Tasteless Obsessions

It’s no surprise that losing weight is one of the top New Year’s resolutions. I’ve written before about how a commitment based on anything less than your own self-interest will often be doomed to failure. In other words, we need more incentive to (successfully) lose weight than just a number printed on a calendar. But, whether we’re dieting or not, do we eat (or overeat) just because of the taste of the food? Read on.

I recently came across a fascinating case involving a friend who has been very overweight for years. Though the typical reaction to this is that she overeats because she loves the taste, this doesn’t apply to her. Why? Well, during the summer she had a bad sinus infection, which left her without a sense of smell. Most everybody knows that the sense of smell is responsible for our ability to taste flavors other than the basic sweet, sour, salty and bitter.

The point is that my friend continues to eat like she did before — even though she can’t taste the food. She admits that she still loves her favorite snacks and goodies as much as before, but she’s at a loss to explain it. Could it be that the habit of putting food in the mouth is more intense than the pleasure of the taste?

People addicted to drugs, alcohol, shopping and the like report similar feelings. They often say to me, ‘I don’t even enjoy the habit any more. But I keep doing it anyway.’ Perhaps the mindless repetition creates a kind of calm — or at least a stability of sorts. Compulsions usually start out as a way to soothe anxiety. Life can be a pretty stressful place and human beings have always looked for ways to cope. Some methods work better than others, and eating is a classic example. After all, eating is universal. You must eat in order to survive.

Some take this further and make eating or cooking an enjoyable hobby. Still others chow down incessantly to stop the pain or boredom that everyday life can bring.
Compulsive eating expert Geneen Roth describes the notion of ’emotional eating.’ She characterizes her own destructive eating as a ‘valiant though misguided attempt at being fully alive. Like a plant naturally curves to the light, I could trust the curves of my heart. I could trust that what I wanted most was to be whole. ‘ I was like a caterpillar who spent seventeen years shaming myself for not being a better, stronger, thinner caterpillar without ever once considering that being a butterfly was possible.’

Like millions of others, Geneen Roth substituted food for self-esteem and love of life. An emotionally healthy person does not constantly feel ashamed and in need of the approval of others. A healthy person tries to pursue life in a cheerful and productive way. Healthy people ask questions of themselves but they don’t torment themselves. For whatever reasons, some people don’t operate that way. The resulting unhappiness must express itself somehow. One of the ways might be going through a jumbo bag of potato chips or a box of Oreos.

The problem here isn’t the overeating itself. The compulsive behavior reinforces the very self-loathing that gave rise to that behavior in the first place. Self-loathing is probably the number one cause of compulsive eating. And the more you eat, the more you have ‘reason’ to hate yourself. Talk about a vicious cycle!

Solutions are not easy, but you can beat a compulsion if you first understand the nature of the vicious cycle you’re in. A classic mistake people make is to use weight loss as a way to achieve self-esteem. ‘If I lose weight then I’ll feel better about myself and about life.’ The healthier way to approach it is to lose weight because you already love your life. ‘My weight is getting in the way of the happiness I deserve.’ That may smack of self-help psychobabble, but the logic is undeniable: If you don’t first have the expectation of loving life and living it fully, then why bother to lose weight in the first place?

When people begin to lose hope, they tend to ‘go through the motions,’ creating their own personal jail cells. If you find yourself going through the motions of eating (or any other compulsive behavior) without even gaining pleasure from it, that’s a sure sign of a compulsion. In these cases the issue isn’t the overeating; it’s that you’re not yet convinced you deserve the benefits of a healthier lifestyle.

To borrow Geneen Roth’s analogy, don’t settle for being a caterpillar when you could be a butterfly. Don’t just go through the motions, chewing and munching away your potential and your future. Set a course for whatever goal you consider worthwhile and enjoyable. Stop blaming yourself. You’re the single best ally you’ll ever have. If you shed the faulty and hopeless thinking, the weight will surely follow.