Are you having trouble controlling your portion sizes and how much you eat?
If you are having trouble “controlling” how much you eat, my guess is that you are looking in the wrong place to find a solution. Hear me out.
While we are smart, goal-setting people, we are biological beings first. We think all we need to do is set goals with our sophisticated thinking brains, and our bodies will cooperate. But most people’s experience is something different. When people limit their food intake, they find themselves thinking about food, they are more sensitive to impulsive food choices in the moment, their portions feel bigger than what they believe they need, they have a hard time stopping eating and more.
The system for managing our appetite is controlled by a brain structure called the hypothalamus. When activated, this area stimulates a series of reactions and release of hormones that result in the physical sensations of hunger. This triggers food-seeking behaviours.
Our nutritional status, food availability, taste, smell and food preferences all influence this part of the brain. When we access food, this area of our brain quiets down. Think of this system as our physical and survival need for food. This system aggressively defends our bodies against fat loss.
We all eat for reasons beyond just physical hunger. Food provides our body fuel…and it also provides us with pleasure and reward. This kind of reward-based eating is also associated with seeing, smelling and eating food and is based on our learned experiences. The release of certain chemical signals in our brains results in us feeling gooooooood. Think of this system as our pleasure and reward-based eating…this is eating for non-physical reasons. This is absolutely normal.
This “mesolimbic” part of our brain is what can cause us to crave food, and to enjoy food even when we are full. You have likely experienced this while at the movie theatre. You may have eaten before heading to the movies, but then are greeted by the intense, irresistible smell of popcorn! It is enough to override your body’s fullness.
These two appetite centers – appetite and reward center – “talk” to each other. This communication is, in part, governed by hormonal signals in our body. These two centers are also guided by a third center in our brain – the “decision maker”.
The decision-maker or goal-setting part of our brain is what we use when deciding when and what to eat. This “executive” is in charge of overriding the primal food behaviours driven by our hedonic system. This decision-maker works best when our bodies are rested, hae less stress and more support to help deal with the day’s events.
When our decision-maker is working at its best, we can create an intentional pause before we eat, slowing down our food decisions from mindless to mindful. We can check what it is that we need. When this decision-maker is tired, overworked and/or over-stressed, we make automatic, mindless decisions that may be different from our goal.
We assume that the “cognitive” part of our brain is what drives our eating behaviours….but as you can see from above, it is our complex biology and learned associations that actually drive our eating. And like any part in our body, the function of each of these systems can be impaired. The communication between these three regions can get disrupted.
Our bodies are complex machines! We have the ability to influence our bodies, but we are not complete masters of our domains.
If you find yourself struggling with managing your eating, please know you are not alone. Many of us struggle with food. You may need more support and intervention to help you feel better. Know that you have options beyond white knuckling through the unsustainable, restrictive eating patterns.
Lau DCW, Wharton S. Canadian Adult Obesity Clinical Practice Guidelines: The Science of Obesity. Available from: https://obesitycanada.ca/guidelines/science. Accessed [Nov 2, 2021].