Tuesday, September 06, 2005

Why did I overeat?

Eating disorders, indeed any kind of disorder, are very rarely caused by only one thing. It took me years to work out the various aspects that were contributing to my steady increase in size. This posting is going to outline what I discovered.

For those who’ve never had a problem with food, the idea that people would eat so much over such a long period of time is bizarre, so it’s easy to just dismiss it as people being greedy. End of story. Therefore, if you want to get back to a ‘sensible’ weight, you just have to engage a bit more willpower and stop eating so much. What doesn’t seem to occur to these people is that if it was that simple, we’d all be doing it.

On the face of it, greed is an issue. I saw the food, I wanted the food. I might already have eaten a plateful, but there was more food in front of me, calling me, beckoning me. I know I shouldn’t but, what the hell, a little more won’t harm. Anything that tastes that good can’t really be bad for me. So that was me being greedy – wanting more than I needed. But this explanation is too shallow. It doesn’t address WHY I was feeling that.

Leptin is a hormone manufactured by the body that helps regulate food intake. You would think that your body would work in such a way that when it needed food it would release a hormone to let you know that it’s time to eat. It turns out that it’s completely the other way round.

The natural state to be in is ravenously hungry - so hungry that you cannot think about anything other than food – and the body releases a hormone, leptin, to suppress it. When you have had enough, you stop feeling hungry. However, what happens if there’s a delay in the leptin reaching your system?

I’ve known plenty of people who would stop eating while there was still food on the plate, stating that they were full up (and it wasn’t even because they didn’t like the food). I never understood this. I don’t start to feel full for up to an hour after I’ve finished eating. This means that even if I had a full plate of food, I could eat it and still feel hungry. So I would have seconds. And then, if I took the plate out to the kitchen I would pick at the bits in the pans and, if still desperate, make myself a sandwich. About 30 minutes later I would start feeling full up, and about 20minutes after that I would start to feel uncomfortably full and bloated, by which time I would begin to regret that I’d eaten so much. At the time, all I could think of was eating. The mind is very good at conning you into thinking that it doesn’t really matter if you have a bit extra – no matter how many times you have felt bloated afterwards.

If there are abnormalities in the system, which delivers and activates leptin, the body can be in starvation mode at the wrong time. I don’t have proof that this is the case with me, but it certainly seems to make a lot of sense from my own experiences.

There’s no doubt that a lot of overeating is quite simply habit. If you are used to eating larger portions, or snacking at particular times of the day then you will, of course, come to expect that level of food at that particular time.

Then there’s the type of food you eat out of habit. Are you used to visiting a burger joint every week? Or are you used to putting excessive cream and sugar in your meals? My parents never liked their greens so my wife was quite surprised when she first cooked me peas and I expressed my dismay at the fact that they had not been cooked with a large knob of butter and a few spoons of sugar.

Another habit established in childhood for many people is clearing their plate – you won’t get any pudding until you’ve eaten your food all up.

Habits can be broken, but they have to be identified before they can be worked on, and it is rare that overeating is due to habit alone. It isn’t the only contributing factor, but it mustn’t be overlooked either.

Comfort eating is another mystery to those that don’t indulge in it. But this is multi-layered too. Sweets are treats. From a young age, many of us are treated to sweets, chocolate, ice cream and puddings as signs of affection from indulging adults. So when we are low, quite apart from the sugar rush, eating these foodstuffs reminds us of a time when we felt good, or someone was expressing their love for us. Sugar and love is a potent combination.

Beyond this, in more extreme emotional states, many of us feel loss, grief, stress and unhappiness as a great gaping hole in our stomachs. Cramming food into it is a way of trying to fill that void.

Some people deal with these emotions with drink, drugs, gambling, shopping and even sex. Some use food instead.

Some people are dealing with past or present instances of emotional, physical and/or sexual abuse. When going through such things a common reaction is to feel responsible in some way for the abuse that you’ve suffered and you will hate yourself for it.

But abuse doesn’t just have to be immediate and perpetrated by one or two people. If you are persecuted by society it is just as easy to lose your self-esteem and begin to hate yourself. And whatever reasons got you to being overweight in the first place, western society will sure as hell make you feel bad about being there. Fat people are viewed as being weak willed, stupid and un-sexy and we are constantly being bombarded with media images that tell us thin is good. So if you don’t feel bad about yourself before you become overweight you sure as hell will afterwards.

So what do you do when you feel bad about yourself? Comfort eat!

Beyond this there is another, darker side, and that is overeating as a form of self-harm. The self-loathing a person feels for him or herself can create a sense of wanting to damage this pitiful wretch they despise so much. In this case, the people are very aware of the damage they are doing to their bodies by overeating, but will abuse their body quite deliberately. This action can quite often be accompanied by alcohol and drug abuse, or even cutting and burning the skin.

Quitting smoking
Anyone who has given up smoking knows that one of the problems is finding something to occupy the hands and mouth. I quit smoking 15 years ago and put on weight quite quickly. Over 30 times a day I was used to placing a cigarette in my mouth, so mints, sweets and snacks very easily substituted this habit. However, it is worth pointing out that smoking is worse for you than being overweight, as well as worse for anyone near to you breathing in your cancerous fumes.

Much of the processed food we buy, whether at a fast food outlet or even pre-packaged in the supermarket, has an excess of salt, fat, sugar and other additives in order to make the food tastier and more desirable. Simple economics – if you want people to buy more of your product then make sure they want to eat more of it. But where is the line crossed between creating something tasty and something addictive?

If you have never watched “Super Size Me” then I suggest you go out and rent it immediately. Morgan Spurlock ate nothing but McDonalds for one month and this film follows the rapid deterioration of his health. Quite tellingly, he discovered after a while that his mood would get extremely low and he would suffer headaches, yet would miraculously feel better once he’d got a burger in his mouth. Clear signs of physical addiction.

Fighting addiction is not simply a case of being strong. There are help organisations available for alcoholics, junkies and gamblers, but fat people are just seen as weak willed.

Summing up
We all know that eating junk food is no good for us, and that we’d be much healthier if we ate more fresh fruit and veg, so why don’t we do it? Because it’s not about being weak willed, we are up against hard sell from the food manufacturers, society, physical and psychological addictions.

It’s taken many years to identify all the different aspects of habit, comfort eating, self-loathing and addiction, to bring me to a point where I was actually able to begin to effect change. Some of these issues may have been completely obvious to you, but each one was a revelation to me as I discovered them. But it was these revelations that made me realise that the move to healthy eating had to be about lifestyle change and not just some temporary diet.


Amanda said...

Wow! As a sufferer of abuse which led me to eating disorders (mostly bulimia and binge eating) I truly identify with this post. I think it is excellent and more people need to be educated that it is not just about the "food". Thanks!! ;)

Kim Ayres said...

Thank you for taking the time to look through the blog and comment Amanda.

I felt I had to write this because too many people seem to think that overeating is just about food. But if the emotional and physical aspects are not taken into consideraton, then we can never move forward.

Before you can tackle WHAT people eat, you have to tackle WHY they eat in the way that they do.

Anne said...

After having had a good look at your main blog I found my wayto this one. I will really enjoy reading through all your posts on this.
As you may have seen from the couple of photos on my blog, I am quite large (size 22) and I have never dieted in my life, although never been one of those 'I am big and I love it' people either.
So interesting, I am now going to make a cup of tea, ignore the fact that I am at work and have lots to do and I am going to read you blog for the next twenty minutes.

Kim Ayres said...

I hope you find it interesting reading Anne, and I'd welcome any thoughts or comments you might have.

Jacqueline Smith said...

I've been amazed at how much food we really need to survive. I've cut out the evening meal, down sized my other meals and I'm not hungry. I just got use to seeing a filled plate for every meal.

I now have a policy now of not paying for anyone elses dine out. If you want to see real overeating, invite your friend to lunch and tell him/her you'll be paying and see how much they overeat.

Kim Ayres said...

Hi Jacqueline - thanks for taking the time to comment on my blog.

I'm not sure that cutting out your evening meal is that good for your body. It then means you'll be going something like 18 hours or more without food and your metabolism is likely to start storing the fat rather than using it up. I'd give serious consideration to eating something later in the afternoon, even if it's a bowl of thick vegetable soup.

As for the paying thing, you could well be right, although it depends on the person you're with. Not everyone's a scrounger - especially if they have to pay for your meal the next time!

Zazzy said...

This is an excellent summation of reasons that we overeat. They all strike a chord.

I've done a lot of understanding why I do what I do - but haven't made much progress in changing that. I look forward to reading more of your blog.

Kim Ayres said...

Zazzy - welcome to Losing a Hundredweight and thank you for taking the time to comment. I hope you enjoy the blog and feel comfortable enough to comment again.

Freakazojd said...

Yes, great post! I definitely had to work through a lot of head-garbage before starting down the road to a healthier lifestyle, or it wasn't going to stick. I'm still working through some things, but I'm finally at the point where I feel confident that I'll be able to make a permanent change. Every time I tried before I was ready, I'd quit at some point, and the vicious failure cycle would begin anew. I'll keep you posted, and thanks for sending this link over!

Kim Ayres said...

Freakazojd - I'm really pleased you're at a place where you feel you can really push forward with it. Do take a look through some of theotherposts on thesidebar,and if you have any questions or comments, then don't hestiate to let me know :)

Lori Malloy said...

Hi Kim, I just wanted to thank you for your blog, I'm really enjoying it and you're a great inspiration. I'll have you know that I snorted my coffee when I read your big about wanting/now having breasts... LOL

Kim Ayres said...

Hi Lori - welcome to Losing a Hundredweight and thank you for taking the time to comment :)

BlunderProne said...

I needed to read this.

So much in society is put upon us as being weak. The layers you outlined here are all ones I can relate to as I screw my head back on.

The combination of all these factors can feel overwhelming at times ... and ignoring other aspects creates compensation in other areas.

Thanks, I needed this info.

Kim Ayres said...

I'm pleased you found it useful. Too often we are bombarded with the idea that we are just weak willed, greedy and lazy, but it's much more cmplex than that. If we don't take the time to understand the different aspects of our condition, then we will never be free of it

concerned said...

thanks for writing this blog.
really found it informative, and revealing...

now i am a little clearer on why i'm addicted to food...

Kim Ayres said...

I'm pleased you found it useful :)

Morgen said...

One thing you didn't mention is "starvation response" which is a physical response of the body to starvation - it packs all the calories into fat to protect against lean times.

My mom was anorexic and as a result, my sister and I are both overweight. The issue seems to be the starvation response. If I eat several (5-6) small meals a day (less than 300 calories), the weight drops off, but if I miss one of the meals, or eat 3 meals a day as is generally recommended, I put on weight.

This meal-plan is difficult to maintain in today's society. You don't get breaks from work to eat every 2 hours, you have to cook quite a bit, and it seems like my life is ruled by food much more when I eat properly for my body. I really don't like food!

It took me over 50 years to figure this one out. Starving myself thin, I gained weight! What a concept...

Kim Ayres said...

Morgen - that's a good point. I did touch on it in my post The Danger of Dieting, but it was worth expanding on here - thank you :)

talesNtypos said...

Interesting! Food for thought.

Kim Ayres said...

ba-dum tish!

Anonymous said...

Learning to change my thinking is one of the most important aspects of my plan, as well as a good healthy diet and excercise routine. One of the problems that came to light for me was using food to feel good, forget what was bothering me, as well as love that was lacking, and disappearing from the dating world. Lots of emotions rolled up into this Chica! I recently became enlightend that I used food this way and now am trying to change that. I appreciate you shedding light on this very topic, as more people hopefully, will become aware of why fat people are. Disfunctional thinking is what happened to me, and re-training my thoughts isn't easy, but I am so much more aware of them than ever before. You mentioned this too, and that is the first step to fixing it.

Thank you, for taking the time to share your insights and experience. It means a lot to me.

Kim Ayres said...

Anon - every person I know who has not only lost the weight, but kept it off, has had to deal with the mental and emotional side of eating. We might become overweight because of poor diet and bad habits, but to become extremely overweight, there is far more going on.

I'm glad you felt you got something from this post :)

If you comment again, would you be so kind as to use a name? It can be invented, but you just need to use it consistently so I can distinguish your voice from any other anonymous commenter - thanks :)