Why Do I Have Such A Hard Time Controlling My Appetite?

Psychologist Aida Vazin explains how our parents teach us to overeat when we're little.

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There’s no meal quite like Thanksgiving dinner to remind us that we’re at the absolute mercy of our appetites. No one really needs that third helping of turkey-topped taters—except, perhaps, Tarrare, the disgusting French glutton we talked about in November’s issue of Bathroom Minutes. But since we’re not that guy, it begs the question: Why does our appetite drive us to eat beyond the limits of our bellies? Psychologist Aida Vazin says it’s not our biology, but our upbringing.

“The main reason appetite is such a hard feeling to control is because it’s one of the first coping mechanisms we learn as children,” Vazin explains. “When we’re little kids and we scrape our knee or have to get a shot at the doctor’s office, we’re given a lollipop or an ice cream and told not to cry.” Those early moments, Vazin says, teach us that food isn’t just a biological necessity, it’s a form of instant gratification. When we’re feeling bored, sad, angry or even a little too excited, that emotional attachment to food drives us to reach for the snack drawer.

Vazin also points out the fact that we, as human beings, are naturally afraid of being wasteful or not having enough food in the long run. “Whenever we sit down to eat, we’re unconsciously thinking, ‘If I don’t finish this, it’s money down the drain,’ or ‘I’m going to be hungry in half an hour,’” Vazin explains. That’s why, when we pay for a buffet, we feel the need to go back for seconds despite rounding out our bellies on the first plate—we paid for the buffet, so we’re damn well going to eat the buffet!

It’s not totally our faults that we tend to eat beyond our natural satiation point, though. Today’s genetically engineered food is also to blame, according to Vazin: “Most of the food that’s pushed onto us these days—specifically junk food—lacks the nutrients that our bodies need to feel satiated.” That explains why we continue to reach for the bottom of that family-sized chip bag over and over again—our stomachs never tell our brains that they’re full, because they aren’t receiving the nutrients that our bodies need to run properly.

Those same sweet, salty and savory foods are also to blame for that dreaded hangry feeling. “Junk food is engineered in such a way that it’s not only hyperpalatable, but it also stimulates the brain like a drug would,” Vazin explains. “It sends our sugar levels, hormone levels, insulin levels, dopamine levels and serotonin levels soaring, which causes the body to create a biological need for junk food to maintain those higher levels.” When we don’t have our sweets, those levels drop back down to normal, inducing withdrawal-like symptoms and making us, well, cranky as hell.

Now, if you’re worried you’re a food addict, that’s okay: We can all cut down on our cravings with a few tips from Kevin Sloan, Psychologist at the Beaumont Hospital Weight Control Center. During those extra hungry moments, Sloan suggests using a strategy called The Three D’s: Delay the impulse, distract yourself, then distance yourself from the situation (or the snacks). That’s because cravings generally come in waves, meaning, if you can hold off on the snacks for 20 minutes by distracting yourself or simply walking away, chances are, your hunger will dissipate on its own.

If you’re looking for a more permanent solution to your seemingly never ending belly, Sloan says the only real fix is the difficult fix—reevaluating your diet and eating foods with real nutritious value. He specifically recommends adding more proteins and vegetables to your diet to give your body the nutrients it needs to feel satiated for longer periods of time.

That said, we all get a pass on Thanksgiving…right?