12/19/2012 11:24 am ET | Updated Feb 18, 2013

The Abundance Paradox

Ho hum... another news report about the abundance of food in America causing an obesity epidemic. One of the explanations given is that during centuries of scarcity, we evolved to store fuel more efficiently to survive; therefore, our modern food-abundant environment causes us to gain weight more easily.

But wait... When food is so abundant, shouldn't it be just the opposite?

The abundance paradox is that the more food we have access to, the less reason there should be to overeat it.

What these news stories often overlook is that it isn't just our biology that causes weight gain, it is our psychology. We have internalized outdated scarcity beliefs from parents, advertising, and dieting that drive us to over-consume even though food is plentiful. The holidays are just an exaggeration of this phenomenon. For example,

  • Everybody gains weight during the holidays.
  • Enjoy it today for tomorrow I'll diet.
  • It's a special occasion.
  • I never get to eat cookies!
  • I paid for it.
  • It's free.
  • Be a good boy and eat all your dinner.
  • Don't waste food.
  • Clean your plate or you don't get dessert.
  • There are starving children in _______________.
  • I better get my share now before someone else takes the last piece.
  • I deserve this.
  • It's a better value.
  • I might not get another chance to eat until later.

To illustrate the point, consider this common holiday eating tip: "Use a smaller plate when you go through the buffet." Of course this strategy works; you learned to clean your plate, so the smaller it is, the less you'll eat. The problem is that unless you change your underlying belief, when you're served on a large plate, you'll still feel compelled to clean it!

The key to thriving in this land of abundance is to recognize the paradox and relearn to use your natural cues of hunger and satiety to guide you. I like to introduce people to mindful eating by teaching them to ask the question "Am I hungry?" before starting (or continuing) to eat. This creates space between the impulse and the action so they can ask the critical question, "Why?" By first examining the beliefs, thoughts, and feelings that drive their behaviors, they can then work on replacing them with more effective beliefs:

  • There's plenty of food so there's no need to eat it all now.
  • If I keep eating, I'll feel uncomfortable and I prefer to feel great.
  • Save room for dessert.
  • When I'm hungry again, I'll eat again.
  • Food is abundant and will be there when I need it.

For more by Michelle May, M.D., click here.

For more on diet and nutrition, click here.