Bad Appetite

The social, psychological, and biological drivers of appetite.

Stuff Yourself

Thanksgiving gluttony is endemic in our language and culture.

How was your Thanksgiving? Nice turkey? Did you eat so much pumpkin pie that it physically hurt? Or just so much that you dozed off in front of the TV and were unable to move until the end of the Black Friday sales?

Either way, you wouldn't be alone. When I moved to New York last year I was thrilled to be invited to a genuine, bona fide, American Thanksgiving meal. "How exciting, your first Thanksgiving!" said my coworker, Chris. "Now remember. It's really important that you should eat so much food that you literally want to throw up." In this way Thanksgiving has proven to be much like Christmas in England - a holiday to wallow in excess and gluttony, and fret about it afterwards.

An esteemed Dutch eating researcher, Dr Margriet Westenterp-Plantenga, once gave a talk in our research center. She had been giving women high protein diets and asking them how satiated they were afterwards. We eyed her with suspicion. How did they know what 'satiated' meant? Wasn't that just a fancy research term only used by us obesity boffins? No, she said. In the Netherlands they say it all the time. Do you want any more? Nee, ik heb voldoende gehad. No, I am satiated. Apparently it doesn't quite mean 'full'. It means something like 'I have had enough', or 'sufficient'.

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I don't think we really have such a commonly-used equivalent in the US or UK. If we don't want to eat any more we say that we are ‘full'. If we don't want to eat any more at Thanksgiving we protest that we are ‘extremely full' or ‘stuffed'. We may even have to declare ourselves ‘about to burst' before we're permitted to stagger away from our plate.

This is in striking contrast to hara hachi bu, a Japanese philosophy of eating which recommends stopping just before you feel full, to allow the brain to catch up with the body and sense that it has eaten.

In fact, some Japanese epidemiologists recently surveyed over 3000 people and found that those who admitted ‘eating quickly' were around twice as likely to be overweight. But those who additionally confessed to ‘eating until full' were three times as likely to be on the chubbier side.

The message seems to be that we ignore or outrun our body's ‘satiety signals' to the brain at our peril. We should all be taking it much, much slower at mealtimes, and making a concerted effort to stop eating before we experience the urge to vomit.

At least until Christmas, anyway.

Susan Carnell, Ph.D., is a research psychologist at Johns Hopkins University, where she studies what drives some people toward obesity.

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