Episode 126 (video): SuperNormal Stimuli: Is This Why We’re Overweight?

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There are many reasons why it is difficult to lose weight, but have you considered how supernormal stimuli might be one of them?  In this episode I discuss some of the ideas in the books Waistland and Supernormal Stimuli by Dierdre Barrett.  Is it possible that the old saying Everything in Moderation might just be wrong?  And will Small Changes really help you to get in shape or are radical changes really the way to go?

Comments

  1. I found this topic interesting, but there is one lingering question that I think needs to be addressed and that is about “willpower”. People bandy this term about, and we all know what it means, but from a psychological viewpoint, how does one “acquire” willpower? If someone doesn’t have it, how would a therapist go about enhancing their ability to control themselves?

    To me, the crux of the problem with weight issues is that we talk about resisting, but we do nothing to help people resist besides try to alter their relationship with food through talk therapy. Convincing them they don’t “need” the foods they want when there are, as you say, biological impulses to desire them doesn’t seem like a very good approach. You’re essentially telling them to go against everything that their genetic history has told them they should obtain and consume at any available opportunity. Even if there is a sense of entitlement or people are using food to cope with stress, addressing those issues does not deal with the biology nor with the fact that people often eat habitually even when they don’t do so emotionally.

    It is my feeling that “willpower” is a useless and almost pejorative term. It implies a basic character quality that people either have or lack. I believe that a more effective way of dealing with this issue is teaching techniques in delayed gratification and moderation. Lack of control can be directly tied to an inability to resist pleasure. Excess is directly tied to an inability to consume reasonable portions. In one case, there are concrete behavioral techniques that could be employed. In the other, monitoring of “average” levels of consumption for a given individual and gradual scaling of portion sizes until much smaller portions are consumed along with teaching people how to actually taste every bite would seem to be more useful than talk of “willpower”. Conscious eating practice reveals rapidly that people enjoy only the first bite or three and then they begin to consume relatively mindlessly or compulsively.

    I would enjoy hearing a discussion of willpower, and how psychology addresses it therapeutically.

    Personally, I have been on a plan of my own design (to “normalize” my approach to food) for a year now and have lost 120 lbs. so far. That plan started with the type of changes you said would not work (small changes) as well as exercises in delayed gratification. Those small changes accumulated such that I was able to acclimate myself to vastly reduced portions, increased activity, and greatly enhanced “willpower” (ability to delay eating what I wanted). I am perfectly capable now of having a home full of candy, ice cream, cookies, etc. and not having an overwhelming impulse to eat any of them except in moderation and as part of an eating plan which does not exceed 1600 calories per day. I am satisfied with the smallest bites of a sweet. Surely, I am not so unique in that this approach would only be successful with me.

  2. Charlie says:

    Let me start out by say that this is one of the situations where you need to find what works for you. Eating in moderation obviously worked for Screaming Fat Girl. (And, though I doubt SFG will see this, congratulations go out to her from me.) There are people, however, who would require a different approach to weight loss. My point being that whatever your diet is, or your theories on dieting, it isn’t going to work for everyone.

    I do, however, wonder about what the author, Deirdre Barrett, when she says that eating in moderation won’t work. On an individual scale, I think that eating in moderation works. Last summer, I lost 20 lbs simply by walking a little bit more and making minor changes to my diet. (So minor, in fact, I hadn’t really noticed I was making them until I stepped on a scale at the end of the summer. )

    But, I actually think that on a much grander scale than the one that she is talking about, she’s right. For example, the USA. I think it will take a lot more than simply moderation for obesity rates to go down. As a society and a country, we have so much supernormal stimuli surrounding us – deep fried snickers, lavish sundaes, skyscraping milkshakes. Personally, I think all of this would be fine (and that opinion might a little biased) if the couch wasn’t our favorite place to be. If we were more active, if we had faster metabolism rates and whatnot, then, as far as calories go, we could afford those supernormal stimuli. I have a friend who eats huge amounts at meals because he runs all the time, so he goes through calories like nothing.

    Nowadays, it’s so easy to do everything by phone or on your computer that we have little motivation to get up and get active. But that’s exactly what we need, and we need it in large amounts. Once we start seeing a rise in healthy food and physical activity, then, and only then, will we see a drop in obesity rates.

  3. Michael says:

    Interesting comments from both you, thanks. I have to say that I had the same reaction as SFG when I read the section in Barrett’s book about willpower and I agree with her. “Willpower” is not a psychological term, so what exactly does it mean (“the ability to resist supernormal stimuli” in part I would guess) and how is it strengthened? I would guess judging from Barrett’s books that she would say that “willpower” can be strengthened through cognitive behavioral therapy techniques and through hypnosis. Also, I believe she would point out (as she does on page 91 of Supernormal Stimuli) that as people begin to regularly eat healthy foods their desire for unhealthy ones decreases naturally. Also, there’s an interesting section on pages 92-93 where she talks about how when we do something repeatedly the control over out behavior moves from our frontal cortex to our basil ganglia and it becomes more automatic.

    Barrett also talks about the need to change various aspects of our environment as well in order to decrease the frequency of encountering supernormal stimuli around us.

    SFG’s points about decreasing portion sizes is also well made. I’ve tried to become much more aware of portion sizes in my daily life. While I think this has been helpful and to that extent your point is well made that small changes like decreasing portion sizes are good ones, I have to also agree that for significant change in our fitness probably won’t come about unless we make significant changes in the way we eat and how much activity/exercise we engage in.

    Good points about the need to better define “willpower” and the need for methods on improving it. I’ll keep my eye open for more info on the topic. It would make for a good follow-up episode. Again thanks for the comments.

  4. Interesting the examples of supernormal stimuli that you chose: deep fried twinkies and M&M-covered pretzels. Those certainly do seem excessive, but I’ll bet that even a simple chocolate chip cookie or Snickers bar would quality as supernormal by evolutionary standards.

    For hundreds of thousands of years, our ancestors lived in a world where fruit and honey were the sweetest foods available, and those not in abundance nor year round. In Europe, it wasn’t until the 16th century that sugar became widely available and thus even a single cookie or candy bar that we now might regard as a moderate portion could never have existed before then.

  5. heres an idea make apples the new snack bar, if society were to present red apples with bottels of red wine we may end up seeing healthier foods as more desirable, latley ive tried eating fruit at first i felt resistant but after it got into my system i can have 4 apples a day, as long as its presented well to me. if super markets were to put apples in shiny mirrored cabinets with lights shining on them they may sell better then being on the floor on green plastic creates, it is just a thorght as ironically we see junk food and crisps as being clean and non harmful if the are wrapped up in plastic packaging, to what extent does presentation have to do with our eating habbits

  6. Isabel: you’re probably right that today even a snickers bar could be considered “supernormal” by any previous standard given how much sugar it contains and how it’s a concoction of nuts, chocolate, caramel and who knows what else.

    Martin: interesting idea about how if we were to package fruit in the same flashy way as we package junk food it would probably be seen as more desirable. Good idea. Of course, apple growers don’t have the kind of corporate budget behind them as junk food candy makers…

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