When I spotted The End of Overeating by David Kessler at a Little Free Library I probably wouldn’t have had any interest in picking it up, except I recently lost weight with intention via calorie restriction. I was curious with how the book compared with my experience.
So. How does it compare?
Kessler claims that there is a spectrum of ‘overeating’ and that different people fall at different points on the spectrum, including the end where they don’t overeat at all even if food is abundant. I don’t think I fall at either extreme of the spectrum. I have never felt like I’ve completely surrendered control to items of food like some of the people he interviews for his book, and something unusual has to be going on for me to be thinking so obsessively about food I can’t divert my attention from it. Even when I’ve been hiking 15-20 miles (24-32km) a day four days in a row and haven’t been to any kind of store, I tend to fantasize about cold drinks and fresh fruit, not hyperpalatable foods full of fat, sugar, and salt (no, I don’t fantasize about candy, the appeal of fresh fruit and cold drinks isn’t just the sweetness).
I do appreciate the stories he told about people who feel like they have lost control over their eating, and his explanations about how it’s a combination of their biology and their environment, not a question of ‘willpower’. It helps me feel more empathetic for people in those circumstances.
I’m also not at the end of the spectrum where I feel no temptation to eat more than I need to live. Except, ironically, when I am engaged in serious physical exercise, such as when I am hiking 20 miles (32 km) a day, which is actually the time when having a large appetite would be helpful, though my appetite comes back with a vengeance during rest days (my theory is that lots of physical exertion causes my digestive system to do a partial shutdown). I like eating hyperpalatable foods – fat, salt, sugar, variety of texture, meltiness, flavorful, novel, entertaining – too. And I can eat very large portions with delightful gusto.
I really appreciate it when Kessler says:
I don’t offer a one-size-fits-all technique, because I know it will not work … It takes experimentation to determine how you can structure your environment and strengthen your behavior. The idea is the mix and match the tools presented here and to find the ones that work best for you.
… because later on he says:
Some people count calories because they find it the easiest way to know how much they are eating. Others are willing to weigh their food to determine portion size. But those strategies are impractical for most of us because they take too much time and are too difficult to do. A better approach is to develop an intuitive sense of how much you need to feel satisfied. By paying close attention to how much food you eat and how long it sustains you, you learn that portions smaller than you’ve come to expect will hold you perfectly well.
Spoiler: trying to develop an intuitive sense of how much I need to feel satisfied was the very first strategy I tried, in fact it’s a strategy I’ve tried a few times in my life, and it never worked for me. What works for me is (half-assed) calorie counting.
I’ve tried the ‘eat until you’re 80% full’ rule, and it led me to developing a raging appetite, and ultimately eating more than I had just eaten until I felt 100% full in the first place. I’ve tried eating half of my accustomed portion (as he suggests), and again, it leads to raging appetite that I find difficult to control. As I described in this post, I tend to feel a stronger appetite after I’ve eaten food than before UNLESS I eat enough in a single sitting. And even then, I might still feel a stronger appetite after I eat than before I ate, but if the portion was big enough, I can at least ignore my appetite successfully.
I don’t just calorie count to try to stay at 1800 calories per day – I also calorie count to make sure that all of my sit-down meals have at least 500 calories, because I found that that is the minimum to ensure that my post-meal appetite is weak enough where I don’t launch into a cycle of trying to ignore my appetite, then eating a snack, which whets my appetite AGAIN and I experience it longer, so I eat another snack, etc. And I prefer the 600-800 calorie per meal range over 500 calories per meal, because 600 calories is less likely to re-whet my appetite, and an 800 calorie meal rarely re-whets my appetite. No, I don’t eat three meals a day. When I eat/drink something that is less than 500 calories, I do so with the knowledge that it will probably whet my appetite (which is okay if I’m going to be eating a sit-down meal within the following 1.5 hours, or if I’ve already eaten two meals which sufficiently dampened my appetite).
I totally understand how someone else might experience these things very differently. It’s possible that Kessler is right about most people being better off with the ‘intuitive sense’ approach than calorie counting. And over time, I guess my intuitive sense is improving. Calorie counting is also becoming easier because I’ve memorized the calorie counts of the foods I eat most often.
Speaking of calorie counting Kessler also says:
Along with giving consumers key information on which to base eating decisions, this provide and incentive for restaurants to offer more meals for people who are seeking to follow the guidelines of just-right eating (300 calories for breakfast, 400 to 500 calories for lunch; 500 to 700 calories for dinner).
I looked in the endnotes to see where he got those calorie numbers for ‘just right eating’ and there is no source. For all I know, Kessler made up those numbers himself without any scientific basis.
He is saying that ‘just-right’ eating is eating 1200 – 1500 calories per day.
As someone who has been able to stick to 1800 calories per day for more than half a year (okay, sometimes I slip up, and I don’t keep a food diary, but I think I’ve been generally successful), the idea of going to 1500 calories per day, EVERY DAY, seems like it would be really, really hard. Not impossible, but very difficult. Eating 1500 calories per day for a day or two isn’t a big deal – I sometimes do it incidently – it’s doing it ~every day~ that daunts me.
And why the heck would I go down from 1800 calories per day to 1500 calories per day? To lose weight? I already lost weight, and I don’t think I have much to gain by losing more weight than I already have (I’m still losing weight on 1800 calories per day, but I think I might be getting close to the promised plateau). On the contrary, I think the risks of further weight loss exceed the potential benefits. I mean, I guess that reducing my food consumption a bit more would reduce my expenses on food and my environmental footprint, but if I want to reduce my expenses and/or my environmental footprint, I think there are things I can do which are easier than going down to 1,500 calories per day, every day. Besides, even going down to 1800 calories per day caused me some energy crashes and increase in physical fatigue, which wasn’t all bad since it had a calming effect on me, but if that can happen with even 1800 calories per day, imagine what 1500 calories per day would do to my energy levels.
And 1200 calories per day, not as part of a fast but as something that goes on indefinitely, downright scares me. I think something would have to be wrong with me, like a physical illness, for me to restrict my calorie intake to 1,200 calories per day, day after day. And if I tried to impose that on myself a) I’ll bring a lot of unhappiness on myself and b) it would be really difficult for me to have a nutritionally complete diet, increasing my risk for multiple health problems and c) when I do a quick search on ‘1200 calories’ I find a bunch of websites saying to be really cautious about having a calorie intake this low, and that it should only be done for limited periods of time, not as an ongoing lifestyle and d) would I have any energy?
In the end, I found that what Kessler recommends for people who want to try to eat less is only loosely related to what I did to reduce how much I eat. Which doesn’t mean that his advice is bad. The thing which convinced me that his advice is actually useful is that it maps pretty well to how I transitioned to veganism (which I discussed in this blog post), better than it maps to my recent adventure in calorie restriction.
So to sum up what I thought of the book – I think it has a lot of interesting thoughts, suggestions, and information about the relationship between psychology, food, social changes, and the food industry. Yet it’s also frustrating as heck for reasons I discuss in this post. I found the book worthwhile (hey, I got FOUR blog posts out of it) but I can only recommend it with a lot of qualifications.