Comedian Louis CK once lamented that a meal isn’t over when he’s full, but rather when he hates himself. Although that was just a joke, it was a very profound statement. In this video I discuss the psychology of eating and explain the manner in which we should approach food.

By: Zach Good

Key Takeaways:

In America, we’re constantly given food-based messages. We see billboards featuring juicy hamburgers and magazine covers with articles touting the best recipes. There’s even an entire TV channel devoted solely to food. Over and over again we’re told to choose our meals based on taste, and often we do exactly that.

By and large, Americans don’t have to worry about food supply. Sure, there are some U.S. citizens who are starving, but starvation in the United States doesn’t come close to that in Afghanistan, India, and some countries in Africa. In those places, millions of people are literally starving to death. Here in America we have 24-hour grocery stores, food bank charities, and government assistance programs for the needy. We also possess the land, agricultural processes, refrigeration, and distribution required to produce nearly every food imaginable. Because of these factors, we don’t need to worry about eating for survival and can instead focus on eating for experience.

Let’s say it’s 3 p.m. and we feel some hunger pangs. We know we’re going to be eating a big dinner in a few hours, so we want a snack that will hold us over. We look in the cabinet and pick out a bag of chips. Why? Because they’re readily available and taste good. We dig into the bag and eat one chip and experience a kind of high from the taste. Then we swallow it, and the chip and the high disappear. So we reach into the bag again and take another chip. We chew, experience a taste-fueled high, then swallow, and the chip and high once again disappear. We repeat this process over and over because we want the high. Before we know it, we ate 40 chips—or 500 calories—and we “hate ourselves,” as Louis CK joked.

For the sake of our mental and physical health, we need to see food not as an experience, but as fuel. Our bodies require nutrients to thrive, and that’s why we feel hunger in the first place. We should choose our food not based on the feeling of satisfaction we experience while eating it, but rather the nutritional value it provides to our bodies.

When we go to the gas station, we don’t choose a gas type based on smell or touch; we choose a gas type based on which kind of fuel our car needs in order to run properly. This is exactly how we should be choosing our food.

Food travels through our digestive system for 24 hours. On the other hand, the high we experience from good-tasting food lasts about 10 seconds. What this means is when we choose food purely because of taste, we are choosing something based on 0.01% of the process. That’s like buying tickets to the Super Bowl because we want to walk through the turnstile.

There’s nothing wrong with eating good-tasting food, but when we do, we need to set healthy limits ahead of time. Before we dig into a bag of chips or tub of ice cream, we should portion out an amount we feel comfortable eating and put the rest of the food away. Then, once we start eating, we’ll enjoy the high we experience from the food to a greater extent because we’ll appreciate that there is an end to the high. When we eat without pre-determined limits, we eat too much because we want to keep feeling a high and we have a simplistic view that we possess an endless supply of highs.

We eat too much when we don’t set limits ahead of time because once we start experiencing the high from a food’s taste our brain’s judgment becomes clouded with feel-good chemicals, making us less likely to make sound choices. Consider that when someone walks into a casino with no pre-determined loss limit, they’re more likely to rebuy chips and lose an amount that is much greater than they feel comfortable losing. The reason is because once they’re in the process of gambling they experience a high—even as they’re losing—and that high clouds their judgment. In much the same way, when we set healthy eating limits before the high kicks in, we make it more likely we’ll stick to our limits and not “hate ourselves” by the time we’re finished eating.