There is a concept in economics called diminishing marginal utility. This means that as a person increases consumption of a product there is a decline in the satisfaction or benefit that person gains from consuming each additional unit of the item. Applying this concept to eating may be one of the most useful things you will learn from this entire blog.

We have all had the experience of robotically eating something simply because it is in our line of sight and within arm’s reach. We may have a real desire for a piece or two of whatever it is, but if there is more than that available we are liable to continue eating far more than what it would take to satisfy that desire. Being mindfully aware of the enjoyment or pleasure that we are experiencing from that food is a critical element in preventing overeating.

The best way to illustrate this process is with what I’ll call the Food-Pleasure Curve, illustrated below. Think of each point on the curve as a unit of some food that you like but also recognize is an indulgence and can sometimes be a problem for you to resist. Let’s say it’s Hershey’s Kisses, which are about 25 calories each, and there’s a candy dish in front of you with eight individually wrapped candies in it. Seeing those makes you think about the taste and feel of what one would be like in your mouth, and that creates a desire for it, so you take one from the bowl.

The Food-Pleasure Curve

You unwrap it, pop it in your mouth and experience exactly what you imagined. The taste is very satisfying, it brings back memories of eating them when you were young and you get a fair amount of enjoyment from it. If you would rate it from 1 to 10 on a scale of chocolate pleasure, it would perhaps score a 7. That’s great! That’s what I would call an excellent return on a small investment. You’ve achieved a high degree of anticipated pleasure for a cost of only 25 calories. In fact, you’re so pleased with the outcome of the experience that you decide to have a second one.

You go through the same process and your pleasure from this one goes up from a 7 to, let’s say, a 9. After all, you’ve already experienced it once, which took you from 0 to 7. Now you just want to add to that experience so it’s likely to bring it up a just a few points. Now you’re at 50 calories and at 9 out of 10 on the pleasure scale, which is still what I would call a nice return. You know that your pleasure is not going to go any higher than a 9, but the experience was enjoyable and there are still six more pieces in the candy dish. You’re not quite ready to walk away from it so you eat one more to prolong the experience.

At this point you’ve had three candies and you’ve already maxed out at 9 on the pleasure scale, but you want just one more as a way of letting go and putting it aside. So you have one more for the road. Although it doesn’t increase your enjoyment, it also does nothing to diminish it, so the curve stays flat.

The bowl still has a handful of chocolates in it, though, and they’re still right there within easy reach; but you feel that you’ve already satisfied your initial desire to experience what you anticipated when you first saw the candies, and you’ve consumed 100 calories, so you decide to stop.

You distract yourself for a few minutes; you walk around a bit, and maybe do a little work. But on some level you’re still thinking about the chocolates in that dish. You finally convince yourself that you’re just going to have one more. So you eat it, but immediately feel a twinge of regret.

Now here is the important part: that small feeling of regret just cancelled out some of the pleasure you had initially experienced. This is where the marginal utility begins to diminish. It’s true that the fifth one tasted exactly the same as the first, which you fully enjoyed; however, you’ve already satisfied that initial desire, and in terms of your emotional state, you were kind of disappointed in yourself for not controlling that impulse to have more.

At this point, however, you also feel that you’ve already lost this round in your bout with self-control, and you think, why keep fighting it? So you have another, and adding that one to how you’re already feeling about yourself, you say “Oh, what the hell!” and, abandoning all restraint, you have the last few in the bowl. Now, in addition to the emotional letdown, you begin to feel a little physically disgusted. Your sense of self-loathing and weakness, to say nothing of queasiness, wipes out any enjoyment you got out of the first few chocolates. To add insult to injury, you’ve just taken in an extra 200 calories and have nothing to show for it.

We have all had this experience, even those who do not consider themselves emotional eaters. It’s not a sign of a disorder; it’s a sign of being human. The question is, what can you learn from it?

The part of this that is very human is our natural and mostly adaptive tendency to tune out our routine behaviors which allows us to focus on other, more complex mental processes. That’s what allows us to multitask; when we do that we’re really focusing on only one thing at a time, but we can accomplish other more routine tasks at the same time because they don’t require the same degree of cognitive effort.

The problem is that this “efficiency” comes at a cost. The lack of attention leads to errors, not because we’re using poor judgment, but because we’re not applying judgment at all! The process I described with the Hershey’s Kisses is actually an exaggerated version of reality. It’s typically not the way we consciously process the decisions we make, but it reflects what happens on the level just below conscious awareness.

The way to change this is to be mindfully aware of the following thoughts: your desire for something to eat, whether the item you are considering will satisfy that desire, how much it would take to do so, and at what point do you reach the maximum level of satisfaction that you’re likely to get without doing anything to diminish the pleasure you got out of it. Keeping the Food-Pleasure Curve in mind as a mental image can be very helpful in accomplishing that goal.

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If you feel that you have a good understanding of how I explained autonomous control, then this part may or may not be useful to you. If that’s the case, feel free to skip it. At the risk of overexplaining it, this schematic serves my need to clarify things visually. That’s how I learn best, so I like to use visual images to explain things as well.

This is a graphical depiction of the important role that a balanced sense of autonomous control plays in behavior, and how that can be set off-balance by a shift to the extreme on either side. As the term implies, true autonomous control combines autonomy, or independent action, with control, or responsibility and structure. Going to an extreme on either side of the scale can throw everything off-balance which is psychologically unsustainable.

When that does happen, the imbalance tends to be restored by going to the extreme on the other side. Too much structure begins to feel like externally-imposed control, which is counteracted by defiant or oppositional behavior. Since the counter-reaction, rather than the outcome, is the primary motivation, this behavior is often acted out on impulse rather than by weighing costs and benefits.

It would also follow that lacking a sense of control and structure would be equally destabilizing by creating a feeling of internal chaos, and could lead to restoring balance in the other direction by becoming overly structured or self-restrictive. This may explain what motivates certain behaviors such as anorexia or other types of extreme dieting.

The ideal approach is to maintain balanced moderation by having a sense of authority and self-direction, but also by taking into account a sense of responsibility: to others, to your work, to society, and so on. That responsibility can take the form of conforming to external expectations, like getting up to go to work in the morning, obeying the law, adhering to a schedule when necessary, or offering a compromise when your legitimate autonomous needs conflict with those of someone else.

When there are moderate and reasonable limits on your freedom, then you are able maintain an emotionally even keel. This allows you to pursue goals autonomously, guided by your own needs and by how those are met by the behavior, rather than impulsively acting in opposition to your perception that someone else is trying to control you.

I call this a dynamic equilibrium model of autonomous control. Dynamic equilibrium is a term used primarily in the natural sciences, but has also been used in the social sciences. The idea is that a system is maintained in a relatively steady and balanced state (homeostasis) while the elements that maintain the balance are in flux and they react to each other to maintain equilibrium. That is, they move in tandem mirroring each other so that if one moves to the extreme, the other does too to maintain constancy. It’s a zero-sum game.

When the counter-balancing elements involve emotions and behavior, and they shift to the extremes, you can see the kind of problems that may result (in the boxes at the bottom of the graphic). That brings us back to our topic and illustrates how emotional eating fits in.

Of course, understanding the theory and successfully applying it to your behavior are two separate things. The four-step approach that I outlined here is necessary for overcoming emotional eating, but may not be sufficient in conquering overeating. A long-standing pattern of emotional eating may become so habitual that even without the external control stressors triggering the behavior, simple habit can keep it going. In future posts I will focus on the mental habits that over time tend to groove a rut in your eating behavior and how to get a handle on pulling yourself out of them.

If you’re like every other human, and chances are that’s the case, stress can enter your life in all forms, from every possible source, and in every possible way. Therefore, saying that emotional eating is due to stress is like saying that an illness is due to being sick. It’s circular and meaningless. Unless you can identify a specific cause that can be linked to the effect you will be unable to eliminate the symptom.

However, with all the possible suspects as the source of the stress behind this behavior it can be very difficult to identify the ones that are actually causing it. Fortunately, it should be clear by now that emotional eating is a specific type of response to a specific type of stress. It is a defiant act of self-liberation from the domination of external control, so the search for a cause can therefore be more focused. The first question to ask, then, is not “Why am I stressed out,” but “In what way am I feeling controlled?

As I described in the previous section, the source of the problem is often related to control around eating, such as explicit or implicit pressure to lose weight. But it can also come from any other situation in which you feel you bear the full responsibility for getting something done, but your freedom or authority to do it your way is being limited by other people or circumstances. (I want to emphasize that you feel that’s the case; it doesn’t mean that it is! This is an important point for finding alternative solutions, which I’ll address in the next step.)

A simple and fairly common example is when someone asks you for a favor. You may have no time, energy, or desire to say yes, but there’s a part of you that feels unable to say no. Perhaps you’re concerned that this person will be angry with you or will see you as a bad or uncaring person. Maybe being seen as the kind of person who is always available to help is more important to you than commitments that you’ve made to yourself to get certain things done. So even if this means that the items on your own to do list get downgraded in priority, you have to make that sacrifice to maintain your image.

All of this is very nice, but not so deep down, you may feel resentful. Whether you acknowledge it or not, you may be grumbling to yourself about how inconsiderate this friend is for “forcing” you to give up what you need to do, and instead do something that is inconvenient and time-consuming. How rude!

Of course, none of this is true. The friend may have been very accepting if you explained that you’re unable to comply with the request, even without providing a good excuse. But there’s some part of you that has internalized the idea that complying with every request is the right way to behave. You may even be able to recall some such explicit message, spoken in a voice that sounds suspiciously like one of your parents.

Whatever the reason, you feel forced, compelled and controlled. If this is an ongoing occurrence, you will likely feel that your sense of independence, what psychologists refer to as self-determination, is out of balance. To correct that, you unconsciously feel the need to engage in some behavior that makes it right again by reassuring yourself that you’re still in charge. Any situation in which you find yourself feeling that your sense of independence is impinged upon may be a likely candidate for causing a counter-reaction type of behavior like binge eating.

This behavior feels like a satisfying correction to the imbalance caused by the impaired sense of autonomy because you’re able to break the rules without hurting anyone else. “After all,” you tell yourself, “I’m the one who made the rule, so I’m the one who can break it.” Yes, you have the freedom of the proverbial fox that’s guarding the hen house. On the other hand, of course, “not hurting anybody else” implies that you are hurting yourself with this behavior. So why isn’t that enough to prevent it?

If the object of the behavior is to feel free, then that would include feeling free of having to worry about the predictable outcome. “I may feel bad later,” you tell yourself, “but I don’t care!” That’s the point of the freedom – you have the freedom to ignore consequences.

Recognizing the source of the perceived control is the key to overcoming that counter-behavior, because this pattern only “works” if you’re not fully cognizant of why you’re doing it. If, however, you use the urge to binge as a signal to think about how you might be feeling controlled, you defeat the supposed purpose of acting in opposition to that control, which is to feel independent. As Edward Deci puts it in his book, Why We Do What We Do, “When people are either complying with or defying controls, they are not being autonomous, and they can know that.”

Being aware of your options and choosing to act out of preference, not out of defiance, is the key to true independence.

You already know that emotional eating, as the term implies, is caused by emotional stress. What you may not know is that it’s not just any emotional stress that can trigger a binge episode; it’s a very specific type of stress that is most likely to cause it.

The first thing to learn, even before you try to identify the stressors that might be causing the emotional eating, is what to look for. There are two important concepts that are essential to understand before you can identify the stressors that drive the eating behavior: homeostasis and autonomy.

Homeostasis is an idea that has been around for about 150 years that explains how the body regulates its internal functions by maintaining a comfortable balance between opposing forces, thereby reducing fluctuations. If you get too hot there are processes to cool you off and if you get too cold the processes reverse and warm you up. That’s how you’re able to maintain a stable temp of 98.6. The same process applies to many of the body’s automatic functions such as regulating hormonal activity, blood pressure, respiration, and so on. Although we can’t yet observe its activity, I believe that the same process helps us regulate our emotions; specifically, for the purposes of our topic, by helping us maintain a consistent sense of control over our lives.

One critical influence on our emotions and a central force in motivation is our sense of autonomy, or the ability to control our own lives. We each have a sense of our personal domain of authority and responsibility, and within that domain we want to call the shots. At the same time, we recognize the need to accept and tolerate a certain degree of control that comes from the outside. In fact, that external control is what we call Structure, and we can appreciate that it can be very helpful in staying organized and being more productive.

However, sometimes Structure becomes a little too pushy (micromanaging boss, controlling parent, bossy spouse, etc.) and it turns into a toxic type of control. Think of it as Structure’s evil twin, Domination, or Dom, for short. They are the extreme ends of a continuum called extrinsic control. When Structure goes too far in making you stay on a very restrictive diet, for example, he limits your sense of autonomy and eventually morphs into Dom. Kind of how Dr. Banner becomes The Hulk.  That’s what you experience as emotional distress and you feel the need to fix it.

This is where the concept of balance or homeostasis is key to understanding the connection between stress and eating. Because on the opposite side of the scale, there’s another continuum; we’ll call it the autonomous control side. The good end of that continuum is Independence. Think of Structure (the red cylinder) co-existing peacefully with Independence (the blue box), as illustrated below. Both sides are serving an important function in maintaining emotional balance by offsetting each other and keeping you feeling stable. This is the normal state of affairs when you’re happy, life and work are going smoothly, and your stress level is low.

Now Independence has a difficult-to-manage (but not evil) twin as well, called Rebel (accent on the first syllable). Rebel comes into the picture when Dom starts to bully you and knocks your equilibrium out of balance. Rebel means well; he’s just trying to help you defend your autonomous control. The problem is he’s impulsive. He’s also not the sharpest knife in the drawer. Rebel’s idea of restoring balance is to become just as extreme as Dom. In a process that parallels what happens on the extrinsic control side of the scale, Independence morphs into Rebel on the autonomous control side of things. (I imagine Vinnie Barbarino from “Welcome Back Kotter,” but feel free to come up with your own image.) So what does Rebel do? He finds a way to prove that no one can push you around like that and demonstrates it by, say, eating a dozen doughnuts. Hah! That’ll show who’s the diet boss!

The problems created by Rebel’s methods to prove who’s boss are less of a concern to him at that point than the fact that he gets you back in balance. Consequences like feeling sick, guilty and out of control, not to mention what the behavior will do to your weight, are problems to worry about later, not now. The good news is, you’re back in balance. The thing he’s slow to pick up on is the bad news: you’re still dealing with Domination’s bullying ways, and now you’re having trouble controlling the well-intended behavior of simple-minded Rebel.

When you think about this little parable, you can see that it makes no sense to just focus on reigning in Rebel by, say, going on a diet. He wouldn’t even be around if wasn’t for Dom; besides it would just make Dom want to clamp down even harder on the control. Instead, the focus needs to be on getting Dom to turn back into mild-mannered (if perhaps a bit rigid) Structure. I’ll describe how to do that in Part 2.