There is a common belief that if people could just “control themselves” they wouldn’t gain weight. This ties in closely with our American ethic of personal responsibility. As a self-reliant, individualistic society, we don’t like to blame others for our problems. It is no surprise that public discourse around food so often lands squarely in the lap of the individual, and focuses on their personal choices and self-control.

But is it really that simple? While it is true that many people are consuming too much food, it isn’t because we have less self-control now than we did thirty years ago (before obesity rates skyrocketed).

The food environment has changed substantially, causing us to override our body’s natural signals of hunger and fullness. The average person—even if they are trying to consume healthy food—is ingesting large amounts of hidden sugar, refined grains, and chemicals. This has a far greater effect on eating behavior than what has been labeled “self-control.” And wherever this diet goes—China, France, South America–obesity follows closely behind. “Lack of self-control” does not adequately explain this phenomenon.

Consider these excellent articles: The first cites a study about emulsifiers and weight gain  published in the journal Nature. It shows how emulsifiers (ubiquitous in processed food—even so-called healthy foods like almond milk and coconut milk) disturb our gut flora and create gut inflammation, leading to weight gain. The scientists describe this inflammatory response as altering satiety and leading to overeating. Of course, emulsifiers are only one aspect of the many problems with processed food—but this is nevertheless an interesting finding. Another questions “willpower” and explores a hypothesis of how gut microbes impact cravings, mood, and self-control.

And finally, this article reviews various diets and concludes that the best diet consists of natural, unprocessed foods–regardless of which foods those are. We have known for years that Big Food deliberately engineers its food to be hyper-palatable and addictive. These foods light up the brain’s reward mechanism like a Christmas tree, and create craving and overconsumption. Processed food literally changes your brain (and possibly your gut flora) so that you are unaware of how much you are eating, how frequently, and whether or not you are full. This affects your choices as well: you are unlikely to choose a variety of other foods when compared to processed foods.

It becomes increasingly plausible that what we call  “self-control” is affected by the ingredients in our food supply. And since the science points in that direction, the discussion needs to move toward the chemical composition of food and its effects on our body so that we can meaningfully speak of personal discipline.

Let’s take a  mindful look at how the food we eat affects us. Food–in its natural state–should satisfy and nourish us. The normal process of eating should make you feel full and satisfied long before your body is overly-full and bloated. Whole foods make you want less as the meal goes on, not more.

Try for yourself: next time you eat anything that contains refined flour, any type of sugar (even artificial sweetener), and/or a long list of ingredients, tune into your body. Take a few mindful breaths, center yourself in the present moment, and ask yourself: Why am I eating this food? Is it hunger,craving, or desire? How does it make me feel? Does this food incite cravings for other foods? Does each bite satisfy me, or make me want more? Do I feel a loss of control? How does my digestion feel? Do I feel bloated or overly full? Do I feel strangely empty in spite of eating a large amount?  Do I feel nourished? Do I feel tired/lethargic or full of energy?

See what you discover!

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