I often get people telling me that my research interest (or, when I was researching) was awash, since obesity was ˊsimplyˊ an issue related to either physiology, immunology, lack of vitamins, or a secret flu.
One of the more curious ideas, is that children (especially very small children) are equipped with an innate, magical power to eat healthfully. So the myth goes, the child has an acute and keen idea of what, when, and how much s/he should eat. This delicate system is disrupted with age: it is replaced by cultural pressures to be thin, the pressure to be thin thus wreaks havoc on appetite control, and therefore we can all blame the media for the current obesity crisis.
Let me be explicit: I donˊt deny that there is a media influence on body image and associated issues, but the pervasive idea that we are somehow equipped with a perfect system that regulates a ˊhealthy body weightˊ as very small children is what I find so baffling.
The rise in childhood obesity should probably serve to indicate that children are not in fact equipped with a mythical system that just tells them to stop eating when they have had ˊenoughˊ, akin to the idea that I donˊt have an ˊoffˊ switch after two or three Ferrero Rochers, either. There are obviously important physiological factors related to overeating – the rate at which food moves out of the gut, the macro nutrient mix within the foods, state of hunger previous to the eating episode, I could go on for pages. However, I want to focus on the idea that we may in fact have two clear systems related to eating motivation.
Homeostatic versus Hedonic Eating Motivations
I hate the word ˊhomeostaticˊ only because it confuses me in to believing that I have some magical ˊset pointˊ for where my weight should be. Yes, like my height, there are some limited aspects regarding the size of my parents and how it relates to me. I said _limited_. That the obesity crisis exists presents a sharp argument against the idea that we have a certain ˊbody typeˊ or more specificially a ˊset pointˊ. Since 70% of American adults now have a certain set point in common (i.e. being overweight), contradicts the idea that genetics plays as large a role in our physical size as we may like to believe.
The message? If you are unhappy with your size, donˊt blame your genes or even society. You can change it: you are not chained to a ˊbody typeˊ just because your mother or grandmother had a few skin folds. Obviously, some characteristics are not quite so malleable: there are apparently four different fat storage patterns in women, and three in men. But the resounding take away message from this, is: if we are seeing even small children increase in levels of obesity, surely it means that the myth of some perfect system to control energy intake is exactly that: a myth.
Homeostatic eating is used to describe the type of eating to keep us alive. The kind of eating when ANYTHING looks good. The kind of eating that I experienced on a 10 day backpacking trip whereby a solid combination of Rice, Tobasco Sauce, and Dried fruit was heavenly? That is homestatic eating.
The beautiful part about homeostatic eating, is that anything will taste great.
The only tricky issue is that, well, Iˊm dubious that anyone in the 21st century who lives in a city, will actually engage in this kind of behaviour. If you have a fridge, or storage unit to keep food, you will likely prevent yourself from being extremely hungry- it is physically painful to be hungry. We typically avoid being in pain.
A strict homeostatic diet is represented by the gruel traditionally fed to orphans and prisoners, hospital tube feedings, astronaut food, and mothers milk. Homeostatic eating Iˊm referring to is both boring and pragmatic.
Homeostatic Hunger or Homeostatic eating, therefor is not likely driving the obesity crisis.
So, the next type of hunger.
Eating for pleasure! Eating for entertainment, because the food tastes good, because we are bored.
Itˊs funny that describing Homeostatic Eating is significantly more difficult than Hedonic Eating, no?
Years ago, a scientist at the University of Liverpool (names provided upon request) mentioned ever so sharply that all eating, 21st Century, is Hedonically motivated. I remember a casual chat whereby he commented ever so cynically that our access to food corresponds with the fact that nobody really eats for homestatic motivations, just that some people are better at staying lean – for whatever reason that may be.
I used the term ˊNoble Savageˊ to describe how people romanticize this idea that we were somehow much better before the rise of technology, new food production techniques, additives, chemicals etc (NB: The original title of this post was ˊThe Noble Savage and The Birthday Cake… I decided to use a three-year-old instead). Again, people use children to illustrate this idea by suggesting that children are somehow wisely equipped with caloric and vitamin sensing controls that we lose through viewing Us Magazine and drinking diet coke.
Well… hold on a minute -
What do three-year-olds do at their birthdays? They typically throw themselves into the chocolate cake (or maybe my family is full of just plain Savages). This underscores the impact that high sugar high fat pleasant tasting food has: we literally want to throw ourselves into it. Would my three-year-old nephews throw themselves into piles of vegetables with the same gusto that they do with chocolate cake? Unlikely.
The long term consequence for this is not to try and turn back time – i.e. to those good old days of gruel, rice ˊnˊ tobasco, or even espousing the delicacy of astronaut food. I recently read a review of David Kesslerˊs End of Overeating, whereby the critique (Yoni Freedhoff) commented, ˊmanaging nutrition and weight today requires skillpower, not willpower.ˊ
I think this describes a basic ˊhow toˊ for the current food environment. It is difficult to navigate through the various forms of Junk Food, but I donˊt think that simply turning back the clocks to Neanderthal times is the solution either.
And so, I continue to wait patiently for Industry to develop high protein high fiber low calorie Maltesers…
It may take a while yet…
For references that have helped with this article, please see a host of work done by Dr. Michael Lowe.
Lowe, M. R., & Levine, A. S. (2005). Eating motives and the controversy over dieting: eating less than needed versus less than wanted. Obes Res, 13(5), 797-806.
Lowe, M. R., van Steenburgh, J., Ochner, C., & Coletta, M. (2009). Neural correlates of individual differences related to appetite. Physiol Behav.
Mori, D., Chaiken, S., & Pliner, P. (1987). “Eating lightly” and the self-presentation of femininity. J Pers Soc Psychol, 53(4), 693-702.
Pliner, P., Chaiken, S. (1990). Eating, social motives, and self-presentation in women and men. Journal of Experimental Social Psychology, 26, 240-254.