Friday, September 11, 2009

Curb Your Appetite

The title of the Time magazine article is almost great: "The Social Side of Obesity: You Are Who You Eat With." Link here.

I qualify it as "almost" great because I would have preferred that they emphasize health, not obesity.

Putting that aside, author Shahreen Abedin does very well to place eating disorders within a social context.

Where classical therapy has defined the problem in terms of the relationship between mind and appetite, more recent research has started with the fact that we are hard-wired to eat with others. This research shows that whom we eat with greatly influences how we eat, what we eat, and how much we eat.

So, therapy got it wrong. Worse yet, by failing to place eating withing a social context it doomed individuals to an unending struggle with appetite.

When therapy teaches people to see themselves as unique, autonomous, independent individuals, each of whom it trying to control the appetites that risk taking over their lives, it is consigning them to inevitable failure.

If it's just you and your appetite, alone in front of the refrigerator, the chances are very, very good that you are going to lose. People who binge, binge alone. Admittedly, some groups get together to engage in binge-eating-- or more commonly, binge-drinking-- but the average binge eater binges alone.

Thus, one way to help a person overcome the tendency to binge-eat is to encourage him to eat with others, in a group. Meals are rituals and rituals satisfy the need to feel like part of a group. Thus, no one will have to satisfy that need by overeating.

If the individual is left to struggle with his appetite by himself, he might well find some unsavory ways to do so. For example, we know well that depression suppresses appetite. Thus, some people will have a vested interest in maintaining a low level of depression because it helps with their weight control.

But when a depressed person feels the depression lifting and old appetites returning he might feel anxious that he will start overeating. Thus he might work out a way to restore the depression.

But we should also note-- to complicate things-- that you do not have to have a strong appetite to eat a lot. Some people use food to medicate depressive or anxious states. They feel desperate and mistake desperation for appetite.

And some people select certain foods because of their biochemical properties. Eating too much dulls their anguish at being alone.

The cure is not to learn how to control appetite, but to choose to eat with others.

According to the Time magazine report, the best and healthiest way to control appetite does not involve counting calories, measuring portion size, or strengthening your ego's control over your impulses. All you have to do is to arrange to share a meal.

But not just with any others.

Here the research has made some important distinctions. You will eat more with a friend or family member than with a stranger. The need to make a good impression on another person, thus to forge a new connection, induces better behavior. As you know, you are going to be connected to your parents, children, and siblings no matter how much you eat.

Also, when you are at a normal weight and you are eating with someone who is overweight you will likely eat more than you usually would. Apparently, your appetite will yield to your concern that the other person not feel badly about overeating.

If, however, you are overweight and are eating with a skinny person, you will be likely to eat less. This suggests that appetite also yields to an urge to conform.

If we introduce gender into the equation, some interesting things happen. When a woman is eating with a man, say, on a date, she will eat less than she would if she were eating with a girlfriend. Research has also shown that the more men there are at a table, the less a woman will eat.

The same does not seem to apply to men. Researchers believe that a man's caloric intake is unaffected by the presence of a woman.

This feels counterintuitive, but that does not necessarily make it true. If a man is trying to impress a date, he would, in my view, be less likely to pig out. He would also be more likely to eat more when he is surrounded with his friends in that classical male bonding ritual of watching a football game.

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