Many factors influence eating. The environment we live in, our body's biology and our learned behaviours can all make a difference. Hectic schedules, readily available convenience and fast foods, and super-sized portions present challenges every day. In many subtle ways, our society tempts us to eat poorly. We constantly hear and see tantalizing messages designed to sell food and encourage us to eat. In fact, recent research studies suggest our environment is obesogenic, or obesity-causing.
In addition to attractive billboards, eye-catching food packages, commercial jingles and mouth-watering smells wafting from drive-thrus, our biology influences what and when we eat. Some of us are hungrier in the morning, while others want to eat at night. Eating small meals throughout the day can feel right for one, while another is satisfied by three larger meals.
What's more, our minds can be affected if our biological needs are not met. Severe, restrictive diets can cause a deep shift in our thinking. In other words, a 'miracle herbal grapefruit diet guaranteed to shed 30 pounds in 12 days' can be a recipe for failure. If the body is starved, the mind may become obsessed with food, suffering mood swings, irritability and anxiety. Thoughts and feelings like these make a diet very difficult to maintain - it's not just a lack of willpower! Once the severe diet is abandoned, both mind and body may struggle for months to get back on track. The harmful effects of a poor diet can last a long time.
In addition to social and biological influences, we spend decades developing our own unique relationship with food. As with any other relationship, there are ups and downs. We need to provide our body with the necessary nutrients. Food is an important part of celebrating and sharing with others. Still, when eating becomes a way to cope with problems, deal with emotions or fill emptiness, our relationship with food becomes troubled.
If you want to have more control over what, when and how much you eat, you need to increase your awareness of the emotions and situations that affect your eating. Why did you eat this morning? How about last night? Take a minute to think of all the various reasons. Maybe you were physically hungry, felt angry or tired, needed something to eat along with your medications, or craved a salty crunch.
Emotions can be associated with strong urges to eat. Often, an emotional food choice is not what we physically need. Our emotions can be subtle but powerful forces, ranging from happy and excited to 'spaced-out,' hurt or humiliated. Research shows that tension is one of the most common emotional triggers. When you are hit with an emotional food craving, try asking yourself to HALT. It stands for 'Am I really Hungry, or am I actually Angry, Lonely or Tired?'
Situations may also provoke an urge to eat in ways that are not healthy. As with emotions, situations can have a subtle but powerful influence over you. For instance, you may overeat or choose less healthy foods while you are driving, if you are at home alone or after a fight with someone you love. Sometimes it can be hard to identify the emotion that the situation triggers. All you know is that you are pulling into the drive-thru on your way home - again! Alternatively, you may be able to identify a certain time of the day or week when you have less control over your eating.
To help identify the situations and emotions that influence your eating, try keeping a simple food diary. Keep a piece of paper handy in the glove compartment, on the fridge, beside the TV chair or in your desk. Write down the time, situation and emotions that occurred just before you ate. After several events, you may be able to pick out patterns. Does it happen when you are alone? Feeling overwhelmed? Friday nights? After phone calls with a certain relative?
Once you know which feelings and situations trigger these urges, you can start to experiment with making change. Every time you notice an urge but do not respond by eating, the trigger becomes less powerful for you. You will begin to develop greater control over your eating habits.
Certain techniques can help break the connection between triggers and overeating. To help understand how to use them, imagine that you are triggered to eat when anxious or if you are bored after supper.
Food can be a quick, satisfying distraction or activity when you are bored or anxious. Make a list of non-food related activities that you could do for a few minutes instead of eating. For instance, you might work on a crossword or jigsaw puzzle, brush your teeth, take a look around your garden, have a shower, or do some deep breathing and stretching. Keep a list of quick distractions on the fridge. Commit to doing at least one activity when you are trying to control your eating behaviour.
It may help to plan a more involved activity for an especially challenging time of day. Go into your workshop after supper and get creative or fix something. Choose that time of day to call friends on the phone. Plan to go for a walk or take an evening course that interests you.
Most urges tend to peak rapidly, stay for a while and then gradually decrease. Allow yourself to eat what you are craving, but only after you have waited for a while. Set a timer for this one. Start with short delays of a few minutes and gradually work up to half an hour. Even if you end up having something you would prefer not to eat, if you delay the event for a while you successfully weaken the link between the trigger and your response. Try using your list of distractions while you wait.
Be aware of 'all or nothing' thinking. Do you tend to look at yourself and your world as right/wrong, perfect/failure, a good day/bad day or love/hate? This extreme style of thinking can make life more difficult! A recent study compared graduates of a community-based weight loss program. Those who thought in such black and white terms were much more likely to regain more weight after one year.
Catch yourself when you are thinking something like,'I failed again - I'm such a loser' or 'I'm bored - I have no life.' Negative and extreme thinking is not helpful or productive. It actually works against your efforts to improve your situation. Do not expect perfection! We can learn a tremendous amount from our setbacks. Small, realistic changes lead to long-term success.
The key to making changes is increasing your awareness of your eating behaviours and triggers. Take the time to identify the emotions and situations leading to unnecessary or unhealthy eating. Accept that changing behaviours takes trial, error, and lots of practice. Experiment with the techniques described to break the link between your triggers and eating response. Feel more in control!
You may also want to consider talking to a therapist if you feel that there is a strong link between your emotions and your eating. Check with your province's College of Dietitians or College of Psychologists for a list of registered professionals in your community. You can also read one of the many excellent books written on this topic. For a list of resources and reading materials, try www.nedic.ca and Gurze publishers at www.gurze.com. If this concern is causing you significant stress, talk to your doctor.