Updated: Jan 18, 2021
There are many different reasons why we eat, not just hunger. In part two of this blog I look at how our habits and emotions affect what we eat.
This blog is a follow on from Why do we eat? It’s not just about hunger part one, which looks at how our environment affects what we eat.
Habits are hard to break – unconscious eating and the things that trigger it.
A lot of things that we do in life we do out of habit, and that can equally apply to eating. Picking up that cup of coffee on the way to work, or the chocolate bar when we pop to the shops is often done without thinking about it. We might not even remember that we’ve done it later.
Our brain is very efficient at storing memories. The experience of getting somewhere and not remembering a thing about the journey can be quite distressing. It seems like you paid no attention the whole time and could have had a nasty accident. But if the journey is one that you do regularly, your brain is very efficient and just saves storage space by only storing memories that are different. If there was a time that a child ran out in front of your car and you narrowly avoided hitting them, you would remember that clearly for a long time.
It is similar with the things that we eat regularly out of habit; you may not even remember eating them later. This is one reason why people’s recall of what they eat can be unreliable. Keeping a food diary can help you to understand exactly what you are eating, including habits that you may not even be aware of.
When we do things out of habit there’s usually something that triggers that habit to happen. We walk into the petrol station, see the chocolate bar that we like and pick it up. Or you walk through the back door of your house, see the cereal on the side and get yourself a bowl to eat before making dinner. We do these things so regularly that we don’t even remember doing it. But these habits can all add up.
When keeping a food diary, it can be helpful to add where you ate, who you were with and why you chose to eat that thing. This can help identify your triggers to overeating. If you understand these, it may be possible to make small changes that help prevent overeating, such as avoiding places where we might buy snack food or putting the cereal away after breakfast.
Understanding our relationship to hunger.
In part one of this blog I talked about how in the past food was less available and so people often didn't eat between meals. This meant that they were usually hungry by the time a meal came. This was considered normal and there was even the belief that eating between meals would ruin your appetite, and that this was a bad thing (remember the finger of fudge adverts?)
Hunger is the body’s way of telling you that it is using some of its energy stores. These stores are carbohydrate in our liver and muscles, which is used short term to maintain our blood glucose level, or longer-term fat stores. When we eat more than we need, that extra is stored for later. Unless we are very careful, and never eat more than we need in the next few hours, never being hungry can mean that our weight just slowly creeps upwards over the years.
I’m not encouraging you to miss meals, or undereat for long periods of time until you feel exhausted and weak. But making sure that you are hungry at mealtimes, by keeping to moderate portion size and reducing snacking, can actually make food more enjoyable.
It’s also good to think about how full you are at the end of a meal. We might have been encouraged to empty our plates when we were young, but we are no longer growing lads and lasses, and modern plates are larger than in the past. A 12 inch plate can hold 50% more food than the old 10 ½ inch plates of my childhood. Also think about the speed at which you eat, as eating quickly doesn’t give the body time to feel full.
If you are keeping a food diary try adding a column where you write how hungry you are before and after eating on a scale of 1 to 10. A score of one would be feeling faint and weak with hunger and 10 so stuffed you feel nauseous. Thinking about just how hungry you are can help to avoid eating unconsciously or for other emotional reasons discussed below.
It’s worth mentioning at this point that it is likely that some people tend to get hungrier than others and some foods fill you up better, but these are subjects for a another blog.
Boredom – eating to fill the time.
If you believe the papers, a lot of us have gained weight during lockdown as we’ve been less active and taken to cooking/baking and eating to fill the time. In the previous part of this blog I discussed how being surrounded by food makes it very difficult to resist. This is doubly true when you have little to do to distract your attention. You might also have experienced the opposite, when you’ve been so busy with something that interests you, that you carry on past mealtime without realising.
Of course, it’s very easy to just say keep yourself busy and find other things to do apart from eating but that can be a real challenge some days. However, if you are keeping a food diary, why not try writing down other things that you could have done when you snack between meals. Try one of these activities next time and see if it works for you.
Of course, not everything you try is going to work so try not to think of it as a failure if it doesn’t; habits can take a while to break. Chalk it down to experience and try something else.
Our emotions and eating.
What we eat can be very tied up in our emotions, and this is another big subject that whole books have been written on. Food can remind us of good memories, and bad. It can be used to make us feel better, or even as a way of punishing ourselves.
Food is often used to deal with difficult emotions. Don't get me wrong, there are worse ways to deal with the odd bad day at work than sitting on the sofa with a bowl of ice cream. But if eating becomes a constant way of damping down uncomfortable emotions, then this can become a problem as it can lead to overeating and ill health.
When you eat to help with emotions it can be difficult to change habits with willpower alone. Over restricting food with very strict or fad diets can even make the problem worse. It might be that you make your mind up that tomorrow you will stick perfectly to a strict diet plan. Maybe you skip breakfast and have a tiny lunch, but then in the evening feeling hungry and exhausted you find that you just can’t seem to stop eating either eating a very large evening meal or snacking through the evening or night. Feeling guilty and a failure can lead to being even more determined to be extra careful the next day and a cycle of under and overeating.
My best advice is whatever has happened the previous day, always go forwards with the intention to have regular healthy meals containing the healthy foods that your body needs to function.
It can be helpful to write down in your food diary how you are feeling when you eat. For example, are you bored, frustrated, angry or sad? Perhaps there are other ways you could deal with these emotions other than food? Think about things that you enjoy that you could do instead.
However, if you find that doing this is making you more anxious then it may not be the right thing for you to do. This could be a time to seek out some support from the people around you or counselling for your mental health before you try to make changes. If you are struggling with anxiety or depression or feel you may have an eating disorder, see the end of this blog for sources of support.
Food as a reward.
Using food as a reward is pretty common. Parents will often use it as a reward or bribe to encourage children to do as they are asked, and it can be very motivating. These habits continue into adulthood. Are you someone who says to yourself “if I can just get through the morning, I will go and treat myself at lunchtime?” As with using food to feel better after a bad day, this is fine now an again, but it can lead to an unhealthy diet and weight gain if it is your only coping mechanism.
Ideally it would be good to replace food with non-food rewards – things that you enjoy that don’t involve eating. It can be difficult to recommend particular non-food rewards as what might be considered a fun will vary from person to person. In these times of lockdown, it is even more challenging as many of the things that we enjoy have become more difficult.
You might enjoy sitting quietly with a good book or a magazine, or that might be your idea of extreme boredom and have you heading straight for the fridge. Some people like to buy new materials for a hobby, have a relaxing bath or perhaps put a little money away every time they achieve a goal for a special treat. There are many articles about non-food rewards on the internet, and these can be good for inspiration even if some of the suggestions won’t appeal.
In the ‘what else could I do’ section of your diary think about other things you enjoy that you could reward yourself with that aren’t food. Again, if you try something that doesn’t work, try not to think of it as a failure but consider what else you could try.
Keeping a food diary.
In this blog I have suggested that you might want to try to keep a food diary, so it’s worth explaining a bit more about these. It’s quite common to misunderstand what a food diary is for. You might feel that it must be about doing things perfectly and try to complete it on “good” days or give up because you had a “bad” day.
A food diary is actually a bit of detective work; finding out more about yourself and what works for you. Days when things don’t go well are more useful than days when they do, as they can help understand what goes wrong. Then you have something to think about. It’s certainly not about aiming to be perfect and fix everything all at once, just finding ways to make life a little bit easier for yourself.
Although a food diary can help you make changes, it can be useful to start it with normal week or two to find out a bit more about what you do normally, before trying to make those changes.
I have created a template for you to download, which can be found at the bottom of this page, but you can just carry a small notebook around with you. In it you might record:
When and where you were when you ate,
Who you were with,
What you ate,
Why you ate it, including what you think triggered eating,
How you feel,
How hungry you were before and after the food,
What else you could have done apart from eating.
A note of caution on food diaries.
One note of caution. As I have previously mentioned food diaries aren’t suitable for everyone. It should be an interesting and positive thing, not make you unhappy or anxious. Certainly, if you have a history of an eating disorder they should be avoided unless done with professional support. Some sources of support are listed below.
Getting support with your food diary.
It can also be good to discuss your diary with someone else, preferably someone who is supportive like a good friend. Perhaps you could both keep diaries together and swap ideas.
A consultation with a Dietitian can also be helpful as they are trained to understand the reasons people eat and strategies to avoid overeating. Dietitians translate the scientific evidence on diet and lifestyle into straightforward, practical advice that works and support you to make healthy changes. Dietetic advice can be valuable if you have a medical condition, such as diabetes, that benefits from dietary changes or you take medication that affects what you eat.
Support for eating disorders or mental health.
If you have concerns about your mental health of feel you may have an eating disorder you can talk to your GP. There are also sources of support online:
More support on eating disorders can be found at the Beat website: http://www.b-eat.co.uk
NHS support for mental health can be found here: https://www.nhs.uk/oneyou/every-mind-matters
NHS Information about getting more urgent support can be found here: https://www.nhs.uk/oneyou/every-mind-matters/urgent-support/
Calm – the campaign against living miserably: https://www.thecalmzone.net/