Saturday, January 3, 2015

The Nutrition Debate #276: “Why do I eat…even when I’m not hungry?”

“Why do I eat, even when I’m not hungry?” This is a nagging question. It really sticks in my craw. And this is one of the questions that arises in the HBO Documentary series, “The Weight of the Nation,” that I reviewed (as “disappointing,” for the most part) in my last blog post (#275 here). It is in a segment of the series (Part 4: “Challenges”) that dips briefly into science. The answer is hinted at by a guy in a lab jacket: “Evolution happens slowly; DNA changes slowly.” The scientist is Rudolph Leibel, MD, Co-Director, at the New York Obesity Research Center, Columbia University Medical Center.

I have asked this question many times. I think all of us who overeat (or are prone to overeating) have asked it countless times. In the beginning of Part 1, “Consequences,” an obese man says, “You try [to eat less]…and you lose hope.” Another says, “I know I should eat the right things. I’m gonna try.” But then in Part 2, “Choices,” despair returns: Another obese man says, “What can I do? I love good food. I love cheeseburgers. Sure, I know what to do; I just can’t do it.”

A commenter in #268, “Help With Cravings,” – an intelligent, informed, serious student of the science of overeating – says to me, “So you do not experience cravings? If you do not have them, you are lucky. I have had periods without cravings, and periods with cravings. They are a non-rational desire for something, or an insatiable appetite, even on NO carb. This suggests that there is some unknown biological cause, but nobody knows the cause of cravings.” My reply included the idea, suggested by among others the Jaminets in “The Perfect Health Diet,” that we may eat UNTIL our body is satisfied that it has all the essential nutrients it needs (including EFAs and amino acids). Hence, we eat more nutritionally poor foods (carbs) to the point of obesity.” This specialized craving hypothesis has a certain appeal to me, but it’s only part of a complex answer. As Francis Collins, Director, National Institutes of Health, says in Part 2, “It’s a challenge for sure!”

I agree with the statement about the “unknown biological cause,” especially in the context of the brain and nervous system being part of the control/signaling mechanism. And that includes the concept that the gut is home to the Enteric Nervous System, a largely independent entity “in which 95% of the body’s serotonin is made.” This discovery was made by Michael D. Gershon, MD, and described in his brainy memoir, “The Second Brain: Your Gut Has a Mind of Its Own.” And perhaps the microbiome (the micro-organisms that are your intestinal co-residents) is involved as well.

For me, the bottom line is to acknowledge that my body is in charge of my well being. That’s hard for me to admit; I do not lack for hubris. But in my own “conscious” self-interest, that is the conclusion that I must come to if I am to figure out how “I” can help “it” (my body) maintain homeostasis. Think about all the “insults” I throw at “it” every day (eating choices and other behaviors that I do or do not do, like physical activity) that challenge my whole-body condition. If “evolution happens slowly,” and “DNA changes slowly,” my body must suffer somewhat from these unremitting “insults”.

But without knowing this “unknown biological cause” [of craving] – what I will call our “biological imperative,” I attempted a few years ago (2010) to address the subject of why I eat, even when I’m not hungry, in a long-running thread (200 posts, 4000 hits) I started at Dr. Bernstein's Diabetes Forum (registration required), called, “Impulse Control and Metacognition.” The idea was to be “conscious of the “cue,” an impulse to eat when I’m not hungry, and to deal with it by another means, e.g. by distraction (absorbing reading, compelling TV, writing a column, yard work, fishing, etc.).

Right at the start, the Global Moderator commented, “Isn’t it likely the problem is actually physiological rather than psychological?” (Georgette is always so gentle with me; this is a really “safe” place to be if you are interested in getting answers from very knowledgeable people about diabetes and related health issues.) Anyway, I replied (this is more than 4½ years ago): “I am not pursuing this aspect of it, however, because I know of nothing I can do to manage or control the hormone(s) in question. It is, after all, an autonomic function of homeostasis, the body's self-regulatory system.”

So, while science continues to advance, and I am a little wiser today than I was then, I still hold that 99.99% of our body’s activity is autonomic and totally out of my “conscious control. All I can do is “listen” to it carefully and do what I think is the “right thing,” to minimize the “insults.” In my case, since I have a broken glucose metabolism – I have Insulin Resistance and fewer operative beta cells in my pancreas – I am carbohydrate intolerant. So, to achieve the best health that I can, I watch my carbohydrate intake very carefully, and to a lesser extent, my protein intake. And I also use my glucose meter for daily feedback, and I use my triennial doctor’s visits for blood tests (glucose, HbA1c, CBC, lipid panel, hs-CRP, etc.). I figure that if I take care of my body, my body will take care of me. After all, it’s 99.99% of me. It’s simple self-interest.


  1. There is more unknown that known in respect to the drive to overeat. Some is appetite stimulus in the food. Wheat and dairy products contain some of these.

    1. Well said, Fred. I understand and agree. You, of course, are the serious student of the subject I refer to above (as you realize and my other readers now surmise). I have received my "library deaccessioned" copy of "Satiation" but haven't undertaken to read it yet. I also enjoy your blog immensely. Readers here can find in at this link: Highly recommended! And thanks for reading, and commenting.

  2. John Stanton at had a fascinating series on hunger a while ago. His conclusions were basically that carbs and nutrient-poor foods were not satiating. Going low-carb paleo was the answer. Unfortunately, his work doesn't cover everything.

    Fred's posts and comments seem to indicate that his cravings are a not the same as hunger. They are a different type of "desire to eat." From what I understand, Fred has taken care of hunger by avoiding carbs (and some other ingredients), but he still has cravings.

    I have the opposite problem. I don't get stuck with cravings. If one food becomes problematic, I stop eating it completely for a while (resisting cravings for a few days), I don't bring any in my house, and the cravings just go away. Yay! However, low-carb does nothing for me. I even gained weight recently on a zero-carb experiement. Boo!

    1. Thoughtful reply, valerie. I love it that I have serious readers!

      Have you read J. Stanton's "Gnoll Credo"? I love his thinking. I even have one of his T-shirts, "Die biting the throat."

      Fred has done some serious research on the concept of "cravings." It is, as he says in his comment above, a very little understood subject. The word is too narrowly defined if it is construed to mean the result of sugar lows. His point about the opioid effect of certain foods, especially manufactured foods processed to produce that effect and he plainly implies, is a very good one. That's why I mentioned the serotonin factor, the "feel good" hormone, which it turns out is producted (95%) in the gut, but which communicates with the brain (hypothalamus).

      Your "fix" is somewhat akin to the one I adopted in "Impulse Control and Metacognition." There is only so much we can consciously do to offset the physiological functions the body does autonomically, but not having the stuff in the house if an effective one. I live with someone who does not follow fully by dietary program, so I can't avail myself of that solution, so I have to "distract" my "craving" (in the impulse sense of the word) by another method. It works,...sometimes.

      Thanks for commenting.