Category: Diets

I’m on a semi-starvation diet, why am I so hungry?

Today, I have another reader question shared by Mealtime Hostage.

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I’ve cut my portions to 1/2 of what I would usually eat (or) I’m trying to stay at 1200 calories a day but I’m soooo hungry!

Of course you’re hungry! You’re eating less than you need, and your body is poking you, trying to get you to eat more.

1200 calories a day is not enough food for most grown-up people.* Unless you’re simply a small, not-very-hungry person (ballpark: 4′ 10″ and 100 lbs.), you’re very likely not eating enough to support your needs.

When it comes to energy and appetite, your body attempts to match your energy intake to your energy expenditure. That means, if you use a lot of energy one day, running around more than usual, you will be hungrier afterward, as your body attempts to make up the deficit. I’ve even experienced “catch up” hunger several days removed from the event.

But the biggest chunk of your energy expenditure comes not from activity, but from existing and continuing to exist, and that depends a lot on how big you are. Bigger people tend to expend more energy just being alive, and therefore, they’re going to need to eat more in order to match their intake to their expenditure. Your body is remarkably accurate at doing this, and research shows a very narrow margin of error in matching intake to expenditure over very long periods of time, for most people. This results in a mostly-stable weight for years at a time.

It’s true that many people’s weights will slowly drift upward over years and decades, but from a survival perspective, your body sees that as less risky than if it were to drift downward. Some people experience dramatic weight instability, gaining and losing lots of weight, sometimes unintentionally, in relatively short periods of time. If there’s no underlying medical issue (like an illness, or a thyroid problem, or a medication interaction), it may be that their eating and/or activity has been chaotic enough to disrupt the body’s usual balancing act.

But, back to your question: if you’re purposely eating fewer calories than you expend, you will feel hungry and your body will attempt to get you to eat more. Sometimes using very sneaky means…like “Ooops a box of cookies!” or “I accidentally the whole pizza.” Your resting energy expenditure might also tank, as your body tries to conserve energy. You’ll be sleepier, less active, and less able to warm yourself up in the cold. And when the weight loss inevitably slows, or you begin regaining weight, you will blame yourself and your lack of willpower, instead of the true culprit: an energy deficit and your body’s clever survival mechanisms.

If long-term research on diet has taught us anything, it’s that most people’s bodies do not like being in negative energy balance — the state required to lose weight — for very long.

People can and do suppress their hunger by focusing intently on their diet, but as soon as their attention wavers — say, they get sick, or they get really busy at work, or some family comes to visit — it is almost inevitable that they will go back to eating more. Often, more than they would have if they hadn’t been restricting. And if their attention never wavers, there’s a chance they’ve triggered an underlying eating disorder.

Ignoring one’s hunger signals requires enormous effort, and I’m not convinced that for people who do it successfully, it’s always a good thing. In the case of an eating disorder, it’s definitely not.

If you’re on a calorie restriction diet, you have two options: you can continue restricting and just put up with the hunger (and the binges and weight regain that will almost certainly follow), or you can decide that your body’s hunger signals are not wrong, are not aberrations, and are, in fact, worth listening to and respecting. You can decide that you have the right to eat what you need, not go hungry, and to weigh what your body prefers…and that you can still improve your health and body image, if you want to, even if your weight never changes.

This does not mean that you must follow every single impulse toward food, because every single impulse toward food is also not respecting your hunger. Most of us are surrounded by hundreds of food cues every day, in the form of advertising, and it makes us think of food even when we’re not otherwise hungry. But you can commit to learning what hunger truly feels like, and then deciding, when it calls, that you will answer it by feeding yourself matter-of-factly and well.

Responding to your hunger appropriately will give you the best chance for long-term weight stability. If you were previously eating more than your body wanted or needed, responding to your hunger might even help you settle at a slightly lower weight. Bonus: it will also provide you with the energy you need to support exercising, running around with your kids, doing hard physical labour, or whatever your life requires. Physical activity will, in turn, further contribute to a stable weight, as well as more energy (and, hopefully, fun) in the moment, and better long-term health.

In my opinion, that’s a much better deal than giving yourself less than you need.

*But there are always exceptions and outliers, and some people naturally eat very little. Energy needs are also very different for hospitalized people, or people with medical conditions that affect their resting energy expenditure.

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Plenty of calories to go around in comments.

Why diets don’t work.

Most diets seem to succeed in the short-term, and fail in the long-term. This is not a new, or even particularly controversial, observation among researchers:

“There are two indisputable facts regarding dietary treatment of obesity. The first is that virtually all programs appear to be able to demonstrate moderate success in promoting at least some short-term weight loss. The second is that there is virtually no evidence that clinically significant weight loss can be maintained over the long-term by the vast majority of people.”

Confronting the failure of behavioral and dietary treatments for obesity, Garner & Wooley, 1991

“Although weight loss can usually be achieved through dietary restriction and/or increased physical activity, the overwhelming majority of people regain the weight that they have lost over the long-term.”

The Defence of Body Weight: A physiological basis for weight regain after weight loss, Sumithran & Proietto, 2013

“Of course, we can all endorse the call for a healthier lifestyle, but we must be realistic about what it can and cannot accomplish – including that it is not by itself an effective approach to long-term obesity treatment.”

An Inconvenient Truth about Obesity, Schwartz, 2012

More in-depth analysis of the failure rate of dieting can wait for another post. The question I’m asking here is, if diets fail for some proportion of people, which they indisputably do, why is that? What is the reason? What are the specific mechanisms at work?

The usual assumption among non-researchers about why diets fail is that when a dieter regains weight, it must be because they stopped dieting, which is in turn attributed to things like not having enough willpower, personal and moral failure, gluttony and laziness, or being too ignorant to know better.

These are assumptions which reflect the mythology of our culture: that anyone, if they try hard enough, can be anything they want — and therefore that weight is entirely a choice, a product of effort and moral character. This story centres the individual, their behaviour, their character traits, and their moral attributes as the cause of fatness in the first place, and the reason why weight is regained following a diet.

But these explanations are not satisfactory to me, nor, as you will see, are they reflected in the scientific literature.

To explore other answers, I haphazardly gathered peer-reviewed articles, spanning a range of more than 30 years, that investigated or discussed the various reasons why weight loss produced by dieting is not maintained long-term.

Here is what they theorize about why diets fail.

1. Behavioural relapse, a.k.a. “going off the diet”

The earlier papers on the failure of dieting focused on behavioural factors, since dieting was, at the time, a relatively new and exciting behavioural intervention for “obesity.” (By the mid-20th century, dieting as a popular pastime was not new, but as a subject of medical research, it was still fairly novel.) Researchers assumed that when someone could not sustain weight loss, it must’ve been due to a breakdown in their new behaviours — people must have gone back to eating more and moving less, just as is popularly assumed.

However, the researchers tended not to lean so heavily on moral explanations for this relapse. One study suggested that the fault lay with lack of scholarly attention to the maintenance phase of behavioural change in designing weight loss plans. This was further complicated by the fact that no one can avoid eating entirely, which makes dieting quite different from other behavioural interventions like smoking cessation programs and abstinence from alcohol.

Alongside this were proposed cultural and commercial pressures to eat, especially calorie-rich and highly palatable foods. There also appeared to be few natural rewards provided by dieting once the intervention phase ended — apparently nothing, not even thinness, feels as good as food tastes.

The researchers were not very optimistic about the usefulness of dieting if it only resulted in regaining weight. An illuminating quote from the conclusion of one paper:

“Research on humans suggests that the deleterious effects of obesity are exerted primarily during periods of weight gain…Its medical consequences may be unfortunate enough that if people cannot maintain weight loss, they would be better off not trying to lose weight!”

Behavior Modification in the Treatment of Obesity: The problem of maintaining weight loss, Stunkard & Penick, 1979

Another paper suggested that culprits for the breakdown of dieting behaviours were negative moods, emotional stress, social pressures to eat more, as well feelings of intense hunger that prompted overeating. But an interesting quote from this same article hints of more than purely behavioural factors:

“The obvious reason for weight regain after weight loss treatment is that participants return to inappropriate eating and exercise habits. These habits need not be as bad as pretreatment habits to cause regain, because metabolic factors may make it easier to regain after a period of dietary restriction…The pattern of relapse and regain appears to be the result of a war between the will and physiologic demands over which self-control appears relatively powerless.”

Why Treatments for Obesity Don’t Last, Goodrick & Foreyt, 1991

So even in cases where behavioural relapse were implicated, researchers seemed to acknowledge that other factors contributed to that relapse (like stress, biological and cultural pressures to eat, and increased hunger), or to the weight regain itself (metabolic changes.)

2. Lowered energy expenditure

Reduced calorie intake and weight loss, it turns out, cause some interesting changes to the body that result in expending fewer calories. In animal studies, changes include decreased body temperature, less spontaneous activity, and lowered resting metabolic rate (the amount of energy the body uses while at rest.)

Reduced total energy expenditure and, possibly, lowered resting metabolic rate after diet-induced weight loss have also been observed in humans. (Conversely, humans who gain weight above their baseline weight through eating have been observed to have an increased resting metabolic rate.)

A person who gains weight would be expected to expend more energy just due to their increased body mass, thus requiring more energy to physically move and biologically maintain it. The same, but in reverse, is true for someone who loses weight – less energy is required to maintain a smaller body.

But the changes in energy expenditure resulting from dieting have been described as “disproportionate,” meaning that they were greater than the changes expected for the amount of weight gain or loss, indicating that some compensatory mechanism meant to restore preferred weight may exist.

In other words, a person who lost weight to reach 150 lbs. may expend fewer calories just existing than someone who has always weighed 150 lbs. And someone who purposely gained weight to reach 150 lbs. may use more calories to maintain their weight than the person who has always weighed 150 lbs.

However, other studies of weight loss in humans have not demonstrated the effect of lowered resting metabolic rate, which leaves the question open.

A nod to weight diversity from the last study linked:

“Body weight in adults is remarkably stable for long periods of time. In the Framingham Study the body weight of the average adult increased by only 10 percent over a 20-year period. Such a fine balance is evidence of the presence of regulatory systems for body weight. Whatever the mechanism (or mechanisms), the weight at which regulation occurs differs from one person to another, and these differences are almost certainly due in part to genetic and developmental influences.”

Changes in Energy Expenditure Resulting from Altered Body Weight, Leibel, Rosenbaum, and Hirsch, 1995

3. Fat storage and insulin sensitivity

Another physiological change produced by weight loss is increased insulin sensitivity. This is generally considered a good thing, but it may also leave people vulnerable to weight regain. We may need to go back to a little high school biology to cover this one adequately.

Insulin is a hormone that the pancreas releases into your bloodstream. Insulin’s main life goal is to act like a key that allows glucose, also flowing through your bloodstream, into your cells, which then use the glucose for energy.

When a person’s cells become resistant to insulin, the glucose can’t get into the cells — it then builds up in the blood, eventually causing high blood sugar. Meanwhile, the cells switch to using fat for fuel.

With weight loss, cells become more sensitive to insulin, which allows glucose to enter the cell once more. Those cells use that glucose, and the fat that would otherwise be used for energy is directed back into storage, which may spell weight gain.

Experimental research in humans has indeed demonstrated that increased insulin sensitivity following weight loss from dieting predicts the amount of weight the person will eventually regain. The researchers are careful to point out that increased insulin sensitivity, alone, is not enough to cause weight regain, but in combination with lowered energy expenditure (see above) and increased food intake (see below), it certainly helps.

From this same paper:

“Following weight reduction, there is a 95% failure rate for obese individuals to stay weight-reduced more than 4 years (5). After obese subjects undergo weight reduction, metabolism shifts to favor weight regain…These metabolic phenomena result in the shunting of lipid fuels away from oxidation in muscle to storage in adipose tissue, and in the setting of positive energy balance, increases in body weight and percent body fat occur.”

Weight Regain Following Sustained Weight Reduction is Predicted by Relative Insulin Sensitivity, Yost, Jensen, and Eckel, 1995

4. Increased appetite

During and after weight loss, levels of several hormones involved in appetite regulation change significantly.

Hormones that promote feelings of fullness and inhibit food intake (including leptin, peptide YY, GLP-1, cholecystokinin, and amylin) are decreased with weight loss. Meanwhile, ghrelin, a hormone that stimulates hunger, is increased, along with reported food preoccupation and appetite.

Again, these responses may indicate the existence of a regulatory mechanism intended to restore preferred body weight:

“Taken together, these findings indicate that in obese persons who have lost weight, multiple compensatory mechanisms [encourage] weight gain…Furthermore, the activation of this coordinated response in people who remain obese after weight loss supports the view that there is an elevated body-weight set point in obese persons and that efforts to reduce weight below this point are vigorously resisted.”

Long-Term Persistence of Hormonal Adaptations to Weight Loss, Sumithran et al., 2011

In addition to feeling hungrier, weight-reduced people show a stronger preference for high-calorie (high sugar and high fat) foods. There are also changes in brain activity patterns indicating that weight-reduced people are more responsive to food rewards, while brain areas associated with controlling one’s food intake are less active.

The hypothalamus, a part of the brain that may act as a “brake” on the homeostatic tendency toward weight gain, shows decreased activity in people who have lost weight, which affects both food foraging behaviour and metabolism to favour eating more and regaining weight.

5. Genetic predisposition to gain weight

It has long been understood that body weight has a significant genetic component.

Research in pairs of identical twins shows that there is also a significant genetic component to weight loss, including how much and what type of fat is lost, and the rate of fat burning relative to use of glucose for energy.

On the other side of the coin, population studies of twins have shown an association between dieting attempts and subsequent weight gain, which probably reflects a pre-existing tendency to gain weight that is powerful enough to counteract weight loss attempts.

From that study:

“The poor success in weight maintenance after dieting predisposes individuals to the vicious cycle of frequent dieting attempts and weight regain. The relation between weight cycling and subsequent weight gain is well described in the literature. Part of the weight gain occurring in young adults may be regarded as physiologic, and is likely to occur independently of attempts to lose weight.”

Weight-loss attempts and risk of major weight gain: a prospective study in Finnish adults, Korkeila et al., 1999

Another study using twin data indicates that some of the weight gain may also be due to dieting itself, independent of genetics.

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As you can see, moral explanations for weight regain leave a lot to be desired. They reflect lazy thinking. A person’s drive to eat, combined with their tendency to regain lost weight, is clearly more dependent on physiology than on moral corruption, or even simple ignorance.

Biology drives behaviour. It also primes the body to most efficiently exploit that behaviour. What is often interpreted as weakness of will and greediness by our culture is actually the result of a complex orchestration of genetic, homeostatic, metabolic, hormonal, and neurological processes influencing us to eat, restore lost weight, and ultimately survive.

And a final quote:

“…metabolic conditions after weight loss may not be the same as they were prior to gaining the weight in the first place. Instead of working in our favor to prevent weight gain, biology becomes one of the driving pressures that underlie weight regain.”

Biology’s response to dieting: the impetus for weight regain, MacLean et al., 2011

If you’ve ever regained weight after a diet, you are in very good company. Most dieters regain the weight. You are not lazy, stupid, or greedy. You did not fail — on the contrary, your body worked hard to save you.

The good, the bad, and all the rest of it.

Just been doing a lot of reading and thinking lately.

“In line with his overall body of work, Pollan suggests in Cooked that even to discuss the science of food is to begin the slide down a slippery slope that ends in the culturally corrosive and ecologically unsustainable structures of agribusiness. Put simply, ‘good’ transformations of the edible world are premodern and elemental, while ‘bad’ ones are industrial and high tech.”

Michael Pollan’s Dilemma

“As an historian I cannot accept the account of the past implied by Culinary Luddism, a past sharply divided between good and bad, between the sunny rural days of yore and the grey industrial present…The Luddites’ fable of disaster, of a fall from grace, smacks more of wishful thinking than of digging through archives. It gains credence not from scholarship but from evocative dichotomies: fresh and natural versus processed and preserved; local versus global; slow versus fast; healthful versus contaminated and fatty. History shows, I believe, that the Luddites have things back to front.”

A Plea for Culinary Modernism

“‘Cooking is a language,’ writes Lévi-Strauss, ‘through which society unconsciously reveals its structure.’…But because these categories of [raw, cooked, and rotten] food are constructed by words, associations, and oppositions, it’s easy for food marketers to misleadingly align an image of their product with our expectations of rawness, naturalness, or healthiness. Hence, ‘health halo’: yogurt, for example, is almost universally accepted to be a more natural, wholesome alternative to ice cream — even though some yogurts are just as loaded with processed, denaturalized sugars. Juicing tends to push our buttons for ‘pure’ food although the processing strips out many of the vital plant nutrients. Even the much-debunked Paleo diet depends on an opposition between the raw and the cooked—obviously dieters are not meant to eat raw proteins, but the appeal of the system lies the imagined foodscape of a simpler, more ‘natural’ time.”

Raw, Cooked, Rotten

Royal Fruit Gelatin back

Gelatin: Pure AND modern.

Read anything interesting lately?

Fresh starts, clean slates, and you.

French version of this post here, courtesy Stéphanie Potin-Grevrend.

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Happy new year.

Like many of you, I’ve spent the last few weeks eating differently than I do most of the year. There were more cookies, more pastry, more mashed potatoes and stuffing, more candy, more cream, and more liquor than usual. There were probably fewer salads, and certainly not my usual measure of frozen berries.

Outside of my plate, there were other differences: more decorations. More jubilant music. More lights. More television specials. More wrapping paper. More shopping. More travel. More more more more of many, many things. And now as I sit at my desk, on the second day of the new year, there has been a sudden ceasing of it all. Things are quiet. Decorations are put into plain brown boxes. Even the landscape is different, transformed on Boxing Day from muddy green and brown, to a white, rather bare scene, a clean slate.

There is a lot of symbolism attached to the new year, and a lot of pressure building to transubstantiate that symbolism into action.

I have always loved this time of the year, because I, like most people, love a clean slate. It is a yearly renewing of hope, even in times that are deeply screwed-up. I crave hope, I love it, and I absolutely need it. Without hope, life may well end. And the hope of a new start brings with it a sort of pleasing purity, as though the past can be obliterated with a fresh coat of paint, or covered over with the blank paper of a turned leaf. I suddenly want to whiten my sheets, mop the floors, scrub the bathtub. I want to wash my face with something that promises me a new one. And, like a lot of people, I want my nice, crisp, clean salad back on my plate.

Humans being what they are, omnivorous seekers after variety, I think it is natural for us to crave, after a period of sensory indulgence, a sort of purifying restraint. I don’t necessarily think this is a negative thing, though it can, like anything, be taken to destructive extremes.

This impulse, I believe, is so common that marketers and product makers seized on it long ago, and have used it to drive sales of various purifying foods, devices, and ideas. You can (allegedly) scrub out your intestines with a cleanse or a fast, you can purchase a cool, precise bathroom scale to measure your progress toward a purer existence, unencumbered by the smelly inconvenient demands of heavy corporeality, you can buy a diet book that encourages you to purge your cupboards of toxic, processed, messy, fattening foods and replace them with clean, wholesome, unprocessed, sanctified super-foods, and you can take the aspirational grocery shopping trip that will achieve this (and deal with the inevitable fridge full of rotting produce that results when the lustre of purity has been dulled by the messy demands of daily life.)

In turn, these products promising a fresh start have reinforced the impulse toward restraint in the new year, and ingratiated themselves into that natural impulse to become almost official rites. The popular custom of new year’s dieting is an example of the impulse capitalized upon and expanded into a collective tradition, heavy on religious and moral symbolism, but expressed in reassuringly crisp scientific prose, complete with numerical, damn near economic, accounting mechanisms.

They allow you to reimagine yourself not as an animal who lives and dies, eats and shits, who is lustful and afraid, full of inconveniently dark and unknowable recesses, both physical and psychological, but rather as a modern biochemical machine, a neatly-labeled schematic on white paper whose mysteries are laid bare, housing a ghost of pure spirit and light who condescends to eat only as an impatient concession to physical necessity, and who therefore dines on distilled biochemistry garnished with the most forward-thinking evolutionary rationalizations.

By March, it will all be over.

All I’m saying is, be careful out there. Enjoy your sense of new beginnings, follow your cravings for foods that provide a bracing contrast to what you’ve recently been glutted with, but be reluctant to deny your humanness in the process.

It is, after all, what you will come home to in the end.

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Ritual purification in comments.

Food addiction, natural rewards, and self-fulfilling prophecies.

French version of this post here, courtesy Stéphanie Potin-Grevrend.

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Warning: in this post I disagree with certain ideas and express opinions based on my own thinking, experience, and education. Ready your smelling salts.

In an earlier post, I wrote about why some people find food restriction comforting and reassuring. Today I want to talk about the idea of food addiction and why some people find it a helpful construct, but why I ultimately do not think it is accurate or helpful in the long term.

To begin with, I do not doubt that people experience feeling out of control with certain foods in a way that feels very much like an addiction.

I also don’t doubt that, at least partially or temporarily, banishing the particular foods that seem to trigger this feeling can result in feeling more in control.

But “addiction” is a specific thing, and feelings alone are not enough to make it a reality. In order for food addiction to be real (behavioural addictions like gambling aside, for the sake of simplicity), food should qualify as an addictive substance in and of itself. Indeed, several writers and researchers would argue that certain foods are indistinguishable from addictive drugs, but I disagree.

It is true that reward pathways in the brain are triggered by foods (some types of food more than others), and those same reward pathways are activated by the use of certain addictive drugs. But this does not mean, ipso facto, that certain foods are identical to drugs.

First, we need food to survive. We do not need addictive drugs to survive (except in some cases where the addiction has progressed to the point of very high drug tolerance.) Second, it is next to impossible to overdose and kill yourself with food (in the form of food, not a concentrated vitamin or mineral supplement) unless you have some disease, food allergy or intolerance – and in this case, it is the condition that is to blame, not the food. Third, while food can certainly impact your mood and give you pleasure, it does not produce altered states of consciousness or affect one’s judgment in the way addictive drugs do.

All of this should be obvious, but people seem to forget these important points in their desperation to compare fat people to drug addicts.

Even more importantly, I would assume that the reward pathways shared by both food and addictive drugs exist, in the first place, because of things like food. These are called natural rewards.

Food needs to be rewarding to eat, or we all would have died off long ago, because it requires a lot of effort to find and prepare. It requires far, far less effort now than ever before in human history, and even still, a lot of people find food gathering and preparation to be such a pain that they avoid it at all costs. Imagine how much worse those people would have fared as hunter-gatherers, or farmers, or even just home cooks before the rise of value-added/convenience/pre-prepared foods.

Even the foods people now think of as very basic staples used to cook from “scratch” are actually pretty highly processed compared to the raw article – dried pasta and legumes, canned tomatoes, bread or milled flour, pasteurized and homogenized milk, ripened cheeses, butchered and packaged cuts of meat, ground and dried herbs and spices. And still, we often complain about how much effort cooking is – meaning that food has to be pretty damn rewarding to make it worth even a moderate effort, while still remaining absolutely essential to survival.

Additionally, certain foods in the wild are more scarce, and more biologically valuable, than others. When food is hard to come by, stumbling upon a source of concentrated calories, such as sugars and fats, or stumbling upon a source of the very important electrolyte sodium, is extremely lucky and makes us more likely to survive and pass on our genes. Finding a stash of honey or a salt lick or seal blubber is like winning the biological lottery, and as such, it makes sense that we would evolve mechanisms to reward us for that.

Yes, it is true that we now live in a world where sugar, fat, and salt are available on demand. It’s also true that many of us have plenty of all kinds of food at our disposal – both macro- and micronutrient dense – provided we have enough money and access to stores and cooking facilities. And, lastly, it is also true that having too much or too little of any nutrient can directly cause disease or generally increase risk.

However, even in an environment where food is abundant and cheap, I believe humans do have the ability to self-regulate, even in the face of extremely naturally rewarding foods containing lots of sugar, salt, and fat. If we are well-fed and nourished on a regular basis, and if we include those extremely rewarding foods as part of our diets along with all the other foods we need to maintain good health, we are far less likely to go off the deep-end when presented the opportunity to eat a random Twix bar.

So why, in this food-secure world that many of us inhabit, do many of us still snatch after the Twix bar like it’s a life raft?

Because, with the rise of the accessibility of food to those who can afford it, also came the rise of food restriction, food rules, and a scarcity mindset around food. You can think of these things as a sort of induced food insecurity. Even if you have adequate access to food and eat enough of it on a regular basis, the continual messaging from both internal and external sources that you shouldn’t eat that food, that you shouldn’t eat that amount of food, that you will start dieting on Monday, that that delicious food will kill you, or even that you are too fat to deserve to eat at all, scares the very ancient and vulnerable part of you that still thinks starvation could be around the corner at any moment, and thus throws a little neurotransmitter party whenever a wild Twix appears!

Ellyn Satter says “permission is the paradox that gives control.” I’ve seen this at work in myself, and in dozens of clients.

With a truly addictive substance, permission and unfettered access would likely perpetuate the addiction and the feeling of loss of control. With food, in the context of eating competence, the opposite is true. The more permission you have, the less scarcity you fear, and the more responsible you become about feeding yourself in the ways that count, the more in-control you feel around food.

I used to have a bit of a fixation on sweets. Since childhood, they had been a mildly forbidden food, and even when I was allowed to eat them, it was always with the understanding that they were somewhat bad, and I assumed that I was somewhat bad for liking them so much, and I believed that I could never really be in control with them.

In adulthood, my experience with dieting only intensified this feeling, and when I stopped dieting and tried to learn to eat normally, it took several years of giving myself permission and sometimes overeating and feeling slightly out-of-control with sweets before I finally calmed down. What seemed to do it was 1) making sure that I ate dessert once or twice a day, usually with lunch or dinner, every day, and 2) keeping at least some basic sweet (like vanilla ice cream) in stock in my kitchen at all times, buying more when I ran out, and 3) acknowledging that part of human nature is to find sugar really attractive, because of the aforementioned biological value.

I feel quite happy now with sweets. I will occasionally eat too much in one sitting and feel a little bit off afterward, and I accept that. It only happens once every few months, and I think it is part of the human experience, and part of eating competence even, to sometimes make mistakes with eating and then let your body sort itself out. I learn from those mistakes because I don’t get caught up in the shame-spiral of judging myself. I usually end up feeling less hungry afterward for the next few meals or the next day, or I start craving a completely different type of food that seems to address the feeling of imbalance.

Most of the time, I eat an amount of sweets that feels fine in my body, even if it’s more than the serving size on the label, and I accept that. And sometimes I don’t think about or crave anything sweet at all, except for the sugar in my coffee, often for days at a time. Candy, cookies, and ice cream can sit in my kitchen without being eaten immediately, waiting for the time when I actually want them.

In my opinion, the model of food as addictive substance ultimately is a distraction from the real issue, which is a lack of eating competence or a rift in a person’s relationship with food. As one of my commenters pointed out in the previous post on this topic, sometimes people simply don’t have the resources to deal with the root problems, and some form of restriction can be a temporary work-around. I agree, this is true with dieting, and it can be true with the idea of food addiction.

However, my problem is that when people take on these temporary measures as a means of self-help, they often don’t leave them at that. They often start to generalize these measures into absolute truths about the nature of food and people, and reify concepts like “food addiction” into actual, concrete phenomena rather than useful metaphors for how they, personally, feel about food.

That is a problem because it adds to the negative, controlling discourse around food and bodies in our culture, and because people within this culture, who have internalized negative, controlling ideas about eating, are likely to take such a concept at face-value because it feels true, even if the biology of natural rewards vs. addictive substances, and the fact that food is essential to survival, say different.

The truth is, food is not an addictive substance, although addictive substances hijack the same reward pathways that were forged by food. That, combined with a fear of scarcity in a very food-negative culture, can very closely mimic an addiction. But the food addiction concept and the subsequent treatment of complete abstinence from that particular food are limited solutions, and they do not reach the roots of the problem, which are poor eating competence and fear of scarcity. If we continue to promote the concept, I believe that it will deepen people’s fear of scarcity, and subsequently their lack of control with food, and become something of a self-fulfilling prophecy.

If you call food an addiction often enough, it will scare people. When people are scared, they will have a harder time eating competently. When they are not eating competently, they will often succumb to binge eating and being out of control with “forbidden” foods, which we will then diagnose as a food addiction. So it goes.

The answer is to treat all food like it is food, calm down and manage anxiety about eating, make sure you are eating enough food at consistent times, and eat a variety of different foods, healthy and “unhealthy” alike, with lots of permission and a refusal to beat yourself up over it.

(Or we could just keep doing what we’re doing and see how miserable and food-preoccupied everyone becomes in the coming years.)

Cat Pausé just published a nice, nuanced post that goes into more detail about the research into food addiction. If you’re interested in hearing more than just my opinion, check it out.

Today, I’m not really hosting a debate, though respectful discussion and further points are always welcome.