Have you ever had the urge to eat when you weren’t really hungry? Maybe it’s a lazy Saturday afternoon, and you’re craving a little somethin’ somethin’? Or perhaps that last ranch Doritos commercial—interrupting your Downton Abbey marathon— made you crave something crunchy? If so, you know all about hedonic hunger—that is, the desire to eat for the sheer pleasure of eating (as opposed to eating for sustenance). I’d say that most of us here in America eat mostly for pleasure even when we are hungry. After all, if people only ate to fuel their bodies, and protect their health, and they were unconcerned with gustatory satisfaction, they’d all be trim plant eaters.
If only eating were like brushing your teeth—something you do because you know you should but you only do it as much as necessary, and no more, because it’s no fun. Alas, the unfortunate reality is that we are hard-wired to enjoy food and eating, and necessarily so because, for most of history, calories have been very hard to come by. Evolution has favored animals that managed to procure sufficient calories to keep them alive long enough to produce offspring.
And why were our ancestors so keen to consume that they’d gnaw endlessly on dense, fibrous, calorie-poor vegetation or risk their lives (and expend precious energy) chasing down prey? That would be due to the craftily installed pleasure centers in our brains, also courtesy of evolution. In other words, those creatures who were rewarded (with feelings of pleasure) for eating were motivated to pursue food (and thus reproduce those eating-for-pleasure genes). Regrettably, evolution has not yet crafted a reward system for dental hygiene, so your prefrontal cortices—wherein rational thought resides—are stuck with the job of keeping you motivated to floss.
Fast forward to our modern-day, calorically-abundant world. Our old hungry brains haven’t gotten the memo. In fact, today’s foods are even more stimulating (rewarding) than ever! Prehistoric man probably never would have had trouble pushing away the plateful of tough, gamey muskox and fibrous tubers when he’d had enough. But who among you has had the gumption to turn down Ben & Jerry’s, even though you just topped out on a steakhouse buffet? The pleasure chemicals released in response to this fat/sugar combination are so strong that they override other bodily signals telling you you’ve had more than enough. On the other hand, would you relish a granny smith apple after that ridiculously large dinner?
What is a pleasure-seeking, would-be nutritarian to do when orchestrated by a brain that says, “Eat, eat, EAT!” yet stuck in a body susceptible to diseases of overconsumption (like heart disease, diabetes, and cancer)? Well, to put it simply, play by the rules—I know, rules are no fun, but play is, so here they are:
- Eat only while seated (everything, every time no matter what).
- Know how much you eat (weigh or measure everything, every time—well, at least when you eat at home).
- Make a plan (every night, no matter what, write out your food plan for the following day).
If you’ve read my prior posts, these healthy food habits won’t be new to you, but are you applying them? They only work if you use them every time no matter what, but when you employ them habitually, over time you’ll find it easier and easier to say no to hedonic hunger, without even trying.
Playing by the rules is just as important when you’re eating steam fried veggies and tempeh as when you’re stuck next to a bottomless bowl of peanut M&M’s at bingo night. The “every time no matter what” part is necessary because, in making yourself sit down to eat one innocent little grape even though you don’t want to, your rational mind is overriding the urge to just pop it in your mouth, and you start to build discipline around food (which will eventually impact larger food decisions).
Practice, practice, practice
Now you try. Commit to playing by these three rules for the next two weeks every time no matter what, and watch your food choices begin to align with your healthy eating values. Salut!