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A Search for Wisdom

Occasional Paper #2

July 1988



Maintaining a reasonable body weight is an on-going problem for many people. If they are not on a diet, they seem to gain weight without limit. They become rounded, fat, obese and downright unsightly. All evidence suggests that this increased weight is not healthy.

Along with just weight control, there are many fads in diet. One should control his cholesterol, his high- and low-density fats, his sugar intake, and so on goes the list. I am reminded of the food constraints to a poem which ended:

So let your life be ordered by each documented fact,
And die of malnutrition but with arteries intact.
A look around at other animals suggest that only in rare conditions, at least compared with man: do animals - given free access to food - gain weight as does man?

Some animals eat and drink when hungry. They generally stop when full. They tend to eat what they want and can easily leave the rest. Why can't man do the same? Why can't man rely on his feeling of thirst and hunger to guide him and without making him excessively overweight?


I have an idea. Maybe man is driven to our overeating for other reasons than hunger.

We are brought up to clean up our plates before we can have dessert or leave the table. We tend to have an oral fixation. Why do most smokers gain weight when they give up smoking? We have a wide variety of social occasions where food is served, and it is expected that one will partake as a matter of social courtesy, if nothing else. Man often has mood swings and when depressed is inclined to resort to eating. All this, not to mention that we are scheduled to three meals a day even if we are not hungry. We don't seem to question it.

Even after going on a weight reduction diet, the rebound often only takes us to an even greater weight gain. Somehow, the body responds to starvation with the ability to use what food it gets more efficiently. With that increased efficiency, the slightest lapse in a starving diet will lead to more efficient use of food and more weight gain rather than loss. It seems to be a vicious circle.


Let's try a plan that prevents the body from acting as if it is starved. Let's eat when we are hungry. Let's eat only what we want. Learn to eat first what you want most. Learn to pick at our food and leave what we don't want. Let's condition our system to believing that it has, and will have, all the food it needs whenever it needs it.

For such a plan to work, we would have to learn to tell if we are eating because we are hungry or for any of the many other reasons for eating. How many can tell, when their stomach grumbles, if it is because of hunger or any one of a variety of other reasons. Maybe the last food we ate is having its problems being digested. No point in adding to that problem by eating more!

The problem is to learn how to identify the feeling of being hungry. I mean really hungry. The easiest way is to make yourself hungry and pay attention to your feelings. I am sure that each person has a different response. Try going for a day without food. Think about food. Why do you want the food? As the day moves on, do you notice any difference in your feeling? After a day of this starvation, see what it is like to satisfy your hungry feeling.

Make a fist. When your stomach is empty, it will hold about that much. Now select what you crave most. Assemble a fistful of that much food.

Then eat it slowly. Take about 15 minutes to eat it. Pace yourself. Then over the next several hours, concentrate on what this has done to your feeling of hunger. You will probably note that, for a while, food is not your only thought.

Let's go onto the idea that you can eat what ever you want. If it is ice cream, eat that much ice cream and wait. If you eat only ice cream when you are hungry and nothing else, you will soon find that you really want to try something else. If ice cream is your thing, try it. Eat a fistful of ice cream whenever you are hungry for a week. It may not be a balanced diet but before long you will begin to be hungry for something else. Now you are on your way.

How does this fit in a family with others? For convenience, we have meals at mealtime. Before you learn to tell when you are hungry, it will be a little difficult. Once you learn to tell when you are hungry, you can return to a normal, family way of eating.

The first rule to get rid of is clean your plate . Perhaps you were brought up when food was not as plentiful as now, and it was valuable. You could not afford to waste food. But now you are confronted with the expense of trying to lose weight. You join the Weight Watchers. That costs money. You see your doctor and that costs money. If you take a small helping and eat what you most crave out of a balanced meal, the little you may leave will not cost as much as those other bills you pay.

This is based on the idea that if you eat only when you are hungry, and then only eat what you want and in a quantity of about a fistful you will find that by the time the meal is over you will no longer be hungry. Furthermore, if you are presented a balanced assortment of nourishing foods, you will select what you really need. Let the rest go.


There is more to this approach. Whenever you seem to think that you want some food, stop a minute and think about it. Are you under some stress which you want to escape by eating? Maybe you are just thirsty, not hungry. Try a glass of water. Even try some sparkling water or other beverage. You might find that your sense of hunger will go away. You were not really hungry. You were looking for an escape from some stress, even if you did not know what that stress may be.

It is tea time and you are out with a friend who offers you not only tea but some chocolate goodies to go with it. Are you hungry or are you just being sociable? If it is the latter, try the tea and decline the goodies. You could honestly say that as good as it looks, you are just not hungry now. Or perhaps you are not truly addicted to chocolate and could take a small bit and leave the rest.

Learn to recognize your addictions. Chocolate is one of the worst. A person who is addicted to chocolate cannot take just one bite. Hunger no longer comes into question. He has a compulsive urge. This must be countered with the question, are you hungry?

There are evenings before the television when one beer after the next is mixed with something to crunch on. Really, you are not thirsty and you are not hungry. Now is the time to learn to sublimate your oral tendencies. Maybe you would find that the television is not that stimulating and any of a variety of other activities might satisfy you better. Try reading a book, go to night school and take a sewing or an auto repair course, or participate in a local choral group or any one of a variety of activities which will stimulate you and distract you from boredom.

Then there are parties where the host will insist that you have another drink or try a never ending stream of hors d'oeuvres. Again you must ask yourself if you are really thirsty or hungry. (I have often found that a full glass of ice water with a twist of lemon makes a delightful sipping drink and keeps the host off my back.)

To return to the idea of boredom: If you are stimulated with your life and work, there is not enough time to do everything you would like. There is just not the time to think about food except when you are hungry.

When your work is not going well, when personal stress piles up, when you are depressed, when you are otherwise frustrated and the like, it is all too easy to turn to oral gratification. Eat and drink are escapes form many things. When you eat for these reasons, you are adding excess calories and even if the body is not optimized for metabolic efficiency, you will add pounds. Recognize the oral urge and sublimate it into something else.


One could fill a book of anecdotal testimonials about why we eat. Anyone who tends to be overweight could, perhaps, add his own.


Eat only when you are hungry. Look at the size of your fist and limit your intake to that. Select what you want and leave the rest. Sublimate all your other reasons for eating into stimulating activities.

Glen B. Haydon, M.D.
Route 2, Box 429
La Honda, CA 94020
HINDSIGHT is decicated to examining the past in a search for wisdom coping present. After all, hindsight is always 20/20. Extrapolations into the future are left to the reader.