The Myth of Overeating

One of the many invaluable lessons in Taubes’s Good Calories, Bad Calories is that overeating is a myth. This makes a lot of sense. Suppose you “overeat”. Then, you won’t be as hungry at the next meal, so you’ll “undereat”, and the two meals will average out as “normal”. In fact, we all “overeat” during the day, and “undereat” while we sleep.

One of the main points that Taubes stresses is that hunger is a physiological, and not a psychological phenomenon. He discusses Edward Adolph’s rat feeding experiments from the ’40s which clearly showed that food consumption is regulated by caloric need, and not by volume, mass, or even taste! For example, when the rats’ food was diluted they kept eating until they got enough calories, even though they ate a much greater volume and mass of food. And when calories were directly injected into the rats’ stomachs, their intake dropped accordingly.

The implication is that trying to eat less by using tricks like drinking water or eating more fiber to create a sensation of fullness are futile. You’ll be hungry until you actually put real calories in there. (I should add that trying to eat less is a horrible way to lose fat: the cost is all the negative effects of semi-starvation and you generally regain all the fat when you return to normal eating.)

Hunger, and hence food consumption are hormone driven: we eat to get enough calories. Period. Just as children eat a lot because they’re growing, fat people “overeat” because they’re growing (fatter). In neither case are they growing because they’re overeating. Their bodies need more food in order to grow, so their appetites are correspondingly larger. When thin people “overeat”, they don’t get fat, they just aren’t as hungry for the following meal, at which they “undereat”. The bottom line is that you don’t control your hunger—your caloric need does—so you’ll end up eating the “right” amount over the long term.

(Incidentally, Taubes points out that, if our hunger weren’t regulated by caloric need,  it would require a feat of incredible accuracy to maintain a constant weight over a period of several years. A few extra calories per day would add up to major fattening in the long term. Of course, that’s not what happens.)

The fact is, overeating is really quite rare—because it hurts. If you don’t feel sick, then you haven’t overeaten. For most people this happens maybe once or twice a year. If you ate a lot, but feel alright, that’s just calories in the bank which will delay your hunger. Eating big, nourishing meals is nothing to feel guilty about—you’re giving your body the calories it needs to function, and if it doesn’t need them right away, it won’t trigger your hunger as quickly.

About Autor

I’m an undergrad student ultimately aiming for an economics PhD. In a nutshell, I’m an atheist, market anarchist, and paleo health enthusiast. In other words, I reject God, Government, and Grain.
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6 Responses to The Myth of Overeating

  1. Gradinariu says:

    I had watched a documentary once about a guy who claimed that he ate constantly half of the food that he felt the need to eat, and claimed that it prolonged the duration of his life (by slowing down metabolism).

  2. Zach says:

    "Suppose you “overeat”. Then, you won’t be as hungry at the next meal, so you’ll “undereat”, and the two meals will average out as “normal”"

    "The implication is that trying to eat less by using tricks like drinking water or eating more fiber to create a sensation of fullness are futile"

    "The fact is, overeating is really quite rare"

    lol wow, you obviously have absolutely no idea what you are talking about. did it ever once occur to you that different foods have different effects on satiety, even when calories are equal? (http://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pubmed/7498104) If you were to drink 10 Cokes per day, you could easily add thousands of extra calories to your diet without feeling full because Coke offers nothing in terms of satiety, even though it has lots of calories, which would lead to a caloric surplus aka OVEREATING. And guess what? Drinking more water DOES help with weight loss (http://www.sciencedaily.com/releases/2010/08/100823142929.htm)? Why? Because it decreases the amount of calories you eat! I know this may be hard for you to believe, but fat gain is caused by taking in more calories than you expend, which, with all the available food-like substances that are high in calories and low in satiation, is EXTREMELY common in today's society. This post wasn't just bad, it was god awful. Literally everything you said was 100% false. You should really spend more time figuring out nutrition before you start giving advice about it, you obviously have no idea what you are talking about

    • Jack says:

      So you're saying, in a system as tightly regulated as the human body, that hunger is in no way regulated by caloric need? How could you possibly think that fat storage could be regulated by anything other than hormones?

      You said that Coke isn't satiating, and then you turn around and say that water is!

      In good science, you observe and form a hypothesis that can explain the observations. The overeating hypothesis cannot explain WHY people overeat. If it were as simple as creating a negative energy balance, why doesn't it work?

      Every obese person believes that they need to eat less and move more, but it simply does not work. You can look at any semi-starvation diet study, they do not work. People may lose a small amount of weight, but no one maintains it.

  3. lisa says:

    What is the point of this article?!? I don't think people care about the semantics involved in whether overeating makes you fat or whether you are eating more because you are getting fat. Or whether you can actually "overeat" or are just consuming too many calories to maintain your current weight. This was just such a strange article…

  4. says:

    What I'm trying to get at is that your body is a self-regulating system. The idea that you can change your fat stores just by eating more or less is naive. Your body will compensate.

  5. Elenor says:

    Lisa: "I don't think people care about the semantics involved in whether overeating makes you fat or whether you are eating more because you are getting fat."

    It's not about semantics. If you do (if one does) not CORRECTLY identify the problem you'll never solve it! If you truly believe (that is, for you, it's a matter of *faith* ("believe"), because the science shows different!), that the arrow of causality (which causes which) is "the fat glutton eats too much and gets fat(ter)" — then all the solutions you try will fail. You're "solving" the wrong problem.

    If, on the other hand, you read the science (as you clearly haven't!) and realize that the overeating comes as a result of (to really short-hand it) the fat cells taking up the majority of ingested nutrition, leaving the other body cells "starving for calories" — then you have a hope of finding a fix that will WORK! The semantics of "a fat person overeats and so gets fat" (as Gary Taubes points out more gracefully) makes as much useful progress in addressing the problem as "an alcoholic over-drinks and so is alcoholic."

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