Do you graze all day or skip meals? Do you comfort yourself with food or simply eat when you feel hungry? Here’s how to master any eating style.
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? Maybe you’re bored or using food as a form of procrastination; perhaps you’re celebrating or eating in secret to fill an emotional void. Whatever your habits, 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 eclipsed by countless hunger-free reasons for eating. As a result, there’s a real disconnect between the amount of kilojoules we need and the amount we’re actually consuming. Although some kinds of non-hungry eating are OK — it’s healthy to enjoy a midafternoon snack or the odd celebratory treat — our wellbeing can suffer when this behaviour goes unchecked.
To improve your health, your first priority is to recognise what sort of eater you are. Knowing your eating triggers enables you to develop healthier responses so you can reconnect with your body’s natural appetite signals.
See which of the eating styles below seem familiar. 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.
Environmental eaters eat when food is available. They may be perfectly content in terms of hunger, but they indulge freely when food is at hand.
The legacy of our caveman genes drives all of us to eat this way — it’s a crucial survival mechanism in a world where the food supply is often uncertain. But in our modern world, we’re surrounded by temptation, so this sort 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 such as these, that automatic hand-to-mouth action is not always in the interests of our staying healthy!
Professor Brian Wansink, PhD, is universally renowned for his award-winning research into our eating behaviour. In 2006, as director of New York’s Cornell University Food and Brand Lab, he conducted a study on the way environmental factors can influence our food intake. When Wansink put lolly bowls — which were either clear or opaque — on office workers’ desks, the workers ate the most lollies when a clear bowl of them was sitting there. This result is hardly surprising, but they even ate more when the clear bowl was farther away, yet still visible, than they did when the lollies were in an opaque bowl.
Unfortunately, our society has made unhealthy food so easily accessible that environmental eaters are at great risk of gaining excessive amounts of weight and thereby damaging their health.
How to stay in control
Make over your environment: Clear your pantry, fridge, car and desk drawer of junk food and sugary drinks. Replace them with healthy snacks, such as pieces of fresh fruit, wholegrain crackers, cans of tuna and small handfuls (about 30g) 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 your 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.
Put food away: Store enticing foods in opaque containers at the back of the fridge or pantry to help curb mindless snacking — out of sight, out of mind!
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. The problem is that this erratic, unplanned eating often results in their unwittingly consuming excess fat and 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 twice the kilojoules of a home-made version, thanks to its enormous slabs of bread, lashings of mayonnaise and extra chicken (which is often double the amount). As social eaters bounce from one exciting event to the next, too many long lunches and boozy dinners can further their waistline rather than 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 events in a week, see whether it’s possible to move times or dates to stop them from clashing with meals.
Catch up with conversation, not over food: If you regularly relax over a leisurely breakfast with friends on weekends, suggest going for a long walk together instead. You’ll be able to chat for a while, enjoy being outdoors and sneak in a little exercise at the same time.
Stick to regular mealtimes: Eating breakfast is particularly important. A bowl of high-fibre cereal will keep hunger at bay, helping you choose healthier midmorning snacks. Similarly, make time to eat lunch, and you’ll be less inclined to think you can afford to tuck into a big dinner (and its numerous kilojoules).
Don’t go out hungry: Have a light snack before you leave for an event. A piece of fresh fruit or a tub of low-fat yoghurt will prevent you from overindulging on arrival. If you’re drinking, remember that alcohol is full of kilojoules, so alternate each drink with a glass of water. Your head will thank you!
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, which is behaviour that may stem from childhood, when treat foods were the benefits of good behaviour.
The reasons behind emotional eating often run deep, and even the eater can find them hard to fathom. Many people eat when their mood is low, so the dieting process can become a vicious cycle for emotional eaters, who find the self-imposed restraint too stressful and eat to soothe themselves, perpetuating the 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.
Make a list of non-food rewards: When you’re about to reach for food, reach for that list. A walk or a hot bath can be more relaxing ways to spoil yourself.
Find a support network: Once you begin to recognise what drives you to eat, you may also realise that you need the help of a psychologist, psychiatrist or Accredited Practising Dietitian.
Addictive eaters have an intensely powerful compulsion to eat, so they find it very hard to stop. Although health experts don’t recognise food addiction as a medical condition in the way they acknowledge alcoholism and drug addiction, support groups such as Overeaters Anonymous are testament to the fact that some people feel addicted to food.
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 way similar 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 blacklist 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 could include ice cream, potato chips, energy drinks and biscuits. If you’d like some science-based guidance, you can find the NEEDNT food list online at otago.ac.nz.
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 mere snack, which may leave you craving more food you don’t need. At mealtimes, avoid such diversions and sit down to focus on 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.
Chaotic eaters have a random approach to food, but to grasp this idea, you must first understand the methods of people who eat systematically. Regular eaters are likely to have three meals a day and set eating habits and food choices (such as cereal for breakfast, a sandwich for lunch, and meat and vegies for dinner). Consequently, they eat similar foods every day. This predictable pattern means they can easily recall what they’ve eaten, so improving their diet is relatively easy, as it’s a simple matter of tweaking habitual behaviour.
In contrast, chaotic eaters have an attitude to food that’s without rhyme or reason. People who eat in a disordered way lack regular habits and routines, which means they have difficulty remembering what they’ve eaten, so refining this kind of diet is harder.
How to stay in control
Start the day right: The first step is to create some consistency around the way you eat, and breakfast is a good place to start. Make an effort to kick off your day with a filling breakfast, such as a bowl of crunchy high-fibre cereal or a fruit smoothie, and chances are that you won’t be ravenous come midmorning.
Write it down: Keeping a food diary can help you see the error of your chaotic ways. You should aim to spread meals evenly over the course of the day, so break your day into thirds and make sure each has food in it.
Restrained eaters have an all-or-nothing attitude to food. They’re 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 only to failure: The first step to normal, healthy eating is realising that a black-or-white approach is an unsustainable way to live well. Food is our fuel, and everyone needs to regularly eat a sensible amount 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. Start thinking 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 help: Sometimes it’s hard to gain a sense of perspective. Talking to a health professional can help you accept that aiming for good health rather than superfast weight loss is a more achievable goal.
Are you a normal eater?
You eat when you’re hungry, choosing foods that you really like, and you’re able to stop eating when you’re satisfied.
Your eating is based on routine, such as regular mealtimes (including all-important breakfast), while remaining flexible enough to accommodate business or social events.
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 under-eat sometimes, without feeling the need to compensatewith extra food at your next meal.
You enjoy eating, but it doesn’t occupy your thoughts or dominate your life. You view food as one of life’s many pleasures.