Most people who talk about weight loss seemingly have it all figured out: eat less and move more. While this may seem to make sense at first, I am about to explain why this advice is not only horrible advice for positive body re-composition, but rivals the tried and true “happiness = college + debt + job that you didn’t go to school for + marriage + kids”. Right.
While I explain why eating less is bad advice, I am also going to explain what causes over-eating at the psychological level and how to prevent it. No it does not mean you are a bad person (although… You COULD be a bad person – but it has nothing to do with overeating :P), generally it talks more about the nutrition plan you are following than it does about who you are (most of the time…).
Rather than jumping on the conventional social science bandwagon, which is full of poor logic, non-researched decision-making and “intuitions”, I am going to list pure hard evidence as to why these things happen. When most people talk about social science, they talk about their thoughts, feelings or intuitions and typically lack evidence-based decision making, which is ironic considering how much research is present in the psychology world (it heavily outweighs nutrition and exercise science).
Below, I will help you understand what causes overeating, what we can do about it and how I have successfully fixed these issues with numerous clients.
Causes of overeating: and why eating less makes it worse
Let’s jump into it with infamous cause #1:
Our bodies come fully equipped with a mechanism that guides us on when to eat and how much we should eat: hunger.
Quite simply: hunger is the #1 correlation with unsuccessful fat loss in diets:
This study had 2 distinct groups: the control group and the “intervention group”. Both groups were given a caloric deficit of the same amount, but the intervention group was taught how to manipulate hunger during their deficit and how to create meals based on that goal, where the control group was not given this information. The results were incredible.
Results were measured both at baseline and at the 6 month marker. The control group wound up gaining weight, around 1lb or so, whereas the intervention group lost, on average 8 lbs. in 6 months. The only significant difference was that the intervention group reported decreased hunger, whereas the control group reported an increase in hunger, which then lead to overeating and, thus, no weight loss. The study boldly concluded:
“Decreased hunger was the strongest predictor of weight loss
Although fascinating to see, it is also common sense. After all, if hunger was not an issue, not eating more food would be as simple as deciding not to eat, and so losing weight would be easy (however, not eating ENOUGH could also stall fat loss).
Of course, it’s not as easy as just deciding not to eat; in fact, it gets worse – the leaner we get, the more hungry we become:
This makes sense and is a great evolutionary advantage, as it gets us to search for food when our bodies think we need to survive… however, it is a horrible situation when trying to cut back and have a stare down with halo-top ice cream for 87 minutes in the frozen aisle of whole foods (it gets me sometimes too…).
So, if hunger is the leading cause of overeating and weight-loss failure – why would we eat less? That would just make us even MORE hungry, and MORE likely to mess it all up (science: +1 bro-wisdom -1).
We need to eat MORE food to prevent hunger – BUT in a way that nets less calories.
Will cover more on how to eat more with less calories later; for now, let’s dive into reason #2:
“Cognitive depletion” aka… Decision fatigue aka… willpower fatigue aka… self-control fatigue
Yes, the first matter to point out is that this concept has more names than Angelina’s adopted children.
The second matter is to realize that this is in fact real, and makes a huge difference when we make decisions.
For instance, researchers studied the decisions of eight Israeli judges who were either going to grant or deny parole requests for prisoners.
What they found was pretty significant – judges were granting parole at a rate of 65% at the start of the day, and immediately after each food break, but this gradually fell as they handled more cases, eventually being close to 0% before their breaks or at the end of the day.
If you note the graph below – each dotted line represents their food breaks, and each circle on the top signifies their first case after their break. Each tick mark on the x axis represents each 3rd case they handled.
As you can see, it is quite clear that for each case that went by – the more decisions they made – the more their favorable decisions declined dramatically. After each food break, it brought their favorable decisions dramatically higher once again.
In another study that looked at doctors, they found something very similar – the more patients they saw, the more they tended to lean towards unnecessary prescriptions. This is commonly seen as an “easy treatment” option – in other words, the more decisions they had to make throughout the day lead to them making simple and somewhat poor decisions later on.
Some more research that proved this concept:
Case in point: the more decisions we make, the more “fatigued” we become – the less likely we are to make the best decisions later.
If judges and doctors who have people’s lives in their hands make poor decisions under fatigue, wouldn’t it make sense that it’s possible for us to make a poor decision about what to eat?
Yes it does. In this study, people who forced themselves to eat radishes instead of tempting chocolate, were the first to quit on puzzles given to them after:
This is why most people binge eat, or cheat at nighttime. After a long day of work, fatigue and essentially mental boredom, not only do their mind’s begin to crave something positive, but their ability to make a proper decision, weighing the pros and cons, remembering their goals etc.… becomes sabotaged; suddenly, the leftover cake from your birthday 3 weeks ago looks MUCH more appealing than the chicken and broccoli on your plate.
Better yet – ever come home from a long day and need to cook your dinner, BUT as it cooks, you can’t wait the extra 5 minutes, so you start to munch on something in the meantime? Yes, those calories count, and this too is the product of decision fatigue mixed with poor preparation, poor wellbeing AND…
Mindless Eating / Boredom
This one is actually quite simple.
Mindless eating can be defined as: eating without awareness of what, or how much, is being eaten.
Think about watching movies and eating popcorn or snacks that are sitting on the table at a party. These scenarios are quite obvious.
Some are a bit more “slick” such as eating more when there’s more to be eaten: or simply having a bigger plate, thus, increasing food intake, or eating with others who eat more than you do, which tends to make you eat more than you normally would.
For instance, in a study by Wansink and Park, customers who were coming in to watch a movie were given either a large or medium bag of popcorn to eat. The subjects were then divided into two groups: those who liked the taste and those who did NOT like the taste.
What was fascinating was that the taste of the popcorn had no bearing on how much people ate; instead, those who had a larger bucket ate more – period. EVEN IF THEY DIDN’T LIKE IT.
This concludes that portion size increases the risk of overeating. This same phenomenon was found in the size of plates, size of containers, size of serving spoons etc.… The bigger the utensils, the bigger the plates and, therefore, the bigger the servings the more you will eat without realizing it (hence the “mindlessly” part…).
This also goes for the accessibility of food. Having snack foods that were just 50cm further away dramatically reduced the amount of snacking and neither the group that snacked nor the group that did not showed a difference in appetite or satisfaction from eating or not eating the snacks. This shows it was not about hunger, but rather another case for mindless eating:
Another cause that ties into mindless eating is boredom or simply “self-medication”. This is when people eat ‘shitty foods’, or overeat to medicate themselves because they are either bored or very stressed. This has the same underlying principle as decision fatigue: the brain shifting your attention to something else because it is no longer receiving sufficient instant gratification.
More on how to avoid stress eating or mindless eating coming right up…
Part 2: The quick and easy solutions that fix hunger and prevent overeating, and the wonderful guilt that comes along for the ride
Conquering Hunger – fullness factors
The most obvious solution to hunger would be to eat. This solution is actually the answer and the only way around hunger (although some research shows 5-htp , 5-Hydroxytryptophan, can help).
The question becomes: what do you eat? Obviously eating more and more food will make you fat, so how do you eat more and net less calories? Or how do you maximize the volume of food for each of your calorie meals and make the most of your macro breakdowns? (By the way – if you have no idea how many calories you should be eating, or macros or anything – WHY HAVE YOU NOT EMAILED ME YET, YA NUT!?)
The below guidelines will make every meal much more filling, and is how I can go from eating 4500 calories when bulking to 1600 calories on rest days during a deficit and actually feel MORE FULL when eating the 1600.
But first, a quick science lesson on hunger and satiety:
Your body has a very advanced formula for eating enough to survive. Hunger drives us to eat when we need to and when our bodies believe we are in need of energy. Like most good intended bodily instincts – this too has been sabotaged entirely by the modern human.
Hunger and satiety (fullness) are elevated or decreased via the satiety cascade. In short, it works like this:
Sensory factors like chewing and saliva begin the satiety cascade. When the food passes into your stomach, pressure sensors are triggered and tell the brain approximately how much food
you have eaten. The next step happens in your intestines: several gut peptides, notably: CCK (cholecystokinin), GLP-1 (glucagon-like peptide 1), peptide YY and ghrelin activate several sensory nerves that travel to your hind brain, to tell your brain roughly how much you have consumed. When you brain believes you have eaten enough, it will decrease hunger hormones so your body can rest and digest (activating a post-prandial parasympathetic state).
Now, let’s get into how we can hack this bodily instinct to curb hunger so we are not savages in the kitchen.
As stated above, the first signs that go to your brain are via the pressure sensors in the stomach. This is quite literally the expanding of the stomach that triggers the pressure sensors – thus, expanding the stomach and hunger will cease.
In fact, researchers developed a little hack themselves: inflate a balloon in someone’s stomach and there goes hunger:
Lean or obese, it made people fuller:
Now, in case you do not have a balloon handy that you can implant in your stomach, that’s OK; we can just use food.
The key is to eat a high volume of food that will expand your stomach, all while keeping the calories low.
An easy way to do this: liquid. I give my clients soups that are super tasty but insanely filling; adding in 2-3 cups of chicken broth can increase the satiety of a meal by 3-fold and only count as 30-45 calories (brand depending).
For example, here are two 300 calorie meals:
- ½ a burger from jack in the box with ketchup
- . A soup that I dare you to try and finish:
4oz chicken breast
1 full onion
1/2 red pepper
2 cups of cauliflower rice
2-3 cups chicken broth flavored (find one like whole foods’ brand that has tons of spices and is around 15 cals per cup)
*** use a ton of spices. I use Mrs. dash original. Key here? The more spices = the more water you drink along with the soup = more expanding of the stomach.
What meal do you think would fill you up more? Yes, pretty obvious.
The key here is to replace normal calorically dense foods with calorically sparing foods. Some easy and quick subs that will help:
- Cauliflower rice instead of regular rice. You can make stir-fry meals, chicken fried rice, etc.…
- Zucchini or spaghetti squash in place of regular spaghetti.
- Use lean meats as to avoid excess calories from fat – chicken, turkey, shrimp, white fish, tuna, egg whites
- Use egg whites to make amazing muffins, pizza burritos, massive omelets and more
- Stay tuned for the next blog post that is a full 3-course meal that is only 300 calories
The more you eat, the less hungry you will be. Studies also show that adding 5-htp can fill you up during a meal. They do not reduce hunger per se, but they increase the meal’s satiety so you will not eat as much per meal.
All of this research has been done on overweight individuals with no research on lean athletes, so its application to athletes is still uncertain.
Fiber intake is important for a large variety of reasons. For this post, I will stick to its effect on hunger.
In short, fiber slows down the rate at which food leaves the GI tract. It slows down the entire digestive process and, because of this, it keeps us full for longer.
In fact, adding in 14g of fiber decreased ad libitum energy intake by 10%. Ad libitum is a diet in which you do not follow a specific caloric plan; you simply eat when hungry:
Soluble fiber specifically seems to have a bigger effect. Soluble fiber is fermented in the gut to produce short-chain fatty acids, which are then directly picked up by the brain and signal fullness.
A great way to implement this: add 0 cal fiber powder to your meals. This will keep you full for longer and not change the caloric total of a meal AT ALL
Basically, this simply means how hard the food is. Apple juice < applesauce < apples. This is part of the reason you should never have liquid calories when cutting or on cut days, as it will be least filling and will likely have the most calories (think fruit smoothie from tropical smoothie, 600+cals and it never settles hunger).
The only caveat to this, of course, is if you are adding in liquid such as chicken broth (which is low in calories) to increase the food volume via point 1 above.
Remember it’s all mental
Here is something that will likely blow your mind. When you are cutting, or in a deficit to drop fat mass, just about ALL of the negative feelings we associate with the deficit – mental fogginess, physical performance, mood, etc.… are all purely psychological.
Don’t believe me? Obviously, I have proof …
Here is my favorite study. In this study, there were 3 groups; of note was the calorically deprived group taking in roughly 300 calories, while the well-fed group was taking in approx. 2300 calories. The main source of the food intake was hydrocolloid-based gels. This was done on purpose so the subjects did not have any idea how many calories they were eating. In other words – the 2300 calorie diet and the 300 was the same to the senses – it looked, smelt and tasted identical.
The most fascinating part of this study was that although hunger was significantly higher in the caloric depleted group, there was NO other difference in terms of mood states, mental or physical performance, sleep, etc.…
The study concluded:
“Satiety and interstitial glucose concentrations were lower during the calorie-deprived diet (P < 0.001) than during the fully fed diet. There were no detectable effects of calorie deprivation on any aspect of cognitive performance, ambulatory vigilance, activity or sleep. The mood states assessed, including fatigue, were not affected by calorie deprivation.”
In another study, soldiers were broken up into two similar groups as above, with one group taking in a caloric deficit of about 1900 calories (their daily intake should be approx. 3300) while another group took in approx. their normal daily intake.
The study lasted for 30 days and was done on soldiers who were physically active and training and living in the field. Once again, no difference was shown in those who were in the deficit versus those who were not- in terms of reaction time, mood or any other symptom.
In other words – a deficit will not hinder you physically or mentally in any of the ways you think it would. If it does, it’s purely psychological. Knowing this can help you regain control and focus during your cut days. If hunger is taken care of using the modes outlined above, any other effect is likely psychological, especially if following a smart plan that maximizes strength and muscle mass while cutting fat mass.
** The one caveat here is for athletes – being in a deficit WILL hinder training if proper caloric totals and macros are not met, but this is why most athletes should be cutting outside their anabolic windows, in which case, everything above still applies.
It’s important to conceptualize this concept because even if all the above points are met, you still may WANT to eat, although your body is not hungry; you may also feel sluggish and tired even though it’s psychological. At this point, it’s beneficial to have 0 calorie foods to keep your body occupied such as zevia sodas (Added benefit because of the carbonation expands the stomach), hint waters, coffees, teas, even gelatins. Caffeine or adaptogens like rhodiola can help here as well.
To summarize, beat hunger by:
- Increasing food volume through low cal foods or by adding liquid such as soups.
- Add fiber to your meals, either through food itself or by adding 0 cal powder to your meals.
- Take viscosity into account: the more solid the foods (think more of what your body has to do to digest the food,
- thereby slowing the process down) the better.
- Remembering that most of it is mental, as most research shows there is little difference between those in a deficit and those who are not. Enjoy 0 cal items like coffee, teas, hint waters, zevia sodas, etc…
2. Cognitive depletion and boredom
Preventing overeating from cognitive depletion or boredom is all about taking care of your wellbeing as a whole, preparation and switching “rewards” from glorified crap food to something more healthy.
The first step is to realize WHY your brain begins to shut down and seek rewards. As discussed above, your body “runs out” of its ability to make great decisions. For this reason, the first goal is to make as few decisions as possible. This means having your foods already prepped, removing crappy food from your house, so you never run into the fatiguing fight (or decision) to NOT have the fracking cookie.
I would even add in some treats or rewards you can have for these needed well-being moments. I like to use a 0 cal zevia cola. When I need a break, I hit the couch, pop open a zevia and relax for 10-15 minutes. This small break gives my brain what it needs to enjoy and relax so it doesn’t not have to sabotage me later (think of this break like the judges break in the study mentioned earlier – it will reset you so you can make better decisions later).
It’s also helpful to change up your meals when you begin to dislike what you’re eating. You can also add in treats to your meals that are healthy; with a little creativity, you can have all you love and still meet your calories. All my clients have to do is email me with “Can I have a swap for breakfast” and I give them a meal choice that they love if they got bored of the last meal. A ton of my clients are eating a few healthy cookies, pumpkin pies, etc. with their meals without an issue.
The one caveat to this is: with all else being equal, the fewer the options the better. It’s much better to eat the same thing each day, as it minimizes your risk to overeat by not calculating foods or by taking too much time to figure out what to eat (and cheat on foods in the process). It also makes it super easy and, most importantly, establishes a routine, which is the key to success. So while changing up your meals when you get bored is important, also understand its place – and don’t change meals just to change them.
So to put it all together:
- Take breaks; you need them -after work, after working out or on your lunch break (hence the “break” part). Taking 10 minutes to relax and enjoy something will prevent the brain from craving immediate gratification later – think of it as keeping “the charge” alive so it never dies out. Ideally, have 2 accumulated hours per day of “you” time. 1 hour before bed and another hour broken up into breaks that allow you to recharge.
- Replace the idea that junk food is a reward; instead, find things you like that can be rewards without all the guilt and calories. Zevia sodas, low cal BCAA jello (Recipes here), teas, coffee or even low calorie drinks like fit aids can all work here. You can also use time as a reward; take a mile walk with your favorite music, chill in the hot tub for 15, watch your favorite show etc.…
- Limit the amount of decisions you have to make, as to prevent them from being depleted. Do this by dropping all shitty food from your house – or putting it in an area far from reach. Prepping all your foods; take time to look at recipes (recipes coming soon to blog) so you can enjoy the food you’re eating. Remember the old motto, “Failing to plan is planning to fail”
- If you get bored, change it up. Get some new recipes, add some treats to your meals, etc…
3. Mindless eating: the fix
If hunger is already managed from the above, then mindless eating generally comes down to the environment. The easiest way to prevent eating mindlessly is to eliminate the foods themselves. This should be easy enough at home. Simply get rid of all the foods you don’t want to eat and you will be less inclined to want them.
If you have kids and absolutely HAVE to feed your kids shitty foods (not sure why this is a thing?) then put them out of your reach, or out of sight. Simply wrap them in paper towels and stick them in the back of the cabinet. Tell your kids they need to put it back that way or they can’t have it (where has the discipline gone?!).
Some other tips for mindless eating:
- If you are going to a social event, chew gum or have mints. You will be much less likely to accidently snack on pretzels if you have mints in your mouth. Even better – use Listerine before you go to party; you will smell good and not have any calories 😛
- In mindless eating settings where you may run the risk of eating things you normally wouldn’t, have a hot coffee or tea in your hand. It will most like keep you occupied enough to prevent it.
- Listen to the people you are talking to. I know, a novel concept. However – most people fiddle or snack when they are uninterested or bored. If you are with your family for dinner, talk to them and actually get involved in the conversation and you will be much less likely to snack (it’s just one meal, I have faith in you…).
Have all of these concepts under control and still overeat? There is one last segment to this article, and that is: motivation.
If you have all of these causes of overeating under control, there is one large elephant left in the room (large as in muscle obviously because he too has followed my protocols). This elephant is called motivation.
Motivation has a very high genetic component. On average, 60% or so of motivation is inherited.
In order to estimate motivational genetic influences, research has looked at those who are near identical genetically, such as twins, and compared and contrasted their exercise behavior. While a bit abstract, it gives us some idea of how genetically influenced exercise motivation can be, and how much of this motivation can come from the environment.
A study of over 85 thousand twins estimated the heritability of exercise participation ranged from 48 – 71%.
In a similar study, men were estimated to have 69% hereditary motivation, whereas women were 46%, indicating that women are likely more influenced by environmental factors than men:
The amount of hereditary motivation can even vary by type of exercise. In this study, for example, high intensity exercises estimate a higher hereditary motivation in twins:
If we take the average and say that motivation to do exercise and follow a structured plan is 60% genetic, that is quite a big percentage.
However, that still leaves approximately 40% that can be shaped through the environment. If you are reading this article, you have at least some motivation. This can then be increased through coaching or certain tactics.
One of the best motivation is success.
Contrary to popular “lack of social science wisdom”, it’s often better to start big, than it is to start small. When you first start a plan, your motivation is high; this can then be used to gain results quickly, showing you that hard work pays off, which then leads to a snowball effect of motivation.
In this study, those who lost more weight quickly in their fat loss phases were much more consistent in keeping the weight off 5 years after the weight loss occurred:
This actually makes sense based on range-frequency model, which in this context, can mean: If you start with an aggressive protocol, it will be easier to follow the program later, as any other protocol later on will be seen as easier or less painful:
Whereas, if you start small and build each step, along the way gets harder and harder, taking more and more motivation to be able to maintain the program.
You can think of this similar to cognitive depletion: the more it takes out of you, the less likely you are to do it properly. An easier way to think of it is jumping into a pool of cold water. It’s much more painful to tip toe in than it is to simply jump in. Likewise, if you already jumped in the water and adapted to it, sitting with your thighs only in the water will be a joke. However, if up until now, you only have your toes in the water, placing your thighs in may be absolutely awful. This is similar to following an aggressive plan (jumping in) and then all other plans “only get easier” (such as standing with your feet in the water after already being head under). The opposite is also true: start too small and you will think “it only gets worse from here!?”
The one caveat to this is behavior change. This can take longer, and there is an optimal amount of behavior change to ask from a person:
In other words, it’s better to start big with things like caloric deficits and fat loss, or exercise protocols, i.e. effort tasks.
However, when trying to adapt more complex behavior changes like changing someone’s food choices/lifestyle, or getting them to log their daily intakes, taking the stairs instead of the elevator, stopping smoking, etc., it’s better to take a more moderate approach.
Nonetheless, even in less motivated people, it’s STILL better to focus on implementing exercise habits and nutrition habits at once than it is to ease into one at a time:
So even in poorly motivation people, “one step at a time” may not be best.
Lastly, I have seen, on many occasions, where motivation can fade. This is the time when people tend to use plausible excuses to stop a plan such as “I got a new job” or “I can’t eat healthy because I do not have time” even though they are still taking the time to eat “Shitty”.
Obviously, it’s not about the job or the time; instead, it’s about matching their motivation with a plan that meets that motivation.
For example, maybe you start a plan with higher motivation of a theoretical 7 out of 1-10. If done properly, you will make progress, fast increasing that motivation, or at least maintaining it as you begin nutrition and exercise protocols.
Fast forward 5 months and you may begin to lack motivation. Maybe you lost 20lbs by this point, but you are finding it hard to stay on track. This would be the point where maybe your motivation drops to a 5 or a 6, BUT you’re still following a plan that required a level ‘7’ motivation. Since you do not have the motivation for the plan, you will begin to struggle to keep up.
Most people cannot admit they don’t have the motivation for it, so they will begin to make excuses “job, kids, elephants, zebras, blah, blah”. This then leads to falling out of the plan entirely, often accompanied by rapid regain due to concepts such as adaptive thermogenesis.
Typically, this only happens with less motivated people. In this instance, maybe their genetic motivation was only a “5”, but through environmental pushes such as the excitement of their buddy losing weight and wanting to start a plan, their motivation jumps to a 7. Then, following the nutrition plan and getting great results maintain this higher motivation. Sometimes though, they slowly fall back to their genetic motivation level or “baseline”. This can normally be fixed by assessing goals and creating excitement for what’s to come, changing food plans, exercise plans etc. This is another HUGE reason why having a nutrition coach is so important.
Another option would be to dial back the plan, make it a little easier to follow but with less results at once, and more long term. Based on the range-frequency model, this will be easy since it’s much easier than what you have done.
Conclusion for motivation:
- There is a big genetic component, but at the least, we can spark motivation by 40% or more.
- Success is a huge way to increase motivation: Getting fat off fast, or getting strong and increasing performance in the beginning of a diet can not only lead to better success, but it will make the overall experience easier and correlate to better results years later.
- As motivation starts to die out, you will not admit it; rather you will use excuses as to why you cannot do what you’re supposed to. Take this as a sign you need to lower the difficulty of the program, which should be easy if you started big based on the range-frequency theory, or up the motivation (helps to have a coach – like me. :P)
If you are serious about your goals, and want to have the body and performance of your dreams, then all of these tools should be more than enough to create lasting change. Be real with yourself: if you do not have it in you to get ripped and strong, then match results with what you’re willing to work for.
Or in the words of one my mentors, Menno Henselmans:
“Adopt a healthy fitness lifestyle, stay fat or spend your life in diet limbo where you never really attain or, more importantly, maintain the physique you want. Those are the options for most people. Pick one.”