Of course, we need food for survival. But as eating is also linked to pleasure, are we destined to overindulge?
Popping down to the local supermarket to grab a few groceries may not feel like survival behaviour, but finding and eating food is hard-wired into our brains. We have to do it to stay alive. So how do our brains ensure that we continue to search for and consume food on a daily basis? Simple. When we eat food, our brains release chemicals associated with pleasure and feeling good. This guarantees that we will keep looking for and eating food day after day, no matter how monotonous the process becomes.
And herein lies the problem. In the past, when food was scarce, this highly adaptive system was a good thing. But now extremely pleasurable, mouthwatering food is readily accessible all around us 24 hours a day. A good proportion of the food we eat each day is still being consumed because we need the energy to keep going. However, many of us are choosing to eat food beyond this energy requirement, even when we’re full. We’re not eating for energy, but for pleasure.
The link with weight gain
Psychologists refer to this as ‘eating in the absence of hunger’. We have only really started examining this type of eating in the past decade or so, but we already have some important findings. In a series of eating behaviour experiments, participants were invited to eat a large meal to ensure they were full. After this, they were given access to a range of foods, particularly calorific ones, and asked to eat as much as they liked.
What these experiments found was the participants who consumed the most when they were full tended to be those who were already the heaviest and who also put on the most weight in the future. So eating in the absence of hunger is especially problematic for those who are trying to keep their weight stable or shed some pounds. The evidence also shows that it becomes even worse when we’re stressed and for those of us who are particularly impulsive.
What can we do about it?
There’s no simple solution to this problem, but there are a few things that may help. First, we know that we tend to eat rather mindlessly. So it’s time to switch from passive to active: question your eating. Do you want that afternoon snack because you’re hungry or because you want something yummy? Do you want dessert after your main course because your tummy is rumbling for more food or because you love the taste of chocolate no matter how full you are?
Becoming aware of whether you’re eating for energy or pleasure is the first step. Once you can identify when you need to eat from when you want to eat, you can begin to tackle the latter. Just realising that we’re eating for pleasure and not for hunger can help us to shift our eating towards the latter.
Make smart food swaps
But if you’re really finding it difficult to adjust your behaviour, start by adjusting the food itself. Substitute cakes and biscuits for more nutritious food, such as fruit. And, where possible, find foods (or make food) using sugar substitutes such as stevia. If you’re going to eat in the absence of hunger, at least load the food in your favour – up the nutrition and lower the calories. Also, remember what the research shows: stress and impulsiveness won’t help. If you’re stressed, do something about it. If you’re impulsive, avoid putting yourself in scenarios where you know you’re going to buy and eat something on a whim.
Of course, there’s no reason why we shouldn’t let our hair down every now and then and take some joy from delicious food, full or otherwise. But let’s not forget life presents many other pleasures for us to enjoy, most of which are calorie free.
For more advice on eating, we recommend: What type of eater are you? or Why do we crave?