Yes, you read that correctly.I’m not going to even get into why the whole fat-shaming and weight loss phenomena is so ethically (and scientifically) wrong – I will save that for another time. This article is about why changing eating (or exercise) behaviour can never ‘work’ in the long run for those with larger appetites. And by ‘work’ I mean that making these changes ends up with a permanent appetite change. A permanent appetite change means the person ends up genuinely preferring to eat the ‘new’ way compared to the ‘old’ way. In other words, they don’t ever even feel the slightest of a pull back into overeating and eating their old favourite foods. PLUS it is not only effortless – but unconscious – to maintain the new way of eating. Not a big ask because this is the only definition of weight loss ‘working’ there can be.
The only reason humans gain weight (apart from having a medical condition responsible) is because they have a larger than normal appetite. A ‘normal’ appetite is when a person wants to eat – is actively driven – to eat only the amount and the type of food their body actually needs for energy and nutrients.
A larger than normal appetite is when the person has a need – an unstoppable drive – to eat more (and different foods) than those just containing the energy and nutrients that their body physically needs. People with larger than normal appetites cannot get satisfaction from eating just on the physical. They have a psychological drive to eat instead.
The ‘normal’ way to eat is by the body using its own natural ‘homeostasis’. The human body can detect and make you only want to eat what it – the body – physically needs. This ability of the body to monitor and automatically control the eating perfectly is called the ‘eating instinct’. If you have NEVER had an issue with things like seeing food triggering you to want to eat it or finding it hard to stop eating once you’ve started, then you have the eating instinct. On the other hand, if you are triggered to eat and have to put in effort to curb your appetite, you either have lost some – or all – of your eating instinct.
As personal trainers, our large appetite clients are NOT eating by homeostasis. They don’t have the eating instinct. And no matter how much you try and help them with knowledge of nutrition, support or developing ‘motivation’, when we ask them change how they normally would choose to eat we are asking them to eat in a way that will not give them complete satisfaction. And when a person doesn’t gain 100% satisfaction from their eating, they will always search for and eat more and different foods to fill that satisfaction gap.
And, in case you were thinking, NO MATTER HOW MUCH THE ‘NEW AND IMPROVED’ WAY OF EATING’ BENEFITS THEM, IT CAN NEVER REPLACE THE LACK OF SATISFACTION THAT THEY FEEL WHEN EATING THIS NEW WAY. And when humans are not genuinely satisfied, they will, eventually, have to resort back to their old favourites (and eating more food in general) to give them the satisfaction they need. They still have the same size of appetite as before. In fact, their appetite grows every time they try and ignore it.
In order to understand why this happens all happens we have to understand how a larger appetite is created. Why do some people need more food – and non-nutritional food – to gain satisfaction?
When we are all born with the eating being controlled by our instinct. Our physiology ‘tells’ our non-thinking part of our brain (the brain stem) when, what and how much we need to eat. Human physiology is very clever. And even more impressive, it makes us only want to eat when we are physically hungry; only want to eat the foods that contain the nutrients that the body physically needs; and only the required amount of energy. When you only want to eat what your body needs you have a fail-safe overeating protection system. It never occurs to you go ever looking to eat more or different foods. And even if someone suggested eating for non-physical reasons you would find it quite abhorrent.
This instinct that so brilliantly protects us from overeating has a very simple mechanism – in as much as the human body’s systems are all pretty miraculous. But, at the same time, the instinct’s ability to function is dependent on the upper parts of the brain (the conscious thinking parts) NOT sticking getting involved.
So when, the thinking brain does get consciously involved in eating control, the natural physiology is being inadvertently ignored. When this happens in childhood, this causes the instinct to not be developed into the adult version. The child might be told they must be very strict with the eating otherwise very bad things will happen to them, like becoming overweight. They simply don’t develop their overeating protection system.
Another way the instinct might not get developed is if there is restricted food due to financial constraints in the family growing up.
Either way the involvement of the conscious control of eating stifles – or completely snuffs out – their instinct’s development. The growing child is left without overeating protection and a permanently increased appetite. From then on, they not only have to use conscious thinking, but also need actual willpower effort to help them control their eating.
Over time their appetite increases – sometime exponentially – because there are some other things that happen to people when they have an uncontrollable appetite that they think is down to your own weaknesses. Not least of which is the depression they eventually feel when stuck in this predicament with everyone telling them to ‘just try harder’!
This is why we can’t ask people to simply ignore their large appetite. No matter what you call the ‘behaviour change’ you are asking them to do, it will always make their appetite grow as a result. Simply changing their eating ‘behaviour’ – however slight, sensible, or self-selected – is just more of the same that developed their appetite in the first place. You can’t cure willpower-damage with more willpower.
As personal trainers, we must take the intelligent and ethical approach and refer this type of client out for specialist help. The ONLY specialists who truly understand how to cure an artificial attraction to food are Intuitive EatingTM counsellors. These specialist appetite counsellors can first make the brain-space ready for the instinct and then teach the client develop their own instinct. People with large appetites really are the winners in the willpower stakes because a lifetime of trying to control eating without the instincts help is no mean feat.
Please beware of Intuitive EatingTM imitations. It’s very easy to NOT ‘get’ the Intuitive Eating approach because it is the polar opposite of how the ‘trying’, ‘goals focussed’ brain thinks. A great way of spotting in intuitive eating imposter is if they refer to changing the eating or focus on external goals such as weight loss, health or how eating can make you feel, for instance. These approaches are all just ‘willpower-eating’ in disguise, it will make the appetite of this population grow and certainly will never reinstate their long lost instinctive overeating protection.
By Alison Hall
Alison is a qualified Intuitive Eating Counsellor, founder-owner of Try Freedom (Eating Counselling), has recovered from having Artificial Attraction to Food and is also founder-owner of HFI Training.
Links to the Science:
Appetite Effects of Restricted Eating
Inefficacy And Harm From Weight Loss Interventions
Interoception (being able to sense and respond to how you feel) Awareness
Intuitive Eating Science
For Your Clients – If you are interested in this topic more widely to assist your clients, here is the link to the Try Freedom (Eating Counselling) Blog
Get Qualified – If you are interested in learning how to apply this in your practice as a personal trainer, here is the link to the HFI course – Dealing With Artificial Attraction to Food.