There's a reason why there's no theme cruise for Overeaters Anonymous. Unfortunately the 24x7 availability of food and the relentless cues to eat more are not limited to cruise ships. In this video, I talk about some of the reasons for weight gain and overeating, and what you can do about it.
That would be something to celebrate, if it weren't for the 9 pounds I gained in 2 weeks. So that led me to the question: Given the chance, will cruise ship food kill you? Or just make you wish you were dead?
Cruise ships are big business. And it's well accepted that one the main attractions is the chance to eat 24 hours a day. In a country where two thirds of us are overweight or obese, we seem to live in constant fear of going hungry.
I checked on Google. There are 301,000 people a month searching for the phrase "All you can eat". Guess how many people search for "Tips to stop eating": just 720 lonely souls, fighting the trend.
320 people searched for "binge eating tips" but I'm not sure if they were looking for tips to stop, or how to get better at it.
It's not just that you can eat 24 hours a day, it's that there are constant cues that you should have another meal, or at least a little snack between your buffets. On a cruise ship, you can't get to the pool without walking by a couple restaurants, and then, once you're there, you'll find a pool-side pizza, burger and ice cream stand. Not to worry, a server from the bar is at hand to make sure you've got a bucket of beers to wash it all down with. And there's a whole cargo hold full of deserts. If you want to go to the gym to work off a few calories, you have to walk all the way up to the pointy end. You'll burn off a couple calories getting there, but only if you safely navigate the phalanx of snack bars on the way.
Those constant cues to eat are important, and the whole point of today's tirade is that they are not limited to cruise ships or vacation venues in general. They are all around us - and they are relentless.
Most of us are slaves to some extent, to the see-food diet. When you see food, you want to eat it. Visual cues are very powerful, whether it is an attractively laid out table, or a commercial for a restaurant, designed to target every physical and emotional trigger possible.
A study of food commercials in television programs found that kids ate 45% more while watching programming that included food advertisements. A different study with adults showed a less dramatic increase in consumption, but they were given the opportunity to eat after the programming, rather than during the shows.
And it's not just the obvious advertisements that are used as triggers. On TV, many scenes with popular characters are involved with eating. Advertisers more and more use product placements and licensing agreements with popular character s to increase their exposure, rather than just running more commercials. Then there are magazine and radio ads, billboards, websites, games, cell phones and in-store displays all sending signals that it's time to eat again. The impulse-buying displays where you stand in line for the cash register aren't there by accident, and they are often stuffed with high-calorie, low-nutrition treats.
Humans developed as hunter-gatherers who never knew where the next meal was coming from. We have very powerful signals to eat, but no well-developed signals to stop. Even when our stomachs are full, the biochemical response to eating is generally that we should eat a little more, just to be on the safe side. We don't really have an internal mechanism to tell us we've eaten to much fat, and it's worse with sugars. Our serotonin level goes up, and we crave more and more of those happy signals, much like any crack-head. The discomfort from a full stomach is easily ignored.
As a rule, we are designed to store up against possible hard times ahead. Before we had warehouses and refrigerators, we just had body fat as an emergency store of sustenance. We can store a moderate amount of fat pretty comfortably around our center of gravity. And If we lose more than 10% of our weight, our metabolism slows down - the weight loss is seen as a danger signal and the body goes into crisis mode, trying to conserve energy stores against a perceived future of starvation. Rapid weight loss trains your body to prepare for lean times ahead, so after an intense dieting phase, your body tries hard to gain even more weight.
As food, has become reliably and abundantly available (for must of us in the West, at least) we have come to eat more and more.
On average we eat 600 calories a day more than we did in the 1970's. That's about a pound's worth of potential weight gain every week. Most of that increase came from fats and refined grains. I guess at 156 pounds of sugar a year in our diet, there wasn't many more ways to increase our sugar consumption.
Avoiding marketing messages to eat more and eat often is nearly impossible. The answer is more to do with how and what we eat, giving ourselves a chance to receive the relatively weak signals of satiety that our body does send us. The first step is, unsurprisingly, eating real food when we do eat. That means lots of vegetables, whole grains and lean meats. Real food is not only better for you nutritionally, it does a much better job of filling you up.
Don't drink your calories - a large portion of our excessive sugar intake comes from sweetened drinks. You really don't need a 48 once Big Gulp on your way to work. Avoiding simple sugars (including white flour and white rice) helps avoid the brain chemistry signals that trick you into craving even more.
Another great trick with proven results is drinking a large glass of water before meals. This worked really well for people in a study on weight loss. And the ones in the group that had the extra water tended to keep up the habit and keep weight off better after the study than those who didn't do the water trick.
Lastly, don't eat unconsciously. We do this all the time while watching TV or otherwise distracted. Just like those kids in the study, you'll eat more when you're not really thinking about it.
Simple things like chewing thoroughly and sitting down at a dining table to eat will make you more mindful of what you are doing, even if it is a snack between meals.