The Impulses of Impulse Eating

February 11, 2014

We have all done it. We’re cleaning up after a party, holiday feast, or other celebration and you munch as you go. There’s one cookie left on the plate, and we eat it. We’re not hungry, but it’s there. Are you hungry? Nope, but we eat anyway.

What’s up? Are we weak-willed losers, or is there something more to impulse eating? Well, it’s complicated, and I am no expert on what makes us tick. Suffice it to say that I only know what I know from experience and talking to experts on the subject.

And while there’s lots of advice out there, most of it makes me cringe because very little of this sage advice seems to be steeped in our reality. For instance, Brian Wansink, PhD, author of Mindless Eating: Why We Eat More Than We Think recommends strategies like snacking on healthy fruits and vegetables when you arrive at a party or holiday gathering to avoid overeating when faced with the vast array of delectable treats and rich foods. So what he is saying is that when faced with Aunt Polly’s cheesecake, show a little restraint and choose carrot sticks and you’ll be fine. Seriously?

He goes on to suggest we sit next to a slow eater which will, in turn, slow us down. Thus, we will eat less. We should also buy smaller plates so we can’t pile as much food as we can on a big plate. Good advice. But here’s my favorite: low lighting and upbeat music will make you eat more, so skip the atmosphere and pop in a yoga CD to keep your eating on track. I suppose if you fall asleep at the table you’ll eat less, but there has to be a better way.

Look, I am no shrink, and there certainly are psychological parameters to impulse eating as many experts have shown. I feel as though most of the advice about successful weight control simply tells us to be grown-ups and exercise a little discipline. Nevertheless, a little more understanding about why we eat what we eat can go a long way towards controlling our impulses.

I grew up in an Italian family and food was (and is) central to just about everything we do. Bad day? We comfort with food. Great day? We celebrate with food. Birthday? More food. Any occasion…or simply because it’s Tuesday, we grew up celebrating with food. As an adult, I have the great blessing of traveling to Italy for business. What I see there is a culture that is food-centric, but not food-obsessed as it seems ours has become. Americans are glued to television shows where people decorate cakes or bake cupcakes. We watch ‘celebrity chefs’ travel the country and eat. Yes, we watch them eat. Keep in mind, they aren’t teaching us how to make the food; we just watch them eat it.

Scintillating entertainment, it ain’t. Food-obsessed is a more appropriate term.

In other countries, where chefs are not rock stars, but well…chefs, (the people who cook dinner when you don’t), there is a more reasonable view of food. Portions are naturally smaller, people are generally more active, and meals are more leisurely so people eat more slowly (they thereby eat less just like Dr. Wansink advises). They enjoy what they eat and stop eating when they are no longer hungry.

So what went wrong in our modern world? Are we all weak? We certainly can’t blame it all on food television. Advertisers hold a piece of the puzzle, surely. Their goal is to sell you more or everything… cars, clothes, shoes, televisions, phones, and yes, food. Factor in the flavor houses that work with manufacturers and marketers to intensify the flavors of food so that we become addicted and you have our modern food addiction.

What are we to do? Is there hope?

Sure, but we do have to act like grown-ups…just a little. As you can guess, it all begins in the kitchen. When you cook for yourself and your loved ones, there is a level of control that doesn’t exist anywhere else. The moment you eat outside your home, the moment a chef, food manufacturer or even Aunt Polly is doing the cooking, you can rest assured you are getting more fat, sugar, salt and calories than you need… or want.

When you do the cooking, you decide exactly what is in the food you consume. It’s our best bet for controlling what we eat and our best bet to create health and break the habit of impulse eating. Does this mean we can never eat out? Not at all. But it does mean cooking and eating at home more often. If you lay a foundation of healthy eating for most of your meals, you have the leeway, the wiggle room, if you will, to indulge on occasion.

The problem is that every meal has become an indulgence so we struggle with what normal eating looks like. As a result, we see healthy eating as dull, boring and grim. Nothing could be further from the truth. Once you eat healthfully on a regular basis, you discover that the food is delicious, that you love the flavors and you love how you feel. Eating out becomes what it was meant to be…a special occasion. And interestingly, the food will taste so rich and indulgent that you will eat less of it and still feel satisfied.

The catch is that you have to cook. You have to create food and create your health. That’s where I come in. Healthy meals that taste indulgent are my specialty. My mission is to show people how easy it is…and how delicious…to eat healthy food and feel satisfied…and achieve robust vitality as a result. It can be done. You need not be a slave to the last cookie on the plate and you don’t need silly advice that has no basis in reality to break your bad habits. You do, however, need to cook.