Healthy Eating

Taming Your Primal Appetite

Give it up! You can't conquer the biology of hunger with willpower. Here's how to outsmart the 7 situations that trigger your nature-given urge to overeat.

Taming Your Primal Appetite
Pin it Amy Neunsinger

We live in a society of overwhelming abundance and variety, where grocery store shelves are jammed with a selection of foods that would have amazed previous generations. A constant barrage of advertising urges us to nibble, munch and load up our plates, and it's all too easy to satisfy our desire for fat and sugar.

Ironically, our bodies evolved when food was scarce and we had to work hard to hunt it and gather it. Nature designed us to eat as much as we can whenever we can, and to conserve every calorie we consume, storing any excess as fat. "We are genetically hard-wired not only to eat when there's food available but to overeat," says James O. Hill, M.D., director of the Center for Nutrition at the University of Colorado and co-founder of the National Weight Control Registry.

So we do. In the last two decades, the average American diet has expanded by hundreds of calories per day, and nearly two-thirds of the population is now overweight. If current trends of what researchers have dubbed an "obesigenic environment" continue, virtually all Americans will be dangerously overweight within a few decades. We can't change our genes--yet. But we can become aware of this vicious cycle of oversupply and overdemand. By recognizing the following seven triggers of overeating, we can mix and match simple, natural solutions to withstand them.

1. "lack" of willpower
You can't discipline yourself out of your desire for food. "Hunger is such a basic biological urge that no one can use willpower alone to resist it," says Bess Marcus, Ph.D., professor of psychiatry and human behavior at Brown University Medical School in Providence, R.I., and co-author of Active Living Every Day. "If you rely on willpower, you're almost destined to fail."

the solutions:

  • Hide foods you don't want to eat--or just get rid of them. "When you see a food and you tell yourself you can't eat it, the temptation becomes very difficult to resist," says psychologist Marlene Schwartz, Ph.D., of the Yale Center for Eating and Weight Disorders in New Haven, Conn. "If you don't see it, it's much easier to avoid." Stocking your fridge with healthy options makes it all the easier.
  • Turn off the TV, or get up and do something during the commercials. That way, you'll eliminate many of the messages prompting you to eat.
  • Don't shop when you're hungry, and avoid the snack-food aisles to steer clear of temptations.
  • Downsize your meals a quarter. "Studies show that people tend to passively overeat by about 25 percent," explains Hill, author of The Step Diet Book. "In other words, three-quarters of the way through a big bowl of pasta, you may be perfectly satisfied. But if there's more in the bowl, you'll eat it."

    2. eating on the run
    Everyone's overloaded with obligations, so a lot of meals are grabbed on the go--and too often that means high-fat, calorie-dense fast food. These meals-in-a-bag are usually wolfed down in minutes, which doesn't give your body time to signal that you're full.

    "It takes 10 or 15 minutes for satiety signals to kick in," says Hill. "Eat too quickly and you're almost guaranteed to overeat."

    the solutions:
  • Take your time. Easier said than done, but it's worth it when your goal is to achieve a healthy weight. Steal an hour on Sunday to make a big batch of vegetable soup or a vegetarian pasta dish that you can heat up for dinner when you're pressed for time during the week.
  • Eat mindfully. "Even if you're on the run, it's important to take the time to chew, taste and enjoy," says Kelly Allison, Ph.D., a psychologist at the University of Pennsylvania's Weight and Eating Disorders Program in Philadelphia. "Eliminate distractions like television or radio. Pay attention to the sensory qualities of the food you're eating, the taste, texture, aroma. Give your body time to know when you've had enough."

    3. nervous nibbling
    Stress makes some people overeat. "The fight-or-flight reaction to stress is hardwired into our brains; it's the equivalent of thinking, Oh my God, there's a lion in the grass," explains Brenda Wade, Ph.D., a family psychologist in San Francisco and co-author of What Mama Couldn't Tell Us About Love. "If you're eating something, it must mean there's no lion in the grass, so everything is fine. Eating becomes a way to ease anxiety."

    the solutions:
  • Deal with the root of the problem. "Make a list of what's bothering you, and take direct action to eliminate unnecessary stresses," says Allison. Carry a small notebook with you and write down how you're feeling each time you eat.
  • Do something other than eat when you're under pressure. Take a short walk around the block or up and down the stairs at work. Call a friend. Chew a piece of sugar-free gum. Luxuriate in a warm bath. Put on music and dance your cares away.