Why it doesn’t feel good to eat an entire box of Oreos

I keep making myself feel sick from sugar. I need to stop eating sugar entirely.

I hear this a lot from people. The “I’ve made myself feel terrible, so I need to stop it entirely” way of thinking. I’ve heard it about other things, too: social media usage, shopping, travel, and more.

It’s possible that giving up sugar entirely might make you feel better than, say, eating an entire box of Oreos in one sitting. But if you’re looking to maximize your happiness, there are likely some other choices that would make you even happier than either bingeing or going cold turkey on sugar.

To explain why, take a look at the curve below**:

I don’t usually use math to describe eating principles, but this curve has extraordinary explanatory power and may help you make yourself a lot happier, so stick with me.

To understand the curve, let’s use chocolate consumption as an example.

At point A, your chocolate consumption is zero. However, even with zero chocolate, you have some level of happiness, which is indicated by point A on the graph.

(Of course, point A — or the y-intercept of this graph — will vary by person. Some people might be at a “0” or neutral level of happiness when they’re not eating any chocolate at all, for example. Others, like “super-duper chocolate lovers,” might be below 0, at a more “negative” level of happiness, if they aren’t consuming any chocolate.)

As you consume more chocolate, your happiness increases. I think this makes intuitive sense to those of us who’ve ever tasted chocolate.

At some point (point B on this graph), your pleasure from eating chocolate reaches its maximum level. This would be what is happening to me in this picture.

Past this point, your pleasure starts to decline. It’s worth noting, though, that as long as your pleasure is above point A, you’ll still be happier than you were if you weren’t eating any chocolate.

At a certain point, though, if you keep eating chocolate, you become just as happy as if you hadn’t had any chocolate at all — probably because you start feeling a little less good in your body. This is represented by point C on the curve. And if you keep eating, you’ll be less happy than if you didn’t eat any chocolate at all…and might even become genuinely unhappy (point D).

There are two reasons why this chart matters:

1. If consuming sugar or any other food is making you unhappy, you may not need to give it up entirely. You just need to find you sweet spot.

There’s a strong current of black-and-white thinking in today’s diet and nutrition culture. “Stop eating sugar” or “give up gluten” are ideas that are very in-vogue right now.

In a certain sense, it might make you happier to stop eating sugar if you are currently eating a HUGE quantity of sugar. This makes visual sense by looking at the graph — you’d be happier at point A, for example, than you would be at point D.

But you know where you’d be happiest? Eating some Oreos, but not too many. That’s the wonderful sweet spot at point B.


2. You’re going to have to figure out what your own chart looks like. 

People often assume that there is a single “right answer” when it comes to how to eat to make themselves feel good, and that this “right answer” will be in a book or online article.

Here’s the thing: You are not a robot. You are not a car. You are not an airplane. There’s no one-size-fits-all recommendation here, and everyone’s chart is going to look different. Your point B will be at a different number of Oreos than your mom/friend/worst enemy or even some random nutritionist who wrote an article on the Internet about how much sugar is “okay” to eat.

And, even more importantly, your graph will vary by the day/hour/second.

There is no substitute for you doing your own experiments. Period.


Other applications:

 It may be obvious, but this chart applies to an astonishing number of other experiences in life:

  • Email: Cal Newport writes about this powerfully here and was the writer who introduced me to this curve to begin with. In general, most of us are more productive with some email usage — otherwise we’d have to call or write letters to get anything done. But too much email usage can radically decrease our focus, ability to get things done, and happiness. This also applies to social media and general Internet browsing.
  • Travel: Some travel is lovely. Too much travel is exhausting. Again, everyone is going to have a different amount of travel that produces different results — some people crave three months of travel, while for others, a couple of days at the beach is perfect.
  • Socializing
  • Shopping
  • TV watching

The bottom line: most thing in life are pleasurable, up to a point. But at another point, it would have been better if we hadn’t done them at all.

So why not spend a bit of time and attention in search of your personal sweet spot?



**I was introduced to this concept by Cal Newport, who applies it to email productivity .