Thanksgiving evening, I lay slumped on the couch in a semi-stuporous state, plied with alcohol, turkey tryptophan, a much larger butterfat and carb load than my body is accustomed to, and exhaustion from an early rise and a good afternoon workout. As I struggled to keep my eyes open to watch Miracle on 34th Street on television, it occurred to me that what better time than Thanksgiving—a holiday where we are given license to eat with reckless abandon–-to discuss what “promiscuous eating” is all about.
Let me start with a story: A close friend of my wife told me that after a particularly stressful day, she had consumed a “boatload” of unhealthy food late at night. She had devoured it with intensity but without enjoyment, and she was left feeling bloated and angry with herself. The following morning after awakening from a fitful night of sleep, she felt guilty and disgusted because of such indiscriminate eating. It seemed that her emotions were in line with what one might feel after a meaningless, casual sexual relationship. She had essentially experienced a “one night stand” with food. I blurted out that her eating behavior seemed promiscuous and hence the term “promiscuous eating” was born.
The word promiscuous refers to behavior that is indiscriminate, casual, and potentially dangerous. Although usually applied to the sexual realm, I recognized that it could be just as readily applied to the eating domain. The term promiscuous eating was coined to mean the unrestrained, unreasonable, unselective consumption of foods without regard to consequence.
Promiscuous eating is an unhealthy relationship with food: the promiscuous eater lacks a long-term commitment to quality foods and to eating for the right reasons, in the right quantities and in the right manner. It entails the reckless consumption of food in inappropriate amounts at unsuitable speeds, times and places, often without enjoyment of the eating process. It involves knowingly making poor food choices and consuming food for purposes other than satisfying genuine hunger. It often leaves us feeling physically bloated as well as psychologically stressed and guilt-ridden. Stress may have been a factor responsible for bringing on the bout of promiscuous eating, but the secondary stress created may be even worse than the prompting stress. After a bout of promiscuous eating, we do not feel good about ourselves the next morning.
Eating and sex are primal gratifications. We have been designed for survival of the individual, which is predicated upon having food to fuel us. We have evolved in such a way that the act of eating, similar to the sexual act, is an enjoyable and stimulating sensual activity that drives the behavior. What a clever bait and switch scheme conceived by nature’s forces! We consume food seemingly in the pleasurable pursuit of satisfying our hunger, but in reality—determined by this evolutionary sleight of hand—for the purpose of keeping ourselves well nourished and energized.
Imagine if we derived no pleasure from eating and it was done perfunctorily—solely for the purpose of energizing—in similar fashion to when we dispense fuel into our cars, with an emotionally neutral and joyless demeanor. What would happen is we would be doing a lot less eating and obesity would be unheard of; in fact, many would probably be undernourished, which would not benefit survival.
We have also been designed for survival of the species. Nature conceived the same bait and switch scheme with respect to the sexual domain. Driven by libido and hormones, we seek the pleasure and sensual experiences of sex but nature tricked us for its ulterior motive of reproduction. Imagine if we derived no pleasure from sex and that it was only performed in order to reproduce the species…there would be a whole lot less sex happening and the world population would not be 7 billion!
My point is that highly rewarding and pleasurable activities can be easily carried to extremes and often require some degree of balance between pleasure-seeking aspects and the need for restraint. That said, the maxim “everything in moderation” is always relevant, particularly with this very happy holiday. As my friend Drew relates, Thanksgiving is a time to be “food naughty after a year of nutritious eating and working out!”
Andrew Siegel, M.D.
Author of Promiscuous Eating: Understanding and Ending Our Self-Destructive Relationship with Food