Can Reverse Psychology Cure Overeating?

In The Art of Overeating, psychologist Leslie Landis employs a humorous tone of reverse psychology to draw attention to some of the bad habits chronic overeaters develop. (For example: “Never share. OPPOSITE ADVICE: Always share. Whenever possible, split a meal with your dinner companion. It is worth the split charge and will save your waist and money.”) Here, she explains how she uses humor to help her patients – including her husband – deal with the very serious problem of overeating.

Q: Why did you decide on a humorous tone for your book?

Comedians make us laugh because we see truths about ourselves in their humor. I believe that humor can be part of the solution to weight problems. I have used it in my book for that purpose. My book is so “over the top” in its suggestions of how and why to overeat, that only someone who wants to weigh over 600 pounds would take it seriously. In other words, no one would mistake it for real advice. However, many readers have told me that they have recognized themselves or their behavior. One woman sent me an email that said she felt as if I were looking at her through a peephole, and now she is eating less. As a clinical psychologist, I have used humor, when appropriate, with my patients. A woman I worked with confided to me that she hid candy in her lingerie drawer. We had some fun with the idea of where else she could hide candy and what other foods she could stash. Though we laughed at the ideas we came up with, it helped her to develop insight about her food obsession and, subsequently, gain some control over it.

Q: Can reverse psychology actually help overeaters?

A: Reverse psychology – RP for short – is based on the psychological occurrence of reactance. That means when someone has a negative emotional response in reaction to being persuaded or told what to do, they will choose to do the opposite. I do not believe that RP is an effective tactic for overeaters and it is not the rationale I have employed in my book, The Art of Overeating. Overeating is a problem with potential health and life and death costs. To suggest to someone that they eat large amounts of food in the expectation that they will then eat less is, in my opinion, unsafe. Overeating is a behavioral compulsion with many psychological causes. With therapy or counseling and/or with motivation, a person can overcome the compulsion to overeat.

Q: Do you have any personal experience with overeating?

A: While I am not an overeater, my husband, Martin, is a world-class overeater. He was an only child raised in a food-loving family. Every Sunday night, his mother asked him to write down his “wish-list” of menus for the coming week. She made it all for him. Trained by the best, he became a champion. I thought his overeating exploits were so amazing that I began to write them down. Compiled together, my book was born. Since The Art of Overeating is more about universal truths than a particular person or occasion, the personal stories about Martin aren’t spelled out…so I will share one with you. Once, we went on a cruise with my parents. Every night, Martin ordered and ate all five of the available entrees. Finally, my dad – who worried about how Martin’s overeating would affect his health – asked him to please have just one dish. Martin agreed. However, unbeknownst to us, he spoke to the waiter before dinner that evening. When we sat to eat, the waiter brought Martin all five entrees – on one very large dish.

Q: What is the root problem for people who can’t control their eating?

A: I don’t believe there is one root problem that leads to a lack of eating control. More likely, overeating is a reaction to underlying problems that vary from person to person. However, it could be said that in most cases, food is used as a compensation or coping mechanism in response to various fundamental problems. Most of the patients I worked with were being treated for depression. A number of those patients were overweight. Depression can be a cause of weight gain. Just as some people who are depressed will exhibit a loss of appetite, others will have an increased desire for food. Another example is the belief that some obese women who were sexually molested as children have piled on the pounds to avoid being attractive. Layers of fat are an unconscious protective armor for a number of women with those painful experiences. One segment in my book is titled “Food is Love.” We commonly associate food with love. After all, one of our first experiences of love is in the form of food provided by mom. The association of food with love can be, as in my husband’s case, a strong motivation to overeat. Food can also be used as substitute for love, as well as a salve for unhappiness and as a reward for difficulties.

Q: If you could give overeaters one or two pieces of advice, what would it be?

A: As a clinical psychologist who has worked with overeaters and who lives with an overeater – my husband – I know that most people want to eat less and eat healthy, but it is a struggle for them. They need and want good advice and creative tips. Really, The Art of Overeating is a diet book, but a different kind of diet book. It doesn’t browbeat people or makes them feel guilty. I like to say that if you want to lose weight, do the opposite of everything in my book. With that in mind, my first advice is not to change what you eat, but rather to change how you eat.

This is an important first step. No one gains weight overnight and no one is going to lose weight overnight. It is done in steps. If you try to do too much too fast, you will become discouraged and disappointed. Worst yet, you will feel deprived and that feeling is you worst enemy. That is why you should not change everything at once. Don’t give up your favorite foods. Instead, start with changing how you eat them. What does that mean? Portion control! For example, when my book says, “leave no leftovers in a restaurant,” the opposite would be to ask the waitperson to divide your order in half and, before you are served, put one of those halves in a doggie bag for the trip home.

If you are overweight, not only do you have to do the opposite of everything in my book, you have to do the opposite of whatever you have been doing – because whatever you are doing is not working.