November 2015 Feature Article


The Psychology of Overeating

Photo_Main_1115Earlier this month, I went to hear psychologist Kima Cargill talk about her new book, The Psychology of Overeating: Food and the Culture of Consumerism. The premise is most intriguing: that overeating is part of a broader cultural problem of materialism and overconsumption of consumer goods.

In her talk, Cargill makes the case that in modern society, we have a pathological need to consume, and that food marketing—like marketing of clothes, shoes, electronics, and other goods—use psychology into tricking us to eating, and consuming, more and more.

“If you are like most people, you are struggling with overeating,” she said. “If you are like most people, you are turning to the wrong things [to help reduce overeating].” Those wrong things are often the latest diet book or a gym membership that never gets used. “You’re just consuming something else instead of food.”

Indulge Now, Pay Later

Cargill equated the belief that foods that use terms like “free,” “light” and “zero” will help us have our sweet treats and lose weight, too, to the same thought patterns that convinced people that sub-prime mortgages were a good idea. “These products are false promises. They appeal to the part of us that wishes that some things didn’t count, or at least aren’t going to count right now,” she said. “Nothing is free. There is a price for these things but you just pay for them in a different way.”

She showed us a photo of the new water bottle-filling fountains at SeaTac Airport, which is supposed to reduce waste by limiting the need to buy bottled water. Looming in the background is a big banner advertising Frappuccinos and another similar blended coffee beverage, with the words “better than water.” On the one hand, the bottle-filler says “consume less,” on the other hand, the advertising banner says “consume more.”

“Consume less. Consume more. This is the defining characteristic of our culture,” Cargill said. “No one wants to be overweight…but we have a strong evolutionary drive to consume and horde.”

On Running the Grocery Store Gauntlet

“I feel like most of what I’m doing is decoding propaganda,” Cargill said about marketing language on food packages in the grocery store. “Not only is there all this deception…but I feel like I can’t count on the FDA or our elected officials to protect our interests.”

She mentioned the beverage Reed’s Energy Elixir and pondered what thoughts or beliefs the words “energy” and “elixir” are supposed to elicit in consumers. She pointed out that the name didn’t come about because it sounds ‘nice,’ it was carefully designed by “Harvard-educated, MBA, mind-reading Ninjas.” The end result? “People feel like they’re not just drinking a fruit soda, and that’s on purpose.”

Cargill also pointed out that the gourmet beverage Dry Soda has rebranded itself to become Dry Sparkling (she poked fun at the fact that there is now no noun in the name, and questioned what other product uses just two adjectives as a name, “Hi, I’d like to order a Tasty Delicious.”) This rebranding roughly coincided with the release of Marion Nestle’s book Soda Politics, suggesting that being associated with the word “soda” is no longer desirable.

Food? Or ‘Edible Commodity’

When is food no longer food? Cargill discussed how food has become “edible commodities,” with professional flavorists concocting artificial flavors that make it harder for us to appreciate the flavor of fresh, natural unprocessed foods.“ These are consumer products as much as they are food,” she said.

Color is also a powerful marketing tool, and the color green has particular impact on those of us who are trying to eat healthier. “The color green gives things a health halo,” she said and this is strikingly true with smoothies, which are often full of sugar. “You could fit just one tiny piece of kale in and the whole thing becomes healthy.”

Cargill said that here in the United States (Canadians and Australians have the same problem), we have a “frontier mentality” that tends to make us believe that what happens to us is entirely within our control. “The idea that we can make ourselves into whatever we want to be is appealing,” she said,“ but we overvalue individual solutions.”

In other words, overconsumption is in many ways a symptom of powerful marketing forces, unchecked by governmental regulation. Commodification and commercialism are cultural problems, not individual problems, she said: “With overeating we are internalizing a cultural problem as a personal failure.”

So What Can We Do?

Cargill offers these tips for reducing overeating—and consumption in general.

  • Limit exposure to advertisements.
  • Reduce variety. “It’s almost like reframing your palate”
  • Rethink your reference group. This includes who you follow or watch on social media and reality TV. We used to just try to keep up with the Joneses, now we’re trying to keep up with the Kardashians.
  • Unlearn instant gratification. Cargill said she’s made it a habit when shopping on Amazon to put things in her cart then “walk away.” Often she goes back to her cart a few weeks later and wonders why she wanted those items in the first place!
  • Make things a habit. “We make 200 food decisions a day. It’s hard to make 200 good food decisions a day. The people who look like they do, they’ve made a bunch of habits,” she said. “If you go into Starbucks and say, ‘Oh, what am I going to have for breakfast?’ You’re already a goner. It takes a lot less willpower to make fewer food decisions.”
  • Consume less of everything. This helps you push back against the forces of consumer culture.