The Psychology of Eating with Mark David
The Psychology of Eating
Jonathan: Hey everybody, Jonathan Bailor back with another Bonus Calorie Myth and Smarter Science of Slim show, plus I have a special, special guest today, which is the frog sitting in my throat, so please forgive my raspy voice. Hopefully, you won’t have to hear too much of it, because we have just a fabulous, fabulous guest here, an individual who is doing very innovative stuff. There are a lot of folks in the eating and exercise world, but there are very few folks that have very, very unique contributions to add, but today’s guest is one of those individuals, and that is why I was so excited to bring him on and share his wonderful work with you. His name is Marc David. He is the founder of the Institute for the Psychology of Eating. That is interesting, because we all know that eating isn’t just about our gut and our hormones, it also involves our brain, and it involves our brain on many, many levels, not just from an appetite regulation perspective, but from a deep psychological perspective. Marc David, welcome to the show, brother.
Marc: Hey, Jonathan, thanks so much for having me. I’m thrilled to be here, my friend.
Jonathan: Marc, let’s start from the very beginning here. How did you get involved in psychology plus eating? What took you on that path?
Marc: I popped out of the womb, deeply asthmatic, allergic, almost died a handful of times in infancy. This was back in the late 50s, early 60s. My parents would take me from doctor to doctor. Absolutely nothing worked. I was in the generation raised on fruit loops, Kool-Aid, TV dinners, marshmallow fluff. I had never seen a fresh fruit or vegetable.
At five years old, kind of mind-blowing when I think about it, I had heard a rumor that fruits and veggies were good for you, and I asked my mother to buy me apples, and peas and carrots in a can. That was my concept of fruits and veggies. She did, and coincidence or not, my health started changing, and that’s a magical connection. When you start to see that you can empower yourself and change your health, at any age, it is a game-changer. So I became a nutrition fanatic, and took it as a profession, but here is the thing, and a lot of us noticed this. You could know a heck of a lot about nutrition, you could tell people the best information in the universe, and they could be the smartest, most motivated people, and oftentimes I would hear, “Well, I know what you told me, you were absolutely right. I just couldn’t do it.” And then I realized, “Oh, my goodness. Until I understand the mind of the eater, I can’t necessarily help anyone, from a nutritional perspective. This was back in the late 1970s, and I was thinking, “Great, I want to read a book on eating psychology. I want to go take a course.” And there wasn’t any!
It was then I decided, “I’m going to figure this thing out.” I got my Master’s degree in psychology, I fanatically studied eating psychology in any way I could, including eating disorders. I just started looking around, working with people. What would be an eating psychology for everyone? Why do we overeat? Why do we binge eat? Why do we emotionally eat? What is this whole thing about body image? How come there are a lot of people who try to lose weight and can’t do it? Is there an emotional component? Is there a mind/body component? I was driven by, essentially, what I have felt are powerful questions. That is what has motivated me.
Jonathan: Marc, in all of these years of experience in working with the countless individuals that you have, is there something unique about the psychology of eating, from the psychology of addiction, in general? Now we are seeing, as I am sure you obviously know very well, that more and more research is showing that food versus other drugs is becoming an arbitrary distinction. Sugar is the new nicotine in many ways. Is there a unique aspect to food, or is it all just stuff you put in your body can become addictive?
Marc: Oh, I love this question. To me, here is the challenge. In this pantheon called food we have a lot of interesting substances. There are things like sugar or caffeine, which I am going to call a food/drug. Yes it’s food, yes it’s a drug. Chances are, if this stuff was invented today, if it had never existed, and they tried to get FDA approval for it to be a food, it wouldn’t be. These things would be drugs. They are powerful.
To me, yes, it is clear that you and I, and any human brain physiology, can get addicted to certain specific foods or substances. Here is the challenge, though. The word addiction has this huge kind of energy behind it. There is a big subset of information. “I’m an addict. You’re addicted.” A lot of people are taking the food addiction thing and collapsing it into, “I’m a food addict,” meaning, “I’m addicted to eating, I’m addicted to all food,” and that collapses a lot of people. It drains their energy, it brings them down; it sets them on a psychological path that is debilitating because I could be addicted to cocaine. I don’t need cocaine for life, but I need food for life. I think we have to be respectful of the human body, but there is a difference between a drug addiction and calling ourselves food addicts.
So, I am going to say yes, somebody might be addicted to sugar, or they might be addicted to caffeine. I have seen people get addicted to diet coke. That is the hardest food addiction I have to take people off of sometimes. I just caution people around calling themselves a food addict, as if they are addicted to eating. That is like saying, “I’m an oxygen addict, or a breathing addict.” Doesn’t work.
Jonathan: I love that point, Marc, because it always does seem like there is this false dichotomy pose. For example, some folks say, “Oh well, sugar is like the new nicotine,” and you can give up smoking, but you can’t give up eating, and it seems like we’re not talking about giving up eating. That’s absurd. We’re actually talking about eating more of the right kinds of foods. We’re talking about giving up certain substances that are prone to being addictive.
One example I like to give, and I’m curious if you could geek out on this with me for a second here. For example, if you told a person, “Hey, I want you to just stop eating tilapia. Just don’t eat tilapia anymore, and only eat cod.” They wouldn’t say, “Oh my God. Tilapia. I just have tilapia cravings at night and I can’t give up tilapia.” But if you tell someone, “Stop eating sugar, and instead eat stevia,” there is a much, much different psychological and physical reaction. Why do certain foods cause us to react so differently in that way?
Marc: I think it is all about the power of a substance to hijack the nervous system and to hijack body chemistry. We, meaning the scientific we, haven’t really dived into what the actual mechanisms are that are going on if somebody is addicted to caffeine. I used to work for the coffee lobby 25 years ago and they would bring in reams of research, and I was the guy that would take the scientific papers. They wanted me to spin them into popular language to show that caffeine was good, or coffee was good. Back then there weren’t a lot of positives coming out, but the whole point is, any time there was any kind of research that would start to show a negative, they wanted to push it aside.
Oftentimes in the research community there isn’t a lot impetus to really go into what the exact mechanism is for sugar. For sure, it is going to be around blood sugar deregulation. For sure, it is going to be insulin and cortisol highs. Those hormones are going to track each other profoundly. We know that there is fascinating research on sugar in young people, and how it jacks up adrenalin levels, tremendously. You and I can consume sugar, and yes, we might get a cortisol rise, we might get an adrenalin rise, but you give it to a seven-year-old, and it is like giving them a powerful stimulant. So, I think we need more research.
Jonathan: Marc, let’s focus on sugar here, for a second. I am as curious as our listeners probably are, because these are things that I have experienced personally, and I’m hoping you can shed some light on them for me. We all know that there was a recent book published called, Salt Sugar Fat, and we know that those are the three things that can cause craziness, among other things, like MSG, but let’s talk about salt, sugar, and fat here for a second. It seems like sugar is very unique in that trifecta; at least, to me.
For example, eating pure salt is disgusting, regardless of how pure we get in terms of salt. Salt clearly has diminishing marginal returns. You salt something. It’s good, it’s good, it’s good, and then it becomes disgusting. The same thing with fat. If you are eating a fatty piece of meat, I don’t know too many people who like to cut off the pure chunk of fat and just say, “Oh my God, this is so good.” However, sugary cereal; what is everyone’s favorite part? The milk at the bottom of the bowel, which is basically pure sugar. Why is it that with sugar it seems like we want 100% sweetness, but for salt and fat, there are diminishing marginal returns. Does that make sense?
Marc: Love the question. I think there are two roads to really go down to get some interesting information. The first road is evolutionary biology. When you are I were little creatures evolving millions of years ago, here is what happened. Preferentially, we developed a very powerful sweet taste bud. The way taste buds work, that they are going to fire all over the tongue. Our distant ape-like ancestors determined that you might find something bland in the environment, and it could be poisonous. You might find something pungent or bitter, and it could be poisonous. But, if you find anything out in nature that is sweet, it isn’t going to kill you. There is no way. There are no poisonous, kill you right now, sweet foods in nature. So, the brain said, “Huh. This is a powerful reward. I am safe here.”
Next, you go to the infant’s as yet undeveloped nervous system. Everything is experienced as one. If you taste mother’s milk, it is mildly sweet. To an infant’s tongue it is very sweet, so there is already this inborn genetic memory of mother’s milk: Held, touched, fed. Sigmund Freud had a fascinating term. He said infants are polymorphously perverse, meaning that for every stimuli that comes in they can’t determine what it is; it is all one. The sound of my mother’s voice, her touch, her love, the milk, the sweet, it is all experienced as one. We develop this sense of sweet equals love, touch, mother, safety, so the reward in our brain when we get something sweet, first of all, goes way back into evolutionary history, meaning, “I’m safe,” and it also comes equipped with sensations and cellular memory of love, connection, nourishment, “I’m okay.”
Here’s the other road to walk down, which might be a more cosmic or spiritual one. We want love, we want the sweet life. There is a reason why we have those kinds of metaphors: “Oh, she’s so sweet. He’s so sweet. That’s such a sweet thing that you said.” We don’t say, “Oh, yeah, he’s bitter.” There is a psychological quality to taste that gives us an experience. The yogis of old believed, or they said, that there were certain states of consciousness where you experience divine nectar, and you literally feel sweet all over the body. Whether you believe that or not, the bottom line is that there is a historical, spiritual, and evolutionary association with sweet. It’s like the big reward. (laughs) It’s built into our biology.
Jonathan: How can we, then, practice what I call safe sweetener? I know there are a lot of folks, and you may be one of them, for whom the taste of sweet is the devil’s work, and maybe I’m exaggerating, but that we just have to be careful, that it’s like trying to take a little bit of cocaine. That seems like an exaggeration to me. It seems like telling someone they can never experience something sweet for the rest of their life is a recipe for, at least, deprivation. What do you tell your clients, and what have you seen in the research is the no addiction-prone strategy for sweets?
Marc: I think it is always fascinating for people to have the experience of letting something go for a while, as best as humanly possible, just to let the body find balance. It is no different than if you and I are over-working like crazy, you [?? 13:39], you let go of the email, you let go of the phone, you let go of work for a week. We recalibrate. What happens for a lot of people is when they recalibrate, when they let go of sweet for two, three, or four weeks, all of a sudden they find their natural relationship with it.
Part of it is also helping people understand how they use substances to regulate discomfort. What happens is that we often give a lot of power to the sugar. “Oh, yeah, this addicts me.” And it can. Some people are more sensitive than others. Some people are more sensitive to caffeine, more sensitive to alcohol, or more sensitive to sugar, so I think it is good to look at it. I can eat sugar, and then I cannot eat it for weeks. It doesn’t matter to me. For some people, it will trigger them. I could drink Tequila. Some people, they have one sip of alcohol and they are going to go down the alcoholism road. I think we have to respect biochemical individuality of each of us, and at the same time, notice how we use any substances, in this case sweet, to regulate our discomfort.
Oftentimes, we will use sweet as almost a soft addiction, meaning, “Yeah, I came home, I had a lousy day at work. Ah, sugar.” We’re using it in a soft way. It might not be intense, but in a way, it is taking us away from our strongest integrity, our strongest self. We don’t have control over our minds. “I have to use a little bit of sugar, a little bit of this, to make myself feel good because I am not communicating in my relationship, or I’m not being honest with my boss.” So, we will use these things. I am interested in the personal development work that happens alongside the nutritional work. To me, that potentiates things so much more.
Jonathan: Marc, if I understand correctly, it sounds like maybe any substance that could be addictive, for example, there are plenty of people that drink wine, and they do not become alcoholics, so to just say, you can never have alcohol, seems like it might be an exaggeration. But for someone who is an alcoholic, just telling them to have a glass a wine per week is probably not a good idea. And just like we look at alcohol and say that alcohol can be used for “good or evil,” depending on other things going in your life, it sounds like you are saying the same thing exists for food, that tracing it back and asking why you are using sugar in this way is the big question to ask.
Marc: Exactly, and it is a moving target, that question. It is a powerful question, because then we can be in relationship with the substance, instead of, as you say, label it good or bad. As soon as you label something bad or good, with a moralism to it – for instance, I avoid GMO foods. I don’t like them at all, but to label a food evil or bad almost sets up this relationship where we are going to crave it. Here’s another piece about that that I think might be important from the field of toxicology. It will take you six years to get your Ph.D. in toxicology. We can sum up the field, and please forgive me guys, in five words: The dose makes the poison. You and I have mercury circulating in our systems right now, but there isn’t enough to kill us, so what is the dose that can work for you?
For some people, they know that if they watch their body, “I can eat a certain amount of this and be okay.” And there are some people, as soon as they hit a certain amount of sugar it taps into that feed-forward loop in the brain so that they want more, and more, and more. If you can be aware and notice, “Huh, what is my tolerance? When do I hit that point of toxicity, when I am all of a sudden being driven?” Then the relationship with sugar becomes interesting. How much alcohol could you do before you need to take a taxi home? Like you want to really measure that? Same with a powerful substance like sugar. How much can I do of this so that it works for me? For some people, it might be none. Fine. For some people, whatever it is. But let’s respect the relationship, explore it, and then let the chips fall where they may, I think.
Jonathan: I like that, Marc. To wrap up here, what, in all your years of experience, and I know you have spoken with many, many individuals about this, both clinically, practically, and socially, would you say are your top three tips for individuals who say, “I get the science, I understand. Eat nutrient-dense foods, avoid processed stuff. Sugar is bad. I get it, I get it, I get it. I get home at night, I’m tired, and I’m crabby. All that scientific knowledge isn’t really helping me at that moment.” What are the top three tips you would give to help handle that psychology of eating?
Marc: I love it. For me, tip number one is, find out what helps put you into a relaxation response, because essentially, whenever you and I are addicted to a food, technically speaking, the moment you are driven to go for it, or let’s say you are soft-addicted, or you are attached to a food, the moment you are driven to go for it, you are in some degree of stress chemistry; there is a drivenness. We’re going for that food because there is a stress that is being built up; there is a discomfort, there is a stress chemistry. We eat the food, and it actually calms us down, but it might have negative effects. What I am saying is that we are actually turning to food oftentimes to create stress relief in the system.
So, what else helps me relieve stress? It might be music, it might be TV, it might be a conversation, it might be taking a shower, or it might be getting out there and moving. Whatever it is, it is a great question to ask. What helps me empower myself to take control over my own mind and body as a tool? To me, the mind and body is a tool. It’s like a hammer. If you know how to use a hammer you can do some good stuff. If you are not so smart about using a hammer, you could destroy a lot of things in your room. So, how do I see mind and body as a tool? It is almost like taking some of the mind chatter out of it. “Oh, I can’t believe I over ate that food!” No. Okay, so you over ate it. What do you have to do next time? What regulates me? How do I regulate my system so I can learn how to relax so I don’t need this and that in order to say, “Ahhhhhh?” I think that is the number one tip.
Honestly, yogis, athletes, meditators, and shamans have been doing this for ages: Breathing. It is easy, it is free, it regulates the mind, it puts you into parasympathetic dominance, and it helps both hemispheres of the brain come into synchrony. It is a powerful tool.
Those are my favorites: Asking yourself, “What helps put me into the relaxation response? Can I use breathing to harness my mind?” And then from there you can make a choice. You might still eat the sugar, you might still go for the chips; but you know something? When you and I are in a relaxed state, and I mean true parasympathetic dominance, appetite is more naturally regulated. If we are in stress chemistry, being chased by a lion, appetite regulation mechanism is out the door. All your metabolic energy is going into fighting and fleeing. The point is, I can’t have my true natural appetite regulation if my mind is scattered, if it is back at work and arguing with somebody who is not even in the room. So, it is almost taking it away from nutrition for a moment, and bringing it back to me.
Jonathan: Marc, that is so transformative, I think, because so many of us can spend so much time looking for the next pill, powder, or potion, which, in and of itself, is almost like a stress response. “Oh my God, I can’t handle this. I need some magic formula.” And that is the exact tape that is causing the stress in the first place. So if you’re in a hot state, get in a cold state. That is transformative. So Marc, where can folks go to learn more about this? What do you have coming up next, and what are some resources folks could use to cool themselves off in this way?
Marc: Thanks so much for asking. Go to our website, psychologyofeating.com. We have a free video guide. It’s called the Dynamic Eating Psychology Breakthrough. You hear me talking about a lot of these principles. It’s really great stuff. We have a professional training and eating psychology training certification. It’s a very powerful online distance learning program. That’s more for people wanting to do this as a professional. We have some public programs, a really good one that kind of hits the nail on the head with what we have been talking about, called Transform Your Relationship with Food. That program is coming up soon.
People can get on our website, learn about transforming their relationship with food, and sign up for a free audio guide. We have tons of content, tons of blogs, free stuff, which really goes into exactly what we’re talking about. In my second book, The Slow Down Diet, I go into the mind/body science of what we’ve been talking about, stress chemistry and relaxation chemistry, but really, it comes from a wider perspective, not just science. To me, we are creatures of mind and body, and let’s play with that. It’s fascinating. It expands the nutrition conversation, to me, and infuses it with mystery.
Jonathan: Which is definitely needed, because folks that come out and say, “Oh, just do exactly this, we have it all figured out,” to me, that is a great sign that that person does not know what they are talking about, because you and I both know, we are just starting to understand this amazingly complicated system. Marc, what was the name of that website again?
Marc: It is psychologyofeating.com, all one word.
Jonathan: Beautiful. Marc David is spelled M-a-r-c D-a-v-i-d, correct?
Marc: You got it.
Jonathan: Beautiful. Marc, again, thank you so much for joining us today and providing all of these wonderful, mind-expanding and emotionally calming resources for us. I deeply appreciate it.
Marc: Jonathan, thank you so much for the great work you are doing in the world. I love it. It has taken a lot of us to push the envelope and open up the field of nutrition and healing and just give it some new insight and new vibe, so congrats to you, as well, my friend.
Jonathan: Brilliant, brilliant. Well listeners, I hope you enjoyed this wonderful conversation as much as I did.