Maybe Self-Control Isn’t All It’s Cracked Up to Be


Every week when we introduce the concept that overeating is part of ‘normal’ eating, and that occasional overeating can be healthy, we hear  sighs of relief from women who have been struggling for years to control that urge.

Normal eating can be thought of as a style of eating that’s hardwired into most of us because there are survival mechanisms behind it.  When a food is especially tasty or something we haven’t had in a while, or if we’ve gotten a bit too hungry, it’s a normal reaction to eat more than usual because we may need a bit more to feel like we’ve had enough.  That’s our internal cues at work.  If we end up eating a bit more than we need, no worry.  It will just take longer before we get hungry again.  Our bodies balance it all out over time.

In today’s weight-worried world, though, we tend to think we shouldn’t overeat, ever.  We try to always be ‘in control,’ and when we inevitably overeat, we feel bad about it.  That often leads to more overeating, which isn’t the normal kind because it’s done out of guilt.  In this case, we frequently eat much more because we override our internal cues with emotions like guilt and shame.

Two articles recently came across my desk that seem to support the concept of normal overeating, and that we might do best letting it happen normally, rather than fighting it.

  • One made the case that as humans, for evolutionary reasons we don’t do so well when it comes to self control.  I don’t agree with all the points made, but I do think there’s value in the idea it presents of ‘control fatigue.’ “We live in busy, complex communities surrounded by desirable goods and ideas, and so all day, every day, we hold back. ….We are hit hard by…our own weary self-control….”
  • Another reviewed a study that showed when restaurant menus featured salads, diners were more likely to choose fries than when the menu didn’t include salads. (Check out Cranky Fitness for an interesting discussion of the study.) The results sound odd, until you think about it from the standpoint of control fatigue.  Maybe the mere presence of the salads kicked in the fatigue.  The study actually found that “the diners most affected by the presence of a healthful item were those with the highest levels of self-control….”  Maybe these folks just couldn’t fight the fight anymore.

So does this mean to give up and eat all the hot fudge sundaes we want, every time we want them?  In a word, yes.  Because we’ve seen that if we truly give ourselves permission to have the sundaes whenever, we won’t want them as much as we thought we did.  That’s internal cues at work, too.

A caveat: For our internal cues to work accurately, our bodies need to be in good operating order.  After years of trying to control our weight, many of us aren’t there.  We may need to immerse ourselves in a healthy lifestyle for a while before we can feel what’s right for us again.

Still, even when we’re trying to re-learn what we were born with, if we begin to think less of control, and more of doing what truly feels good, we’ll likely have a much more pleasant — and perhaps successful — journey back to wellness.


5 responses to “Maybe Self-Control Isn’t All It’s Cracked Up to Be”

  1. Joy says:

    Our bodies look for nutrients when we eat. If it does not find them it signals us to eat more, in search for nutrients for our cells. This happens and is a viscous cycle with nutrient deprived foods.

  2. Interesting take on the salad study–your explanation does sound somewhat more plausible than mine (because people are crazy!!).

    It would be a fascinating experiment to test out the theory that I if I could eat all the hot fudge sundaes I wanted to, I wouldn’t actually want that many.

    Just not quite sure I’m brave enough to try it!

  3. Marsha says:

    Moving from thinking we can’t eat hf sundaes reasonably if we tell ourselves we can have all we want, to knowing we can and do, can take a while. But can you think of another food that maybe isn’t so ‘loaded’ as hf sundaes, that you still really liked and ate all you wanted to, and then got tired of it? For me, right now what comes to mind is potato chips — my recent ‘love affair’ with them is just starting to wane. Still like them but after eating as many as I wanted for a while now, they’re not calling to me anymore like they recently did. I got over the hot fudge sundae thing a long time ago, although I might revisit it. 🙂 Still, I know it won’t take tons to satisfy me. Nor did the potato chips. Okay, a few times maybe I ate more than what would be considered totally reasonable. 🙂

    In all seriousness, though, I know it can be hard for people to get to the point where foods hold no more power than the fact that they taste good and make us feel good. The road getting there can be a bit bumpy sometimes.

  4. Marsha says:

    You’re right, Joy. That’s part of what I was alluding to when I said that if we’ve been struggling with our weight for years, our bodies probably aren’t in good operating order. Weight struggles often equal poor nutrition, which sets us up cravings and the like. We can eat low-nutrient foods occasionally and do fine. But if we eat them too often, and too often for too long, we’re likely going to struggle.

  5. It Happened This Week: A Documentary, Egg Salad and Susan Boyle | Zero Cellulite says:

    […] crime. But does fat really equal failure?” Body Love Wellness blog echoed the sentiments in Marsha’s post about normal eating vs. overeating. Golda writes: “Healthy eating and eating what you want can very easily become one and the […]

About the Author

Marsha Hudnall, MS, RDN, CD

If you’re looking for an embodiment of dedication disguised as obsession, look no further. Marsha is a registered dietitian who has spent the last four decades working to help women give up dieting rules and understand how to truly take care of themselves. Her mission in life is to help women learn to enjoy eating and living well, without worries about their weight. She encourages women to embrace their love of food, which you might call being a foodie. If so, it’s appropriate because being a foodie means you pay attention when you eat. That’s a recipe made in heaven for eating well. Marsha is the President and Co-Owner of Green Mountain at Fox Run.

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