly, protect our children from them!).  Learn what a healthy lifestyle looks like and adopt it.  Avoid frequently eating “addictive” foods containing large amounts of  sugar, salt and fat.  And advocate, loudly and often, for changes in our culture so that fruits, vegetables and other unprocessed foods are cheaper and more available than the junk food that now receives so many economic advantages.

For more information and tips, check out these links:

Food Industry Pursues the Strategy of Big Tobacco

Coping with the obesity epidemic

Ending overeating

Overeating leads to more overeating

What does 200 calories look like?

Do not — DO NOT — deprive yourself

Mindful eating vs. mindless munching

Weight Management for Your Life: Ten Steps to Prepare You for Adopting a Healthy Lifestyle

I recommend Nutrition Action Health Letter, available by subscription from the non-profit CSPI (regarding today’s post: see the May, 2010, cover story “How the Food Industry Drives Us to Eat” featuring an interview with Yale’s Dr. Kelly Brownell).

P.S.  I have not posted in the last 3 months for several reasons, one of which is having surgery and recovering.  I’m fine now, though.

Ending overeating

July 7, 2009

Kessler overeating

A very important new book (The End of Overeating: Taking Control of the Insatiable American Appetite by David Kessler) accurately describes major factors contributing to the obesity epidemic: cleverly formulated manufactured food designed to seduce us into overeating, addictive ingredients (salt, sugar and fat) which act like nicotine in cigarettes to keep us coming back for more, a profit driven system of marketing and government subsidies which works against our best interests, and the loss of boundaries limiting when and how much we eat. It is indeed frightening to think that a 2-year-old’s appetite “knows” to shut down when enough calories have been consumed, but by the time that child is four (in our culture) there is often a loss of that self-control mechanism.

Kessler’s solutions include re-training our minds to devalue unhealthy processed foods loaded with the Big Three (salt, sugar, fat); reforming our policies and practices which encourage this vicious cycle; and doing much more to educate people as to what they are consuming (such as requiring nutritional information in restaurants).

I agree with all this, but take issue with some of the concepts Kessler promotes. My main complaint is he oversimplifies the issue of food containing salt, sugar and fat by using an addiction model. Too much of these ingredients is indeed unhealthy, but a simple addiction model will not work.

Another problem is his use of the term “real food” (see NPR interview) which is a vague concept, at best. Many seemingly real foods contain salt, sugar and fat (either naturally, or because of the way they are produced), and not all “manufactured” foods are bad (e.g., some fish farmed in a sustainable way are better for us than some “wild-caught” fish). I can buy a chicken that has been doctored with added salt and fat, or I can buy one (usually smaller and more expensive) which has been grown almost organically. To the average consumer, both seem “real.” Also, I can buy “sea salt” and “unrefined real sugar” and think I am getting something healthier than standard table salt and corn syrup, but the bottom line (sodium and calories) may be exactly the same.

Finally, he promotes a black vs. white dichotomy between a disease-like state we cannot directly control (“conditioned hypereating”) and old fashioned willpower, telling us “it is not our fault” that we overeat. Fault, per se, may not be the issue; rather, we should learn ways to increase our resistance to external cues and marketing, educate ourselves about nutrition and portion size, and practice coping skills to enhance self-regulation. I have written about this at length elsewhere.

Overeating leads to — more overeating

January 17, 2009

overeating_lead_narrowweb__300x4430

Several lines of research describe mechanisms in our bodies that cause a vicious cycle, so that when we overeat we are much more likely to continue to overeat. These mechanisms involve our biological clock, insulin metabolism, and nerve endings in the stomach.  Even drinking too much water with a meal (especially ice water) can  accelerate the problem.  For more details, see this NPR story.

If you want to do only one thing to counteract your tendency to overeat, simply keep a journal and write down everything you put in your mouth.   Food diaries or journals have been shown again and again to be effective tools in weight management.  See these sites for more on food diaries (here and here).

For more information on avoiding overeating, see here.

Taking a “vacation” from healthy eating

June 27, 2008

I am on vacation – several weeks of sharing a beach house with friends and family – and I am eating (and drinking) very well! People often say to me “Have some more of this [fill in the blank: junk food, fried food, rich desert, Bloody Mary], you are on vacation!”  For many people who succumb to this kind of peer pressure, the result is unwanted weight gain that is very difficult to reverse. They rationalize: “As soon as I get home, I am going on a strict diet, and will work out twice a day!”  The diet doesn’t work and the rigorous workout routine rarely lasts a full week.

Fortunately, my eating and drinking patterns do not change when I am on vacation or having a “special occasion” because I have figured out a way to eat and drink very well ALL the time.  In that sense, I am always on vacation when it comes to healthy behavior and good eating.  True, I may overeat (or drink) for one meal or event, but easily compensate by eating and drinking less for two or three other meals. Here is some advice for coping with vacations and other special occasions (from Weight Management for Your Life):

If you have been successfully working on changing your eating and exercise patterns for some time, you will encounter situations where someone will say to you “This is a special occasion, so go ahead and eat that cake!” The cake is not the issue, but the implication behind the statement is. People observing your healthier lifestyle will assume you are in a constant state of self-deprivation, and will want to see you “loosen up.” It is important to them to feel okay about their own “indulgences.” The problem with your buying into that theory is that it discounts the fact that you already are eating (and exercising) the way you want to. You are not depriving yourself – in fact, by doing what you want, you are indulging yourself. Your ongoing healthy lifestyle is its own reward. Another problem with going back to old unhealthy habits, even temporarily, is that such “special occasions” come up frequently: out-of-town trips, weddings, graduations, birthdays, holidays, cruises, office parties, etc. etc. Add the special occasions with their special “indulgences” or “rewards” up over the course of a year and you have put on an unwanted five to ten pounds.