Review: The Psychology of Overeating

Psych of overeating cover

Cargill, Kima. 2015. The Psychology of Overeating. Food and the Culture of Consumerism. London/New York: Bloomsbury Academic (216 pp).

Julie Starr
Hamilton College

In The Psychology of Overeating Kima Cargill, a practicing clinical psychologist and professor of psychology, argues that overeating is a by-product of the American propensity to overconsume. Situating her account of unhealthy eating habits within the ‘culture of consumption’—our endless desire to have or purchase ‘more’—Cargill illustrates how the accumulation of empty calories parallels that of unnecessary goods. This book is Cargill’s (personal) attempt to convince her patients, students, and a general audience that overconsumption is toxic to our bodies and psyches and, far from fulfilling our lives, induces the modern malaise of the ‘empty self.’

The book’s main protagonist is Cargill’s patient, Allison, who is obese and unhappy. Allison feels isolated and wants to lose weight in order to improve her social/dating life but is caught in an endless loop of seeking out new products to facilitate her efforts. From expensive juicers and nutritional supplements, to super foods and gym memberships, Allison’s attempts at weight loss are mitigated by her purchases and are short lived; they are interspersed with binge eating episodes and breakdowns. Cargill’s efforts to convince Allison of the futility of her approach are ineffective, in part giving rise to Cargill’s desire to write the book.

The book consists of eleven short chapters, beginning with an introduction in which we come to know Allison and learn of the main problem Cargill hopes to tackle in the book: the powerful forces of consumerism that lead most of us to overeat. She then turns her attention to a general discussion of consumerism: it’s rise in the U.S. (Chapter 2) and the psychological distress it causes (Chapter 3) before tackling consumerism and food (Chapter 4) and the way the food industry is tricking/manipulating its consumers into eating more (Chapter 5). For Cargill, the culprit of our malaise is sugar, the overconsumption of which she links to its historical rise as a commodity (Chapter 6) and our biological propensity to enjoy it, a fact that the food industry preys upon to create ‘hyperpalatable’ and addictive foods (Chapter 7).

These first seven chapters set the stage for the most interesting (and most anthropological) part of the book, in which Cargill gives an account of the newly designated psychological disorders of Binge-Eating and Hoarding (Chapter 8). In support of her main thesis, both ‘overconsumption’ disorders emerged at the same time, in 2013 with the publication of the updated Diagnostic and Statistical Manual 5 (DSM), the handbook of all disorders penned by the American Psychiatric Association. In her discussion of the manual, Cargill draws our attention to the way that treating Binge-Eating and Hoarding as psychological disorders blames the “bounded individual, decontextualized from surrounding cultural and economic forces” (114). She recognizes the power the DSM has in establishing psychological norms, which shapes the experience, diagnoses, and treatment of psychological disorders. But a Foucaultian she is not; after recognizing issues with taxonomy, she is quick to defend the ‘purity’ of the scientific method (128) and views the adulteration of it as stemming from the pursuit of profit.

The fact that overeating is now considered a psychological disorder sets the stage for her discussion of how Big Food and Big Pharm are working together to create and then medicate consumer-driven problems (Chapter 9), which the FDA has little power to monitor or quell (Chapter 10). In an all too familiar tale, then, Cargill presents another case in which consumer culture aids corporations in seeking profit at the cost of consumer health. She concludes the book with some tips on how to consume less and more wisely, in order to regain control of our eating and consumption habits and reverse “the course of Empty Selfhood” (154).

The strength of the book is no doubt the way that Cargill seeks to situate psychological disorders and the problem of overeating within the larger cultural context of consumption, a necessary step to understanding the dilemmas individuals face in our society. But in some ways the book fails to deliver on its promise, mostly due to a lack of theoretical framework (e.g. practice) through which to integrate psychology, biological and ‘unconscious’ drives, positionality, the pressures of consumer life, and the marketing tricks and ploys used to sell products. As such, the chapters move between historical accounts, personal anecdotes, popular culture, philosophy, evolutionary psychology, social theory, personal opinions, and Allison’s (and other quickly introduced and then forgotten patients and acquaintances’) perils. This ad hoc approach undermines analytical cohesion as anecdotes work against and often contradict previously established arguments.

For example, in addition to education and policy change, one remedy Cargill suggests for fighting the forces of consumerism is for individuals to use their ‘common sense.’ She writes: “With the notable exception of children, no matter how little education someone has, no matter how little nutritional literacy one has, there is still common sense. None of us is forced to eat junk food and it doesn’t take a college degree or even a high school diploma to know that an apple is healthier than a donut” (59). Setting aside the way she ignores how common sense is itself a product of power relations, Cargill’s book is full of examples where she is the only one with such ‘common sense.’ Indeed, we are presented example upon example where Cargill is ‘surprised’ and ‘puzzled’ by her (educated!) friends, students, and patients, and their lack of knowledge about simple nutrition. According to Cargill, this is due mostly to the way our psychological defenses allow us to “conveniently deny” (73) food’s unhealthy properties.

Although she seeks to integrate psychology with cultural context, Cargill inevitably returns to the individual to account for why we overconsume. This is most apparent in her conclusion, where she offers advice on how to consume less and more wisely. But by focusing on consumption practices, in an odd way Cargill aligns with the very system she seeks to critique: agency comes through what we choose to buy (or not buy) rather than our activity in social and political life.

As a whole, this book is best suited for those struggling to control their desire to overeat and looking for inspiration to cut back on consumption. Some should consider supplementation to better control their appetite check the user review when in doubt about a product and do your research! In an academic setting, Chapter 8 would make a nice addition to an undergraduate course on Medical Anthropology; Chapters 7, 9, and 10 could be useful on a syllabus for an undergraduate course on food and health.

1 Comment

Filed under anthropology, food and health, Food Studies, psychology

One response to “Review: The Psychology of Overeating

  1. Laura

    Really nice summary! Thank you for the review.

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