This year we’re focusing on energy—which of course comes from eating food. But overeating—eating more than we need to meet biological demand—can weigh us down, literally, with energy stored as fat.
Our nation is obsessed with food and weight. We love to eat, eat a lot of the wrong things, and eat more than we need, so we’re constantly looking for ways to lose weight. Food psychologist Marc David reports that nearly 50% of little girls in the U.S. ages 3-6(!) are already concerned about their weight and report that they are on a diet, while about 1/3 of American adults are on a diet at any given time.
Did nature make a mistake in giving us an appetite that drives us to overeat?
Dr. Doug Lisle, PhD, co-author of The Pleasure Trap, has an answer for this. Our primitive ancestors and their appetites were perfectly adapted to their environment. Three instincts gave them an evolutionary advantage: 1) the drive to experience pleasure; 2) the drive to avoid pain; and 3) the drive to be efficient in their use of energy. These instincts drove them to pursue food, the more calorie-dense the better, and to rest whenever possible.
But today, Lisle says, when rich foods are readily available with little effort, these same instincts, hard-wired into us from our ancestors, can push us to eat more than we need while exercising less. He proposes altering our environment so that we simply don’t have access to foods that we know are harmful, and to eat a simple, whole-foods diet.
Marc David, MA, founder and principal teacher at the Institute for the Psychology of Eating, has found in his 35 years of working with clients with unhealthy relationships with food that as they develop a healthy relationship with food along with good nutrition and a happier, more fulfilled life, overeating subsides.
David believes that while there are many different reasons we eat too much or have other eating challenges, each represents a “brilliant attempt” to solve a problem, either physical or emotional. While over time we may learn better ways of addressing these problems, food should be appreciated for the solace it provides and our food challenges for the hidden truths about ourselves they can teach us.
For example, in a recorded session between David and a client, a 47-year-old woman with a childhood history of sexual abuse, it comes to light that she has used eating to avoid intense feelings of any kind, positive or negative, as it was not safe to have strong feelings as a child. As she finds more safety within her adult self, it becomes easier for her to allow her feelings and let go of excess food.
Food is a source of pleasure, David says, and eating is a great way of pacifying ourselves, regulating our emotions, and relaxing. As infants we learn that the bottle or the breast (food) is associated with love, nurturing, warmth, and touch. Sometimes eating food is the closest we can get to these life-affirming experiences. While as adults we can develop better ways to self-soothe as well as close, loving relationships, and other sources of deep pleasure in our lives, before we’ve learned how to do this, food may have to fill the gap.
Other reasons for overeating are physical. Food deprivation is one, which is why dieting usually leads to overeating and weight gain. It’s also well-known that sleep deprivation and other forms of excessive stress confuse the appetite, as do various nutritional deficiencies, causing overeating.
Stress that causes overeating can come from negative thinking. For example, seeing food as “the enemy” can cause stress every time you sit down at the table. Angrily “attacking” food issues with a vengeance, David says, is another way of evoking stress, as is negative self-talk, like “I hate my body,” or “I’ll never accept myself if I don’t change.”
Stress causes other problems as well. Optimal digestion, assimilation and even calorie burning are achieved in a relaxed state, so stress is antithetical to utilizing food well. David also advocates eating slowly and taking some deep breaths before a meal to establish the relaxation necessary for good digestion. Stress also raises cortisol and insulin. These hormones signal the body to store fat and lose muscle (exactly what anyone looking to shed extra weight doesn’t want to do). Stress is also a significant impediment to changing habits for the better.
So why do we overeat? According to Marc David, there are many reasons, and each offers an opportunity for learning, for finding better ways to address underlying problems, and for personal and spiritual growth. Marc David has written two books: Nourishing Wisdom and The Slow-Down Diet. He has numerous videos available online and his website at The Institute for the Psychology of Eating offers online classes and trainings for people who wish to become Mind-Body Eating Coaches.