Why do we eat? It's not just about hunger - part one.

Updated: Jan 18, 2021

There are many different reasons why we eat, not just hunger, and feeling guilty for not having iron willpower isn’t that helpful. In part one I look at how our environment affects what we eat.

Family enjoying a meal together.

Food is nice, we enjoy it and it makes up an important part of many of life’s great moments such as birthdays, weddings and religious festivals. There's nothing wrong with that. I think one of the saddest things about the modern world is that food can end up being thought of as the enemy, and this can make guilt end up being part of eating. So, before I launch into this blog, I just want to say is that food should be a joy, and not a source of guilt or a reason to berate yourself.

But I also appreciate that it's never that simple. There are no easy answers to motivating yourself to change your eating habits outside the advertising for the latest diet book. If I was expecting my magic wand to be presented to me when I completed my dietetics degree, I would have been rather disappointed.

But understanding the reasons for eating and some of the things that we can change, can help to build healthy habits. In part one I am going to talk about the environment we live in. Part two will cover how what we think and feel can affect what we eat.

Why we like things that aren't so good for us.

There are have been whole books written about how food manufacturers develop food that tempts us to buy, eat and then buy more of it. Millions of pounds have been invested to find out what we enjoy eating and how to advertise it to us.

When early humans first evolved, they evolved to enjoy foods high in fat, sugar and salt, and this made a lot of sense. If you found something sweet, it was most likely to be fruit which is packed with vitamins and minerals essential for the body to work properly and fight infection. Fat was usually found in foods high in protein such as meat. Protein is important for grow and repair in the body, and bringing down a gazelle or mammoth was to be taken advantage of. Salt is quite rare in nature, and although meat is a reasonable source, early humans may also have had to seek it out by following animal tracks to salt deposits.

So, we evolved to enjoy those foods high in sugar, fat and salt to store up these essential nutrients for when the next lean time came. But unfortunately, food manufacturers have taken our love of these foods, to make products that are cheap with good profit margins and easy to eat quickly. But these foods often don't contain many of the essential nutrients found in their original sources.

Small studies with only a few people in them should be taken with a pinch of salt, but there was one that caught my eye earlier this year looking at what they called hyper-palatable foods. This is one name for highly processed foods with added sugar, salt, fat and food additives. They usually have long ingredient lists that include things you wouldn’t use if you were cooking yourself, and are easy to eat in large amounts. Think fast food, commercially made cakes, sweets, crisps and other snack foods.

In this study two groups of people were given unlimited amounts of food and told to eat as much as they liked. One group were given these hyper-palatable foods, and the second were given foods cooked from scratch from fresh ingredients. The groups then swapped over. Perhaps unsurprisingly both groups ate far more calories when given the processed diet.

The takeaway from this (if you’ll excuse the pun) is that if you want to fill full eat meals cooked using unprocessed ingredients such as wholegrains, vegetables, pulses and nuts, and unprocessed meat, fish and dairy foods.

It would actually be tempting to make a healthy eating rule that said, “never eat any food that’s advertised”. But banning any food is over simplistic and just adds to the guilt around eating things we enjoy. Once you’ve given your body the nutrients it needs from unprocessed foods, then go ahead with a more occasional yummy lump of fat, sugar and salt without feeling guilty about it.

There’s just too much food around for willpower to work alone.

In the past, food was much less easily available. Most of it had to be bought as ingredients, such as meat, wholegrains, pulses and vegetables, and prepared from scratch. Many jobs, particularly manual jobs, didn't provide suitable environments to eat between meals, and it wasn’t so easy to buy food, so if you were hungry you usually just waited until your next meal to eat.

Things have changed hugely in the last 50 years or so. Ready to eat food tends to be easily available everywhere we go, pretty much 24 hours a day. So, it is much easier to be tempted by it, and the more available food is the more likely you are to eat it.

This also applies to being at home. If you have a bowl of sweets sitting by your sofa, you are likely to munch away on them without really thinking about it. Even having to get up and go to the kitchen isn’t much effort. If the things that you want to eat aren’t available in the house, you actually have to get up and go out to buy it then you will be much less likely to do this.

One of the most effective ways to eat healthily and reduce snacking is to plan in advance and change your environment to make it easier for yourself. This takes a bit of work as the best way to do this is to plan for what you are going to eat, rather than what you’re are not going to eat. When you have time prepare extra portions of meals and freeze them, so that you have something easy to grab and reheat on days you just don’t feel like cooking and might be tempted by a takeaway.

I’ll talk some more about non hunger reasons for snacking in my next blog, but the easiest way to reduce unhealthy snacking is to think about your environment. Avoid having unhealthy snacks you don’t want to eat around the house and choose some healthier options.

It is also worth doing a little bit of research into what actually are healthier options – some thing sold as healthy actually aren’t. Take a quick look at the ingredients on the packet, and check what's actually in it. Others snacks that might be healthy can also have a lot of calories if eaten in large amounts, which isn't ideal if you are trying to watch your weight. Nuts and dried fruit are good examples of this.

Which leads us nicely into portion sizes. It’s always tempting with a big open packet to just keep on eating once it’s open. Buying smaller sizes or simply portioning big packets into servings of size you want, perhaps wrapping them separately in small bags (or more environmentally friendly reusable wraps) can also help you know when to stop.

Getting support from the people around you.

Of course, we don’t always live or eat alone. We eat with the people live and work with, friends and relatives. Often someone else might be doing the shopping or cooking for us, at least part of the time.

Providing food is a powerful way to show that you care for someone. But that can make it difficult to not clear your plate or ask for changes to the family menu. We've all been in the situation where we are trying to eat more healthily, and there is pressure to just have that one cake or extra portion. This can be out of genuine concern for us to feel cared for, join in and treat ourselves, or slightly less benign desire to not to feel like they are the only one indulging.

So, if you are hoping to make lifestyle changes, it is good to get those around you on side and see if you can come to an arrangement that suits everyone. If you’re not involved you might find that an offer to help with the planning, cooking and shopping is much welcome. If you cook for a family, favourite meals can often be adapted, try searching for the name of the dish with the word healthy e.g. healthy shepherd’s pie, or reducing your portion size and increasing the vegetables.

Unhealthy snacks around the house can be challenging if one person wants to continue having them. But sometimes each family member having their own container for snacks kept out of view can be helpful.

Friends or work colleagues offering you food can also be challenging. Simply saying I’m trying to eat healthily doesn’t always work that well so it’s good to think of some polite ways to turn down food. There are many pages on the internet with polite ways to turn down food with statements like “that looks delicious, but I’ve just eaten and couldn’t manage another thing” or “you’ve fed me so well with that main course that I can’t fit a dessert.”

But I’d advise avoiding claiming to have a food allergy or restrictive diet unless you actually do. You might want to eat that item in future and it can also cause problems for people who genuinely have to avoid certain foods.

Social situations such as birthdays, weddings and religious celebrations are a very common reason for eating, and are one of life’s great joys. It's very challenging to sit through an occasion with friends and family and not eat the special foods provided. This is a very common reason for the failure of restrictive diets, especially if you are prone to all or nothing thinking. It's easy to think that as you've blown your diet now so you might as well give up.

But you certainly wouldn’t want to avoid them completely, so a flexible healthy eating plan and a bit of planning in advance can help you to indulge on a special occasion. If you are in the situation where your social life is based around meeting your friends for food, perhaps it is worth suggesting some non-food related things to do. You might find that there are others in your social group that would be quite happy to do something different as well.

So we've looked at how our environment can have a great influence on what and how much we eat. Looking at what we are choosing to eat and what is available and enlisting help from others around us can really help with this. It’s not a quick fix but can really help not to end up relying on our willpower holding out forever.

In my next blog I will take a bit more of a look at how we think and feel can affect our eating habits in Why do we eat? It's not just about hunger. Part Two.

How an appointment with a Specialist Dietitian will help.

Dietitians are experts in diet and lifestyle. They complete a four-year dietetics degree with clinical placements before starting work in the NHS, then usually work for a period as a general dietitian, seeing patients with a range of different medical conditions before specialising in diabetes. Upon graduating I worked in general diabetes and weight management for 2 years before working as a Diabetes Specialist Dietitian since 2009. I also work with people without diabetes to support them to make healthy changes to improve their health

I am trained to look at all the scientific evidence on diet and lifestyle, and translate it into straightforward, practical advice that works. I am familiar with the different diet and lifestyle approaches for managing weight and diabetes and how each interacts with medication and medical conditions. This means that I can explain the benefits and drawbacks of each to help you make your own mind up about what changes you want to make to benefit your health. When you book an hour-long appointment with me, you will have more time to have all your questions about diet answered. I will also ask you about all the things that might affect your food choices such as your medical history and medication, who you live and eat with, what your job and hobbies are and your likes and dislikes. This will help me to support you to decide which changes to make that will fit in with your life and work for you.

I am currently offering Video Consultations allowing you to talk to me at a place and time that suits you. Appointments can be booked online from my website by clicking the book now button below or click services for more information about what I offer.

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