Why “Eat Only When You’re Hungry” Doesn’t Work

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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.