Why volume eating could be disordered

Volume eating

What is volume eating?

Volume eating is essentially eating large amounts foods. Mind it’s not any type of food, here we are talking of low calorie foods. I suspect that if it wasn’t low calorie, diet culture would be quick in calling it overeating or binge eating but as long as there aren’t too many calories, that’s legit, isn’t it?

I think volume eating has also been referred to as the volumetric diet and perhaps this term encapsulates well my views on this practice. It’s not a bad idea to have volume on your plate, but if it’s called a diet I smell rat somehow.

Why it could be a good idea

As a nutritionist, I think it makes total sense to eat food that satisfies you and makes you feel full. Firstly, that usually means you have eaten enough and that you have enjoyed your meal. Secondly, despite the fact that I love food and made it my job, I don’t want to be thinking about it, and more precisely what I’m going to eat next, every five minutes. Volume eating allows you to do that: eat a nice amount and forget about it for a few hours until your stomach tells you it’s time to eat again.

Tissue paper food

There are some foods that I categorise as “tissue paper food”; note it’s neither good nor bad. Imagine, you go to the shop and buy something nice and valuable, the shopkeeper may wrap it in tissue paper to protect it and to make it pretty (I’ve never been handed a light bulb or a saw in tissue paper, it tends to be fabric, soaps, flowers etc.). The tissue paper doesn’t need to be there but boy, it’s lovely to unwrap and hear the rustle of the sheets!

Well it’s the same with food, there are some stuff we don’t really need and on their own they don’t do much but boy, they are nice to eat sometimes. The thing with tissue paper food is that there isn’t much to it. You would want to only get the tissue paper (you want the soap or the fabric) and if you only ate “tissue paper food”, say biscuits or crisps, it would take a while to fill you up, so you’d have to eat quite a lot of them and that might not be great for your health. 

Sure eat the biscuits and crisps but including some fish, meat, eggs, vegetables, fruit etc. would be a smart move for your health and for your satiety too. That’s because protein and fibre are nutritious and filling.

So at first glance volume eating seems pretty sound and like a reasonable nutritional strategy. However, can you feel the “but” coming? There’s one coming of course…

What is the link between volume eating and eating disorders?

But! As almost always with nutrition trends, practices, or good ideas, things can be taken too far. We often refer to “grey areas” as things we don’t really know about and there tends to be negative connotations attached to this but in nutrition it’s the opposite. The best place to be is in the grey zone, we don’t want black or white. Some may agree that restriction is bad and they may argue that volume eating is its anti-thesis so there’s no need to fret but 1) it’s not quite true (bear with) and 2) that sounds very black and white to me.

Ok, restriction is bad so I’ll eat but I want to lose weight, so I’ll eat foods that contain the least amount of calories possible – that’s still restrictive, hence why not the anti-thesis of restriction.

Slightly different scenario: I don’t want to gain weight but I want to feel full, so I’ll eat food with the least amount of calories possible so I get more bang for my buck – this is still restrictive because it makes abstraction of everything that isn’t filling and low calorie. Nutrients, sustainability, enjoyment etc. don’t matter anymore provided the food is filling and low calorie.

Embrace the grey!!

What can happen with volume eating when it is seen as a diet, is that instead of people filling say half their plates with vegetables, the rest with protein, and carbs and having some tissue paper food for dessert, they get rid of the fat, the carbs, the sugar and some of the meat, fish, eggs, cheese etc. People eat, they eat large amounts, but what they eat just chaff and water: leaves with no dressing, steamed vegetables and fish and perhaps some diet puddings made with artificial sweeteners and gums. People tuck into massive meals that take ages to eat and make their jaws ache by the end of the day.

Volume eating can quickly lead to a socially accepted form of disordered eating and to an eating disorder. It can descend into cutting out most carbs aside from fibre, and all fat leaving you with a form of low carbohydrate diet, not quite keto, not quite paleo, just low carbs.

The problems with it

There are lots of problems associated with volume eating: social, nutritional, digestive and emotional.

What happened to me is the same as what happened to my clients: our social life shrunk because we just weren’t eating like anyone else around us. By that I don’t just mean we couldn’t go out but we also couldn’t eat like the rest of our household. Going out was always having a salad, it didn’t really matter what restaurant we were going to, I was always having the salad when the others were having pizza, a curry or a paella. At home people end up eating differently to their partners or children, it’s salad, chicken or white fish, vegetables and fat free yoghurt.

Eating isn’t just consuming nutrients, it’s an act of sharing and we could even go as far as saying that it’s an act of communion, whichever religion you belong to. What does it mean about you and what does it do to you to always be the one not having the cake, the bread or the sauce?

volume eating

The nutritional limitations of volume eating

Nutritionally it’s a bit of a car crash: we need fat for hormonal function, for brain function, for skin health, to absorb fat-soluble vitamins etc. We need starch so the body can get a readily available source of glucose and to get minerals such magnesium, iodine and selenium, and let’s not forget choline and B vitamins. Many women end up eating mostly vegetables and massively under-eat protein, leading to a decrease in muscle mass.

I saw this guy once on Instagram eating a shocking diet. There were lots of good things (fresh fruit and vegetables and some protein) but what he was eating barely resembled meals anymore. His egg-white omelette looked like a doormat, his salad was so large he ate it from a mixing bowl and his puddings were all artificially coloured and flavoured. It took him two hours to eat his lunch and two third of the way through he looked like was genuinely struggling to finish his 1.5kg salad (1.5kg?!!) but he soldiered on because it was “better than being hungry”.

Forcing your stomach to hold such big volumes for fear for becoming hungry isn’t good for you. I’m ready to bet that with all the fibre he had eaten the next day wasn’t “pretty pretty”.  Fibre is good but we are not ruminant sand shouldn’t just consume vegetables. 

How it could worsen body image and disconnect you from your body

The irony in abusing volume eating so you don’t get hungry in between meals is that by eating exceedingly large portions of low calorie food, you are stretching your stomach more than usual thereby potentially messing with natural satiety cues. What that means is that you are getting your stomach used to having a lot in so that next time it has less, say a regular meal with more calories but smaller in density, it will feel like you haven’t eaten enough. This may cause you to eat more (even though your body doesn’t technically need it), or just to panic leading to the confirmation that higher calorie food is indeed dangerous.

Eating lots of fibre and diet food could also lead to bloating worsening your body image and driving you to eat less.

How eating more to reduce hunger may not reduce cravings

Finally bear in mind that feeling full doesn’t eliminate cravings. I have seen plenty of people who had gastric procedures limiting the amount of foods they could ingest but who regained weight because they still craved certain high calorie food (because they taste good) and who were regularly just consuming ice-cream (tissue paper food). Their weight problem, in all likelihood, wasn’t driven by their stomach, which had too much hunger, but by the brain, which needed to learn other ways of being emotionally soothed than by eating.

Feeling full doesn’t mean being nourished; you could feel full after drinking lots of water even though you haven’t actually eaten anything.

Sure, eat fruit and vegetables, include some fibre in your diet but, please, remember the emotional role of tissue paper food.

If you are struggling with volume eating, get in touch here.