Philip J. Goscienski, M.D.
Sometimes we're too polite for our own good. When we hear "Go ahead. Have seconds" our appestat says "No" but our nice-mannered self says "Sure!" The family cook looks for approval; even a little food left on the plate is a sign of poor culinary performance. Well-intentioned friends cajole us into an extra few hundred calories with "Come on, don't make me be the only one to have dessert."
Verbal and visual social cues contribute to our national — not natural -- tendency to overeat and they go a long way toward explaining why a mere one third of Americans are of normal weight.
Our Stone Age ancestors stopped eating when they were satiated, that is, when their appetite-control mechanism kicked in. It was easier back then with foods that contained lots of fiber, no readily-absorbed milled flour, scant animal fat and zero refined sugar. Even the Agricultural Revolution didn't change things very much when it added cereal grains and dairy products to the menu.
We eat most of our meals in a social setting and nutritionists have known for decades that we tend to eat more when we eat in the company of others. The psychology of social (over)eating is still very much of a mystery but some clues are emerging.
Maternal overfeeding is probably hard-wired from thousands of generations ago when Pop might come back from the hunt empty-handed or not at all. Chunky kids are still prized in many cultures, insurance for the future. That might help to explain why modern mothers don't even recognize that their kids are overweight.
As you were growing up you probably made your mom happy whenever you joined "The Clean Plate Club" and saved another Chinese kid. (The Chinese now have their own problems with obesity. It has tripled since 1990.) It seems counter-intuitive for a mother to say "It's OK if you don't eat everything" but that's exactly what we should encourage our children to do: to eat until they are full and leave what they really don't want.
Obese persons eat differently than those of normal weight and they eat more when they are in a group. Overweight persons usually eat every morsel on a plate that is prepared for them; slender persons stop eating when they are satisfied. When researchers added more food every day to the plates of a group of research subjects the normal-weight persons ate about the same amount every day. Obese subjects ate everything on the plate, every day, no matter how large the amount. Portions that the researchers thought were enormous simply vanished!
There was a revealing sidelight to these studies. The obese subjects didn't ask for seconds but the normal-weight subjects did. The latter were motivated by hunger whereas the former relied on visual cues.
It's time to let good sense override good manners. When a host, a spouse or a waitress suggests another glass of wine, a dinner roll or dessert it's OK to say "No, thank you." Don't feel guilty when you say that you are on a diet. After all, that doesn't mean that you're on a weight-reducing diet, just a common-sense diet.
Philip J. Goscienski, M.D. is the author of Health Secrets of the Stone Age, Better Life Publishers 2005. Contact him at email@example.com.