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Overeating with the Head, Hands, and Heart

Posted Apr 12 2012 12:00am

Now that we have discussed the positive or healthy reasons to eat, let’s look at what I think are the main motives for unhealthy eating. Before talking about what they are it may be helpful to consider three ways to classify motivations behind overeating. Just as healthy eating can be categorized according to bio-psycho-social motives, as discussed in the previous post, unhealthy eating might also be thought of as falling into three general categories: the head, the hands, and the heart. These correspond to rational or intellectually motivated eating (the head); habitual eating behaviors that we engage in without any real awareness of the thoughts or feelings that motivate them (the hands); and eating that’s motivated by an  emotional state (the heart). Obviously, the “head” is behind all of these, but it’s an easy way for me to describe (and for you to think about) what they are.

Overeating that is related to the Head category would include being ignorant of basic information; that is, eating that’s due to a lack of knowledge or awareness about fundamental principles of nutrition. This can happen when such information is not available, accessible, or interesting enough for that person to pay attention to it. Not knowing how to understand the information on nutrition labels is an example of this. Similarly, someone who doesn’t realize that ordering a twenty-ounce steak and eating it in one sitting is not a healthy choice and perhaps assumes that the restaurant must know what it’s doing if it’s on the menu, is, let’s just say, misinformed.

Another type of poor eating that falls under this category is when someone makes a seemingly rational but poor decision. For example, when you go to an all-you-can-eat buffet the cost is fixed, usually prepaid, and the food is virtually unlimited. Does eating more simply because you paid for it and it’s available provide a good value for the money? Or when someone goes to a fast-food place and the sales person offers a “value” meal with a larger burger and fries for just a little more, or when you go to a movie theater and ask for a small popcorn and before getting it for you they’ll offer you a silo of popcorn for an extra fifty cents; is it really a good value? It may seem so, but if the extra amount doesn’t fit into the categories of biological needs, social obligation, or desire, it makes no more sense than buying dog food that’s on sale even though you don’t own a dog. I know – good deal, right?

This kind of thinking applies to how people deal with ingrained messages that they grew up with as well. Even small children usually realize that finishing everything on their plate is not going to help children who are starving elsewhere in the world, but the message that “we paid for it, now eat it and be grateful” is hard for a child to argue with. It may even seem rational to adults too. But once you really stop and think about it, what happens to the excess food that’s eaten? I’ll pause here and let you think about that. Got it? That’s right; it goes into the municipal waste system. Why would you let yourself be a human garbage disposal? It would make a lot more sense to put the food straight into the trash without going through you first.

The Hands represent the kind of mindless habits that have become so routine that we can’t recall making a decision to eat. You may at times have found yourself holding an empty snack bag while watching TV and don’t remember eating what was in it. Of course your body recorded all the calories consumed, but you didn’t even get a chance to enjoy them. Charles Duhigg talks about these routines in his excellent book, The Power of Habit . He describes how the habit loop develops after behaviors are repeated so frequently that it would feel like something is missing if the routine was not performed when the cue that usually triggers it appears. This is what we experience as a craving.

When eating is the routine in that habit loop, it’s not about the enjoyment of or the physical need for the food as it is the satisfaction of that craving. There’s a useful place for mindless routines in life, such as driving, where habits can allow you to focus on and respond to unexpected events instead of expending time and mental energy on deciding whether to move your foot to the brake or accelerator. But with eating, you need to be mindful in order to enjoy the food and know when you have satisfied your hunger or desire so you can stop without overdoing it.

The third category of unhealthy eating, the Heart, is the real subject of this blog, emotional eating. I’ll discuss that in detail in the next post.

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