Errors of Perception: a new understanding of appetite, hunger, and overeating

All addictions are surrounded and supported by a collection of powerful lies, or delusions. Taking control is the process of identifying those lies and discovering the truth.

– Gillian Riley, How to stop smoking and Stay Stopped For Good (2007)

Although it is critical to see precisely how and why deceptive food alters your bodily responses, this is only part of what is required. Oddly, the biggest problem in addiction is not the physical recalibration of bodily sensors, but the beliefs that are acquired while this deception is undetected and misunderstood.

I used to find it bizarre that if I imagined waking up in the body of a heroin addict (with no prior experience of how I got there), I was certain that I could escape. No matter how awful I imagined the withdrawal symptoms to be, I knew that I had within me whatever was required to break free. I knew that I would have no desire to take another dose of heroin, no matter how unbearable the withdrawal symptoms were, because I understood, without any shadow of a doubt, that continuing to take the drug makes everything worse, whereas stopping involves a short period of discomfort, after which everything improves.

It seemed absurd that despite being so certain about my capacity to end hard drug addiction (if I woke up in this state), I had no such confidence regarding something with a withdrawal period that was so ridiculously mild by comparison.

Why was I so confident about the former, yet hopeless about the prospect of breaking free from deceptive food? Why is it that some people can take highly addictive drugs in hospital settings, yet return home, withdraw without apparent difficulty, and get on with the rest of their lives? Why is waking up in the body of a drug addict different from a lifetime of personal engagement and first-hand experience?

It is different because the difficulty of escaping an addiction is not the physical recalibration itself, but the incorrect beliefs that are acquired as a consequence.

It is these incorrect beliefs, not the physical effects of engaging with a deceptive circumstance (which are transitory and can be rapidly undone) that provide the largest barrier to ending an addiction.

When something misleads you, you misinterpret the situation

As you engage with a deceptive circumstance across time, you are forced to generate several plausible explanations for your behavior. While the influence of a misleading item is unknown, you do not have the full facts at hand, and misinterpret what is happening. Furthermore, because addiction itself is commonly misunderstood (most people believe it to be a baffling condition that strikes an unfortunate subset of society for unclear genetic and environmental reasons), these misperceptions spread like wildfire, and appear to be verified by sheer social consensus.

The first error comes in via your sensors, but the next errors congregate in your mind, in an effort to explain the first error.

It is not obvious that deceptive flavors distort appetite, reduce taste and smell sensitivity, so that your hunger rises, while your capacity to detect and enjoy flavor diminishes. The molecular mimicry within these foods is invisible to the naked eye, so it is no wonder that you have acquired flawed beliefs about the situation.

Pay no attention to the 500 million profit stream behind the curtain, you are the problem.

– J. Stanton, What Is Hunger, and Why Are We Hungry?

Eliminating false beliefs is critical, if you hope to behave appropriately

There is a famous analogy about baby elephants that are tied to a stake while young. As babies, they tug and pull at the ropes or chains that bind them, and cannot walk free. Eventually they come to believe that escape is impossible, and give up trying. As strong, fully-grown elephants, who could break through the restraints in one second, they do not even bother to try. What keeps the adult elephant trapped is not the chain, but the incorrect belief it holds about the situation.

There is an almost universal tendency among victims of deception to view oneself as a fundamentally flawed human being – deficient, disordered, or malfunctioning in some way – and to be convinced that these supposed differences create a permanent or significant barrier to change.

It is not enough to understand the role of deception within the food supply, if you still believe that these food helps you with cope with your emotions, cure boredom, or are problematic only for certain deficient or disordered individuals. It is not enough to understand how and why addiction occurs, if you still believe that addiction means a complicated powerlessness-type condition, from which escape is difficult or rare.

While you believe that something is fundamentally wrong with you, your capacity to take appropriate action is compromised (just as an elephant’s capacity to take appropriate action is compromised, when it does not believe it can break free). To navigate successfully through any situation, you must have accurate models not only of the external environment, but of the navigating entity (you).

You are a normal human being

It is normal to start dieting in a deceptive food environment, while the population around you struggles with their weight. It is normal for conventional diets to fail, when the real culprit is undetected and unknown. It is normal for dieting to make people hungrier, and for this to increase the odds you binge ate deceptive foods when these were encountered. It is normal for the consumption of large volumes of deceptive food to escalate their effects upon your body, such that your engagement climbs at a faster rate that it appears to do for those who did not diet severely, making it seem as if you alone have something wrong with you.

Finally, it was normal for you not to understand all of this while it was happening – because these strategies of deception are so cunning, so tiny, so varied, and so perfectly mapped on to the stimuli naturally occurring within normal foods, that it was almost impossible to detect.

To return to eating like a normal person, you must first see that you are a normal person, doing exactly what any normal human being would have done in your situation, given the information that you had to hand.

You are an ordinary human being, who was led astray by a set of simple sensory tricks, set in motion by food manufacturers who profit from this same deception. And while not understanding what was happening, your turned of blame upon you.

Accurate behaviors require accurate rules

Every action you take is selected the same way: environmental data (collected and transmitted via the senses) is used to update predictive rules (beliefs) that encode operational truth about the world. Once a behavioral prediction is formed, you act upon it. After all, if you had the capacity to believe something as true, yet ignore this prediction, you would act at your peril. The whole point of establishing reliable rules between action and outcome is so that these can better govern action, allowing you to more successfully navigate in and around survival rewards and threats as required.

The right choices cannot be made if the rules are wrong. Yet, the right rules can extract you from any deceptive environment, no matter how corrupt the sensory data has become – because the right rules account for the corruption in the data.

The moment a deceptive circumstance is viewed in completely the right way, the influence of the misleading entity is revealed. And in that moment, the addiction is gone.

Logic changes beliefs

Allen Carr, who discovered the most successful method for stopping smoking of all time, talks about the little monster (the body’s physical recalibration to nicotine) and the big monster (the incorrect beliefs that infiltrate the mind, which he calls the ‘brainwashing’). Carr explains that the little monster is easy to overcome – but that debunking the brainwashing is the most challenging part.

Carr’s stop-smoking method achieves its goal by presenting a series of logical, common-sense arguments, each debunking a popular explanation for why people think they smoke cigarettes.

While running in-person seminars and one-on-one discussions with smokers, Carr heard the explanations for why people smoked, over and over again: it relaxes me; it helps me cope with stress; it helps me feel calm; the withdrawal period is unbearable; I have no willpower…and on and on. Carr became an expert in convincing people that there was a far more accurate and helpful way of viewing the situation. Eventually, it finally sinks in that there is only one reason why someone keeps smoking: a tiny physical bodily calibration that has no more power over them than a common cold. As this simple truth dawns, people find themselves not dreading putting down the cigarette, but excited and thrilled to do so.

At first read, Carr’s books can seem blindingly obvious and repetitious. But what is obvious to one person is not obvious to another, and vice versa. Each individual holds different beliefs about the circumstance, due to the differing experiences of their lives.

Some people never acquire certain viewpoints, or experience something that extinguishes a popular explanation. For example, in the case of dieting, I used to be certain that some form of ‘resisting hunger’ was necessary for me to achieve a healthy weight. It was not until I followed a whole-food, paleo-type diet that I finally understood that ‘eating to appetite’ was a viable method of weight loss. (Of course, at that time, my definition of which foods were acceptable was far too narrow, but until I had this experience, I simply did not believe that eating to appetite could ever work for me.) In other words, the random experiences that you have throughout your life impact which beliefs you hold about a situation.

Allen Carr found that it could sometimes be a single belief that kept people in the nicotine trap. Midway through a presentation, someone would commonly interrupt him and tell him that they suddenly got it – that he needn’t say another word – they would never smoke another cigarette again.

The critical point, however, is that the vital information which triggered this insight was different for every individual – with most people requiring several beliefs to be debunked before the finally understood.

When inaccurate beliefs are gone, cravings disappear

The biggest problem you face when attempting to break free from deceptive foods, is that every time you turn away from it by force, you crave it.

As long as you believe that these items help in certain situations – or that you need these foods to function or cope – you will feel restricted and resentful, whenever you set them down. You will experience a sense of missing out, and continue to yearn and crave for the things you have forsaken.

Seeing faulty beliefs for what they are offers an immediate pathway out. If you can see that every supposed benefit offered by deceptive food is an illusion built upon sensory mimicry, cravings immediately cease. Rapid behavioral change is possible, because when a harmful item is finally seen in the correct light, you no longer want it.

Whether or not you want something depends only upon how you perceive it

Consider the consequences of losing a ten cent coin. For most, losing such a small amount of money is not much of a downer, and may not even be noticed. Yet this doesn’t mean that you willingly walk around throwing ten cent coins from your wallet. No matter how slight a downside, there is no incentive to incur a loss for no reason – unless, of course, this loss appears to be offset by something better.

The key to escaping an addiction is not to examine the price that you are paying, in the hope that acknowledging the loss will spur you to stop (it is almost certain that the downsides are already known with painful, personal clarity). Instead, the key is to focus upon the perceived upsides, because this is where the perception error is found. Turn your attention to the supposed advantages of deceptive food, and do everything you can to understand that none of these purported advantages are real.

The key to quitting alcohol or any drug is to materially change how we perceive that drug. Addiction, any addiction, comes about because a part of the addict believes that they need the drug to fully enjoy or cope with life. …[]… The drug may be dragging the addict down, killing them and ruining their life but while they believe that they cannot enjoy life or cope with life without it they will continue to return to it.

– William Porter, Alcohol Explained 2: Tools for a Stronger Sobriety (2019)

Ending an addiction is a thought-related challenge, and it requires changing how you perceive both the deceptive item and yourself. The original Alcoholic’s Anonymous book describes this transformation as an enormous emotional rearrangement:

Ideas, emotions, and attitudes which were once the guiding forces of the lives of these men are suddenly cast to one side, and a completely new set of conceptions and motives begin to dominate them.

– Alcoholics Anonymous: Big Book (Original Edition)

This transformation is the dramatic shifting of beliefs. It is the realisation that none of the benefits that you previously attached to consuming the deceptive item are real.

Be open to the possibility that a new viewpoint may help

Timothy Wilson, professor of psychology from the University of Virginia, makes the rather disconcerting observation that others can often predict our behavior better than we can ourselves. On the face of it, this may sound preposterous – how can others have a better understanding of our motives and hence more accurately predict our behavior, if they have no access to our internal thoughts or feelings?

This prospect becomes more plausible, however, when you consider that that the way we decipher our own motives is exactly the same way that others do: by observing our behavior.

Wilson suggests that when it comes to interpretating our own behavior, our stake in the outcome can be a disadvantage, because we are biased towards interpreting our performance in a favourable light. We have an incentive to explain our actions in such a way that invokes understanding, pity, or acceptance, for example, rather than condemnation.

Shocking experiments have been carried out in patients with severed connections between the left- and right-brain hemispheres (so that one half of the brain cannot communicate with the other). If experimenters hold up a message to one of the patient’s eyes only (for example, an instruction asking the patient to stand up and do something), they will carry out that instruction. But when asked to explain what they are doing, the left-brain hemisphere (responsible for language), which has not sighted the instruction, generates a plausible (yet incorrect) explanation and states it as fact. (These intriguing studies by Roger Sperry and Michael Gazzaniga are described by Kevin Simler and Robin Hanson, in their book, The Elephant in the Brain). The implication is that it is wise to consider the possibility that your prior assumptions about your eating behavior may be wrong.

As you read the pages linked at the end of this article, be aware that some of the material will at first seem confronting, diabolical, or downright outrageous – conflicting everything that ‘experts’ have told you. But if the conventional viewpoint has not yet helped you end overeating, is there harm in considering an alternative point of view?

Remember that the most entrenched inaccurate beliefs often sound very plausible. The more convincing an explanation is – the more it seems to fit your particular life, and the greater number of experts who agree with it – the more likely you are to have accepted it.

These beliefs always look very convincing: they have to be in order to fool you. You would not think, for example, that smoking enables you to leap tall buildings in a single bound. That’s too absurd.

The beliefs that smokers develop have to be believable, and even contain fragments of truth.

– Gillian Riley, How to stop smoking and Stay Stopped For Good (2007)

It is not enough to evict a deceiving entity, if their lies still infiltrate your castle. In order to permanently end an addiction, all errors of misperception must be identified and rooted out – the rot cleaved away. Otherwise, you remain vulnerable to opening the gates again, and letting the deceiving entity back in.

When someone leaves a drug treatment centre, detoxified, healthy and strong, only to dive headfirst back into the trap, the re-emergence of this behavior is not the result of inherited deficiencies, or long-lasting differences in bodily sensors, but the inaccurate beliefs the person still holds about the circumstance.

To end overeating for good, you must identify and dismantle the inaccurate beliefs that you hold about deceptive food and yourself. The goal is to realise that all of this drama was caused by a single set of sensory tricks – that you were duped by a molecular sleight of hand – and that nothing else is wrong.

Deduction is like a game of Battleship. You are falsifying each place where the answer does not reside. But it is even more effective in deception, because you can pay close attention to where societal pressure forbids you to look…

The Ethical Skeptic (2022)

The above material is adapted from my upcoming book, Foods that Lie, which outlines exactly how and why deceptive foods cause addiction: escalating hunger and reducing flavor sensitivity. To be alerted when this book is published, please make sure that you have subscribed to the mailing list below.

In the meantime, I would love your input upon ideas discussed in four chapters which lead on from the above material. These chapters address popular explanations for overeating. Here is the first:

Written by

I am a mother from New Zealand. I have no relevant work experience or nutritional qualifications (I have degrees in completely unrelated fields). What I do have, however, is almost two decades of personal experience being embroiled in what can only be described as a dietary well as the great and utter joy of being free of it. Follow me on my newly created Twitter account!

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