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We’ve probably all experienced overeating at some point, overindulging during a meal and adjusting our zippers afterwards, lamenting “if only I had more self control!” In the age of fad diets and SlimFast, our society’s preoccupation with weight loss and dieting has diverted attention from other important issues such as overeating, which remains an understudied phenomenon. In a study of 4700 participants from the US, 7.9% of women and 2.4% of men reported subclinical overeating paired with loss of control. Overeating, or excessive ingestion past satiation, is a common problem in our society that contributes to various health issues such as obesity, heart disease and even diabetes. However, it is important not to confuse overeating with binge eating, which includes recurrent episodes of excessive eating combined with distinct distress. In order to prevent overeating, I think we should stop fixating on not having “enough” inherent self control and focus instead on adjusting unhealthy situational influences such as social eating, food portions and boredom.
What if everyone has enough self control to stop overeating, but just not enough motivation to execute it at certain times? Current research contradicts the original idea that self control is an exhaustible resource, suggesting that it is an unlimited reserve dependent on our personal perceptions and motivations. When participants were primed to believe that self control wanes over time, they showed a decrease in self control abilities over time, but those who were primed to think of control as a renewable and inexhaustible reserve showed no drops in self control. Moreover, another experiment demonstrated that monetary incentives can instantly increase people’s self control, even for participants who previously demonstrated a lack of control. These studies illustrate that self control wanes not from lack of ability, but from shifts in motivation where people’s goals and preferences change over time. In regard to overeating, it is not that one does not have “enough” self control to control their eating habits, perhaps people are no longer motivated to control their eating habits due to situational influences.
The social setting influences how much food people eat. Studies show that people eat 40-70% more calories in the presence of family and friends compared to eating alone. This occurrence has been coined the term “social eating,” where friends and family encourage overeating by extending duration of meals and or providing a more pleasant environment for eating. Research demonstrates that people rate a test meal as more appetizing when the meal was eaten with other people. People also show an increased preference for high fat and sugary foods when eating with other people. Therefore, social eating not only influences amount of food eaten, but also the types of food people choose. One might overeat when distracted by conversation since it distracts attention from processing food cues, disturbing normal satiation.
Food portions play a big role in contributing to overeating in our society. An average person is asked approximately 106 times a year whether they would like to upgrade to a larger meal, include an unhealthy side, or add a sugary drink or snack during checkout. This upselling marketing scheme, called the “drip-drip effect” contributes to an average of 330 extra calories a week, which translates to around 2.3kg additional weight gain per year. Based on a survey of 2055 British participants, 32% reported ordering a larger meal than originally anticipated in the past week. Moreover, portion size also affects overeating. Researchers Wansink, Painter and North conducted an experiment where participants ate either from normal bowls or “bottomless” bowls that were being refilled constantly through a concealed tube. Those with “bottomless bowls” ate 73% more soup compared to participants who ate out of normal bowls. Although simple, this experiment demonstrated that simple environmental factors like portion size can influence human food intake. Although Wansink has been criticized for the replicability of his previous studies, it does not mean we should completely negate the effects of portion size on overeating. One lesson to be learned from the replicability crisis is that all scientific studies should be interpreted with a grain of salt.
Various studies have shown that participants frequently report eating when bored. More importantly, boredom is not just associated with food intake, it also directly promotes overeating. This was demonstrated by Abramson and Stinson’s experiment. Researchers assigned a creative writing task to 30 participants and asked the other 30 people in the “bored” condition to write the letters c and d repeatedly for half an hour. The key is measuring amount of Wheat Thin crackers participants in the bored vs engaged groups ate respectively. Unsurprisingly, the bored group ate nearly twice as many crackers as the engaged group. People eat when bored not because boredom induces physical hunger, but because people will go to great lengths to avoid being bored. Other studies have demonstrated that participants will go as far as self administrating electrical shocks during boredom inducing experiment trials.
It should be mentioned that overeating is subjective and harder to pinpoint and measure compared to distinct disorders such as anorexia. There are also many other situational factors that could also influence overeating, but research on this topic is currently not consummate enough to provide an exhaustive list of potential factors. Also, just because a person is put into a situation that promoted overeating does not mean everyone will succumb the desire to overeat. Further research should be conducted to examine why people overeat, who is more susceptible to overeating, and other cues that trigger overeating. However, current research suggests that overeating is not a matter of lack of self control, but an issue of perception and motivation. In order to decrease overeating, we should be cognizant of our food portions and try to be cognizant of how much we eat under vulnerable situations like social outings or when we find ourselves being bored.
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