If It’s Not Emotional Eating, Why DID You Get Fat?

If I’m going to make the case against the idea that very overweight people are all “broken” and filled with self-loathing, indulging in emotional eating all the way to serious obesity because of stress or trauma they’re struggling to deal with, then why do I think people get very fat and why do they stay that way? A fair question. I think I can make a very persuasive argument. This is an excerpt from my book, Powerful Hunger. There is a completely logical rationale for why some of us deal with weight to a greater degree than others and for why obesity has become a greater problem in the last few decades than it was prior.

People have not changed. The American food environment has.

The Automatic Life

There is no “subliminal” part of your brain. We may process thoughts at a subliminal level, below the threshold of our awareness, but it is theory that we could be driven or controlled by subliminal desires, emotions, repressed memories, or fears. The limbic system part of the brain, however, is the seat of emotional response, memory, habitual behavior, and instinct. Integrated with the Reward Pathway, we use emotion-enhanced memories, driven by reward to perform the basic functions by habit and instinct that we need to survive and thrive.

We take instinct for granted. We know we will snatch our hands from the flame or slam on the brakes in a split second. We know we will do it seemingly without thinking. Consider habits as a civilized cousin to instincts: integrated with memories, habits draw on past experience to develop learned behaviors. The nature of habit is action with something less than conscious control. It seems almost by ironic definition that we are unaware of the power and control habits wield in our daily lives. In 2006, a Duke University study found that as much as 40% of what we do in a day is actually controlled by habit. Habits put our most mundane behaviors on autopilot so our conscious mind can handle more important matters. A lot of behaviors, more than you think, can become habit, even if parts of the act are more conscious. Like a wildfire spreading from a spark, habits can develop from minor actions. From how you get yourself up and out to work in the morning to mindlessly chewing pencils to the skillset you use to accomplish complex intellectual tasks, habits will play a role.

It is in your head, so to speak, but probably not because of mysterious subliminal drives as you’ve been lead to believe. Instinctual drives are very real and they’re very powerful. Fight or flight, sex drive, survival, protection of children—through natural selection, over millennia of evolution, the Reward Pathway reinforced the traits humans needed to stay alive and produce more humans. Those would usually be the best- fed humans. Obviously, it was going to take a powerful drive to leave the cave and go hunt down food that could hunt you back. So the brain calls on the Reward Pathway, using pleasure, satisfaction, and gratification to establish compelling, dominant behavior. Behavior that exists in the limbic system alongside our basic instincts. Like our instinct to eat.

We know the human machine does not always function perfectly. Habits will go awry; we can find ourselves compelled to do things we don’t want to do. What, when, and how we eat can become deeply integrated into our daily lives as habits. Especially when the food we’re eating has been engineered to overwhelm the natural function of the Reward Pathway.

Guess what our minds use to enhance and reinforce the establishment of these learned behaviors that become habits. The limbic system is also the locus for emotional experience! Oh boy. Let’s throw in another little tidbit, just for fun. The Reward Pathway has been found to play a significant role in the development of addictive behavior. Uh oh.

So put all this together. The instinct to eat is living in the same neighborhood in your brain as the system that forms habits. Habits that are enhanced by emotional experience and learned behavior to function on autopilot. Habits that can escalate into addictive behavior thanks to the influence of the Reward Pathway. Now let’s do something crazy! Let’s start slamming the Reward Pathway with hyper-palatable food that’s been specifically engineered to be addictive! Oh the humanity!

Habits develop through a confluence of elements: they require a setting, the why and where; training in the behavior that is being learned, minimal repetition can take care of that; reinforcement, the rewarding results of the behavior; and a cue, the trigger that sets the automatic behavior in motion. Today’s hyper-palatable food, engineered to be addictive, can be so powerful in this equation that it can function independently of the other elements, igniting new habits.

Food is its own driver.

Food-based habits driven by hyper-palatable food will carry adverse consequences.

Weight is its own stressor.

Hyper-palatable food as a driver may even overwhelm the stressor, defeating attempts to break habits or stop the development of new habits.

Years ago, I was a person who measured out my daily life by when I got to eat next. And I loved to eat all the time. Why am I a person like that? Because it makes sense for the human animal to have some people who will work harder to pursue food. Humans were not meant to exist with an overabundance of constantly-available, highly-indulgent food. And we are all different. We all respond to EVERYTHING in different degrees and that’s true for food. Food is not some generic substance that we all use for fuel with an equal sense of hunger and appetite. Some of us crave it more and we crave different types of food in different ways from other people. Do you know what it really means to be a larger person who craves food more? It means my body hangs on to energy and uses it WAY more efficiently. So if the zombie apocalypse comes, I will outlive all the skinny bitches, so there.

When I weighed 340lbs, was I filled with self-loathing? Was it hatred for myself that sent me to the Dunkin Donuts drive through every morning on my way to work? Or did I love to start my day with a couple of chocolate frosteds and a Pepsi? And then, when I wanted savory to counteract the sweet, was I actually trying to recapture the love I had for my deceased grandmother when I went to the Burger King for a sausage croissandwich and hash browns? Did I struggle with the stress of my job so much that by lunch time I could barely keep my hands on the steering wheel as I made the rounds of the nearby fast food restaurants in the vicinity of my office? Or did I just really love French fries and Chicago-style hot dogs and Philly cheesesteaks and bacon double cheese burgers and…you’re sensing a pattern here.

I was so good at my job that when I was recruited away by a competitor, the company I left hired three people to replace me. Perhaps I kept a fridge in my office stocked with Pepsi and a supply of candy bars, cookies, and chips to sustain me through an afternoon of suffering because I couldn’t live up to the level of performance my employers would come to expect. Come on, how could a big fat girl have any self-confidence or discipline? I did leave one employer because the workload they heaped on me got to be excessive. Did I eat more when I was more stressed out? Actually instead of taking the bus, I drove to my next job so I had easier access to eat a lot more when I worked there. I was also near a Sam’s Club so the snacks stockpile got MUCH bigger. I left on time every day and got paid a lot more money.

I used to spend my evenings grazing over a large meal. Maybe because I was depressed. Or maybe when I moved to Chicago, I quickly became accustomed to being able to get virtually any kind of food I could want delivered to my door. Living in the city can be like having a personal catering service of all your favorite foods. It was my most indulgent food dream come true! A dream I’d had since I was a child when I used to imagine that the biggest advantage of being an adult was being able to eat anything you wanted, any time, with no one to say you couldn’t. Or maybe I just hated myself. Or something like that.

I am very vulnerable to wanting indulgent food and wanting it every day. Is that what you would call emotional eating?

Food is its own driver.

When I finally gave up on trying to figure out what everybody was always telling me was supposed to be “wrong” with me, I accepted that simple fact. I love to eat more than most people. I always have. I accept that it is a trait that I have to work hard to manage because there is NOTHING about myself that I loathe but I do hate being fat.

Weight is its own stressor.

I accept the trade off. If I do not want to be fat, I have to work very hard to manage my cravings for food.

That’s who I am. That’s what I deal with. That is my Body Truth. What is your truth?