Too Much Information
When we rely on the collective wisdom of diet “experts” we question the kind of sensible decision-making process that has guided human food consumption forever. Our common sense ideas about eating have been replaced with the notion that in order to eat in a healthy way, we must count calories, weigh servings, and banish entire food groups, whether it’s sugar, fat, or carbohydrates.
There are three problems with this. First, by relying on a belief that scientific precision is required to do something as basic to human nature as eating we forget how to eat intuitively. When was the last time you read a news story on the latest scientific study linking something to obesity, and said “Wow! I never would have thought those two things might be related!” You already know much more than you think.
Another problem is that having so much information available gives us the mistaken impression that we can now precisely control how our body will respond. When the emphasis on achieving an ideal body shape is so prevalent in our culture, this illusion of control can be very seductive. We try to manually override our automatic metabolic responses with diet books, meal replacement programs, and scales.
Unfortunately, your body doesn’t understand the concept of voluntary deprivation. From its point of view, why in the world would you not want to eat if you’re not fully satisfied and food is available? The only reasonable explanation is that it’s not available, and there must be a food shortage that calls for it to conserve calories. Despite your best attempts to control your weight, your body will continue to function under the assumption that you know no more about nutrition than your ancient ancestors did, and will make whatever adjustments to how you process what you eat as it deems necessary. That means that when you try to ignore the biological imperative to maintain a biologically desirable weight, your body will try to compensate for that deviation.
Finally, all this apparent precision (in spite of all of the conflicting science) gives the impression that there is only one right way to eat. This makes it very easy to feel you’re doing something “wrong” on a regular basis. It encourages a type of eating behavior (some would call it an eating disorder) called orthorexia. As opposed to anorexia, which is the absence (an-) of appetite or desire to eat (orexia), orthorexia refers to hypercorrect eating with an implication of rigidity. Think of “ortho” as in orthopedics, orthodontics, or rigid orthodoxy. When one takes a hard line approach to dieting, a recurrent sense of failure can soon convince you that you are trying to accomplish the impossible. Then it becomes too easy to feel hopeless, to say “what’s the use?” and just give up making any effort at all.
So if regulating appetite and metabolism is our body’s job, then what’s our job? Aside from nutrition, our bodies regulate other things, like temperature. It makes no more sense for a person to try to override the body’s mechanism for automatically regulating nutrition than it does to take over for the way it regulates your temperature. If you’re chilly you put on a sweater. If it gets warmer, you take it off. You don’t try to count the layers of fabric that would be needed to increase your core body temperature by two degrees or try to train yourself to tolerate the cold by refusing to wear more than a sweater in freezing weather. Yet when people diet, they do both of those things to try to manually override their body’s preset default program. Our only real responsibility is to use our common sense and respond to the messages that our body is sending us.
We don’t necessarily have to wait to get the message before acting, like waiting to eat until we’re very hungry, any more than we have to wait for the collection agency to go after us before paying a bill. Instead, anticipate hunger. At this point in your life it should come as no surprise that if you work through lunch without eating, pretty soon you’ll get hungry and you’ll have to stop working. So anticipate that and pack a lunch before going to the office or take a break to eat. But don’t try to do your body’s job.
Eating properly should take no more information about nutrition than putting on a sweater requires the study of thermoregulation. Our bodies are designed to automatically regulate how we use the nutrition that we take in; it uses what it needs and discards the rest. Through the hunger signal, it induces us to give it what it needs when it needs it. If we don’t overthink it, we could stop trying to tell our body what it should be doing and listen to what it’s trying to tell us and let it do its own thing.
How does emotional eating fit in to this? If dieting is a conscious, deliberate attempt to replace the body’s natural way to regulate what you need, binge eating may be, in part, the body’s way to fight back. As Janet Polivy and Peter Herman, writing on the connection between dieting and binge eating, put it,
Successful dieting demands that physiological controls, which by themselves are conducive to a “desirable” weight level, be replaced with cognitive controls designed specifically to achieve a lower weight in line with the dieter’s personal aspirations.
Binge eating, according to them, may be the body’s response to dieting in its ongoing attempt to maintain regulation. But this time, it’s trying to compensate for the person’s behavior that’s working against the body’s efforts. Here’s Polivy and Herman again:
Binge eating may represent the body’s attempt to restore weight to a more biologically appropriate level. Needless to say, this biologically more appropriate level may not correspond to the cultural or personal aspirations of the dieter.
In other words, they’re suggesting a homeostatic model for binge eating that’s based on biological regulation. I agree with that, and I’m taking it one step further to add a psychological component to that argument. Just as we have a built-in requirement to balance our nutritional needs, we need to do the same for our emotional needs; specifically, as I have been saying all along, the balance between autonomy and responsibility.
 Polivy, J. & Herman, C.P. (1985) Dieting and Binging: A Causal Analysis. American Psychologist, 193-201.