"I know I shouldn't eat cookies, but I just can't help myself. I'm a cookie monster!"
Sound familiar? Everyone knows that cookies (and candy, cakes, pies, ice cream, other sweets) offer suboptimal nutrition. But why are cookies so popular? Why do we eat monstrous portions that were not a part of our food intentions?
Most athletes believe cookies are the problem. I challenge that belief. I see cookies as being the symptom and getting too hungry as being the problem. That is, when you get too hungry, you experience a very strong drive to eat. Cookies!!!
Hunger, a Simple Request for Fuel
Hunger is a very powerful physiological force that creates a strong desire to eat. When a child complains about being hungry, the parent readily provides food. But when athletes experience hunger, they either have "no time" to eat or, if weight-conscious, they fear food as being fattening; eating equates to getting fat.
Most athletes eat without getting fat. Food, after all, is fuel. But cookie monster problems arise when time-deprived or dieting athletes consume inadequate fuel and hunger becomes the norm. The result is an abnormal physiological state known as starvation--or more commonly, known as being "on a diet."
Although starvation is associated with famine in poor countries, starvation is also common among busy and dieting athletes.
In 1950, Ancel Keys and his colleagues at the University of Minnesota studied the physiology of starvation. They carefully monitored 36 young, healthy, psychologically normal men who for six months were allowed to eat only half their normal intake (similar to a very restrictive reducing diet).
For three months prior to this semi-starvation diet, the researchers carefully studied each man's behaviors, personality, and eating patterns. They also observed the men for three to nine months of re-feeding.
As the subjects' body weight fell, the researchers learned that many of the symptoms that might have been thought to be specific to binge eating were actually the result of starvation.
The most striking change was a dramatic increase with food preoccupation. The hungry subjects thought about food all the time. They talked about it, read about it, dreamed about it, even collected recipes. They dramatically increased their consumption of coffee and tea, and chewed gum excessively.
They became depressed, had severe mood swings, experienced irritability, anger and anxiety. They became withdrawn and lost their sense of humor. They had cold hands and feet, and felt weak and dizzy.
During the study, some of the men were unable to maintain control over food; they would binge-eat if the opportunity presented itself--similar to "breaking a diet" or bingeing on cookies.
When the study ended and the men could eat freely, many of them ate continuously--big meals followed by snacks. They ate and ate--like a cookie monster. So what can we learn about binge-eating from this study?
1. Preoccupation with cookies (and sweets) indicates your body is too hungry. Hunger creates a strong physiological drive to eat.
2. Cookie binges stem from starvation. If you are unable to stop eating once you start, you have likely gotten monstrously hungry (or are very stressed).
3. Dieters who restrict to the point of semi-starvation are likely to "blow their diets" and consequently acquire some benefits: less hunger, cookies (and other sweets), and more energy.