Do you graze or skip meals? Do you turn to food when you’re emotional? Or do you simply eat when hunger strikes? Find your eating style — and discover how to master it.
Hungry eating vs non-hungry eating
Next time you eat, stop for a moment to consider why. Are you having a bite because it’s time to eat or just because you’re faced with food? Perhaps you’re bored or using food as a form of procrastination? Maybe you’re celebrating or eating secretly to fill an emotional void? These days, there’s a good chance you’re eating for reasons other than hunger.
Of course, we need food to survive but in today’s world of plenty, true hunger is often overshadowed by countless hunger-free reasons for eating. As a result, there is a disconnect between the amount of kilojoules we need and the amount we are actually consuming. Although some non-hungry eating is fine (it’s fine to enjoy a mid-afternoon snack to stave off later hunger, or enjoy the occasional celebratory treat), our health can suffer when non-hungry eating behaviour goes unchecked.
To improve your health, the first priority is to recognise what kind of eater you are. Knowing your eating triggers enables you to develop healthier responses so you can start to reconnect with your body’s natural appetite signals. See which of the following eating styles seem familiar to you. Our relationship with food is complex, so it’s worth noting that many of us fit into more than one category. As a result, you may need to tailor a mix of strategies to suit your individual way of eating.
“I eat when I’m bored or sad”
Emotional eaters have a complex relationship with food, as certain emotions trigger their eating. Boredom, anger, loneliness or depression can bring on a bout of eating. Some people even eat as a form of rebellion or self-punishment. In contrast, others use food as a reward, behaviour that may stem from childhood, when treat foods were the benefits of good behaviour.
The reasons for emotional eating often run deep, with even the eater finding them hard to fathom. Because many people eat when their mood is low, the dieting process can become a vicious cycle for emotional eaters, who find the self-imposed restraint too stressful and eat to compensate, perpetuating this stubborn cycle.
How to stay in control
- Pinpoint your emotional triggers. Keep a food and mood diary to record what and when you ate, and how you felt before, during and after eating.
- Develop strategies to deal with your feelings. Once you start to recognise which moods and situations drive you to eat, you can begin to develop alternative ways to soothe yourself. (The cause can be quite complex, so you may need the support of a psychologist, psychiatrist or dietitian.)
- Make a list of non-food rewards. When you’re feeling down or stressed, or in a situation that usually encourages you to reach for food, reach for that list instead. You may find that a gentle walk, a fragrant hot bath or even a small dose of retail therapy become more attractive ways to spoil yourself.
“I eat food because it’s there”
Environmental eaters eat when food is available. They may be perfectly content in terms of hunger but freely indulge when food is at hand. The legacy of our caveman genes drives us all to eat this way — it’s a crucial survival mechanism in a world where the food supply is uncertain. But these days, this type of eating can work against us. Think of the chocolate display at the supermarket checkout, the biscuit jar in the office kitchen or the nibbles platters at parties. In situations like these, that hand-to-mouth action is automatic and not always in the interests of our health.
Professor Brian Wansink, of New York’s Cornell University, is renowned for his research into eating behaviour. For his 2006 study on how environmental factors can influence food intake, he placed lolly bowls (which were either clear or opaque) on office workers’ desks. Unsurprisingly, workers ate the most when a clear bowl of lollies was sitting on their desk. They ate even more when the clear bowl was further away, yet still visible, than they did when the lollies were in an opaque bowl.
In our society, unhealthy food is so easily accessible that environmental eaters are at much greater risk of damaging their health by gaining excessive amounts of weight.
How to stay in control
- Make over your environment. Clear your pantry, fridge, car and desk drawer of unhealthy food and drink. Replace them with healthy snacks such as pieces of fresh fruit, wholegrain crackers, cans of tuna and 30g portions of unsalted nuts.
- Steer clear of temptation. Write a list of situations that can be common eating traps for you, and plan simple ways to limit encounters with enticing foods. This could mean turning your back on that plate of sausage rolls or sitting in the corner of the café where you can’t see the muffins. Confectionery-free supermarket checkouts can also be helpful for those of you who can’t resist the allure of sweets.
- Store it out of sight. Keep your go-to foods in opaque containers at the back of the fridge or pantry to help curb mindless snacking — out of sight, out of mind.
“I eat because it would be rude not to”
Social eaters usually eat a healthy, balanced diet but they run into trouble when their busy lifestyle involves dining out on rich, high-kilojoule meals. Meetings, indulgent celebrations and alcohol-fuelled events often dictate not only what they eat, but also when. This erratic, unplanned eating often results in them unwittingly consuming excess kilojoules.
Restaurant meals, for instance, are almost always higher in fat and kilojoules, and lower in fibre, than meals you prepare at home. And a seemingly healthy café-style chicken sandwich can have double the kilojoules of a homemade version, thanks to the enormous slabs of bread, lashings of mayo and twice the amount of chicken. As social eaters bounce from one exciting event to the next, too many long lunches and boozy dinners can expand their waistline at the same time as their career!
How to stay in control
- Mark any calendar events that involve a meal out. If you’re planning to attend more than four or five in a week, see whether it’s possible to move times or dates so they don’t clash with meals.
- Catch up with conversation, not food. If you and your friends usually breakfast together on weekends, suggest going for a long walk so you can chat and sneak in some exercise at the same time.
- Stick to regular mealtimes. Breakfast is particularly important, as a bowl of healthy high-fibre cereal will keep hunger in check, helping you choose better mid-morning snacks. Similarly, make time to eat lunch, and you will be less inclined to think you can afford to tuck into a big dinner (and its excess kilojoules!) to compensate.
- Don’t turn up hungry. Eat a light snack before you leave for an event. A piece of fruit or a tub of low-fat yoghurt will help you to not overindulge when you arrive. If you are drinking, remember that alcohol is brimming with kilojoules, so alternate each drink with a glass of water.
“I’m an all-or-nothing eater”
Restrained eaters have an all-or-nothing attitude to food. They are either following a highly restrictive diet or eating with abandon, frequently bingeing after suffering the deprivation of a strict diet. Often perfectionists with unrealistic goals, these kinds of eaters are likely to classify food as ‘good’ or ‘bad’ and to rate their food intake accordingly. On a ‘good’ day, they stick to strict rules. On a ‘bad’ day, they throw caution to the wind. The saying everything in moderation simply isn’t in the restrained eater’s vocabulary.
How to stay in control
- Recognise that this mindset leads to failure. The first step to normal, healthy eating is realising that a black or white approach is an unsustainable way to live healthily. Food is our fuel and everyone needs to regularly eat in sensible amounts for optimal energy levels and good concentration. Without the right food, you can’t function.
- Ditch the D-word. A restrictive diet is your worst enemy. Think of healthy eating as the way you’re going to eat every day for the rest of your life. Saying ‘But I’ll go on a diet first, drop a few kilos and then start eating sensibly’, leads only to frustration and disappointment.
- Seek professional help. Sometimes it’s hard to gain a sense of perspective. Talking to a health professional, such as a psychologist, can help you accept that aiming for good health, rather than super-fast weight-loss, is a more achievable goal.
“I eat and can’t stop”
Addictive eaters have an intensely powerful compulsion to eat, and they find it very hard to stop.
To help obese people eat fewer trigger foods, researchers at New Zealand’s University of Otago have developed a treatment research program that works in a similar way to the therapy for alcoholism. The theory behind this therapeutic tool is that just as an alcoholic must avoid alcohol, addictive eaters must avoid foods that can harm their health and promote weight gain. The result is a list of nearly 50 foods that NZ researchers have termed NEEDNT (for non-essential, energy dense and nutritionally deficient).
How to stay in control
- Avoid temptation. As an addictive eater, you may need to totally eliminate (rather than just limit) your trigger foods, which may include ice cream, potato chips, energy drinks or biscuits. If you would like some guidance from the NEEDNT list, find it online here.
- Get rid of distractions. If you’re eating while driving, watching TV or talking on the phone, you won’t notice whether you’ve eaten a meal-size portion or a snack, leaving you craving more food you don’t need. At mealtimes, ditch such diversions and sit down to focus on eating and enjoying your food.
- Master perfect portions. Serve food on a small plate so your meal looks bigger than usual. This will help you eat less, as will putting the amount of food you intend to eat on a plate (rather than snacking straight from the packet). The same goes for drinks: pour your beverage into a small glass and put the bottle away.
Are you a normal eater?
Normal eaters share these characteristics:
- You eat when you’re hungry, choosing foods that you like, and you’re able to stop when you’re satisfied.
- Your eating is based on routine, such as regular daily mealtimes (including all-important breakfast), while remaining flexible when work or social events intervene.
- You eat without feelings of guilt or shame.
- You’re able to overeat on occasion, such as at a celebration or dinner with friends, or simply because it makes you feel good, without later depriving or emotionally punishing yourself.
- You’re able to undereat sometimes, without feeling the need to overcompensate at the next meal.
- You enjoy eating but it doesn’t dominate your life. You view food as one of life’s many pleasures.
Is your eating chaotic?
Regular eaters are your three-meal-a-day routine eaters. They are likely to have set habits around food (such as having cereal for breakfast, a sandwich for lunch, and meat and vegetables for dinner) and consequently eat similar foods every day. They can easily recall what they have eaten as their eating is habitual. Improving their diet is relatively easy as it’s just a matter of tweaking existing habits.
In direct contrast, chaotic eaters have a random approach to food that has no rhyme or reason. Because there are no routines or habits (memory pegs), people who eat chaotically have difficulty remembering all they have eaten. Improving their diet is difficult as there are few habits or routines to refine.
If you feel your eating is random and chaotic, the first step is to get some routine around your eating. Putting effort into having a good breakfast is a positive place to start.
Transform your eating
Try to put one or more of these strategies in place today. It takes a little practice, and some people may find it easiest to start by embracing one healthy habit at a time. But it is possible to transform your eating personality so you can enjoy good food and good health.