How to start the new year with new eating habits

Understanding how temptation works may be the key to resisting it and losing weight

Oranges described as juicy appeal to consumers.

Oranges described as juicy appeal to consumers.

 

No sooner have the tins empty of Cadbury’s Roses and mince pie boxes been thrown out after the annual feasting than thoughts turn to dieting. But as everyone knows, the best of intentions are often stymied by temptation. Temptation is everywhere from your local grocery shop to the aisles of sugar-laden food in supermarket with offers of three bars of chocolate for the price of one. How can you make good choices and cultivate healthy eating when the odds seem stacked against you? And how can advertising work in your favour?

Director of human health and nutrition at Safefood Cliodhna Foley-Nolan says a healthy diet isn’t just for January. People should ask themselves why they want to lose weight, she adds. Is it for the sake of appearance or for their health?

“Obviously, there are overlaps,” says Foley-Nolan. “From a health perspective, if you lose say 10 per cent off your weight of 15 stone (95kg), that’s a loss of one and a half stone. You might think that is not much but, from a health perspective, you are making a considerable difference. We call that moderate weight loss.

“Where appearances are concerned, it’s very hard to lose a substantial amount of weight and keep it off. There is the danger of yo-yo dieting. You can end up gaining more weight than you lost. I’d be much more (in favour) of the moderate approach where you form good habits and maintain them.”

Simple steps like thinking ahead for when you are driving home from work, for example, can engender better eating habits. “What’s in your car as you commute? Is it a satsuma or a Mars bar? You have to make healthy foods available to you, she says.

Eating out is a big issue too. “We know we eat twice as many calories any time we eat out,” she says. “You can decide that you’re only going to have one course. And if you also go for dessert, you can divide it between two.”

Shopping for food can often make the most determined healthy eater buy items that have a lot of calories but little nutritional value. “People’s responsiveness to food cues varies greatly,” she says. “We’re all susceptible to the smell of fresh bread or coffee. But some people will respond much more than others and they are particularly taken advantage of.

Internet shopping

There are a few basic rules for food shopping, she says. Don’t shop when you are hungry, distracted or in a hurry. It also helps if you don’t have children with you. Making a shopping list is good and internet shopping is another way of bypassing “bad” foods.

Some people are better at self-regulation than others. “It’s not just a willpower thing although willpower comes into it. Being satisfied varies from person to person. It can be difficult for some, usually those who are overweight or obese. If you fit into those categories, there’s a health risk.”

Foley-Nolan says that a lot comes down to appetite control. “We know that your appetite is controlled by your brain and the hormones that food releases. Eating more slowly can help as your stomach gets a chance to release hormones that tell your brain that you have had enough.”

How can visceral responses or gut reactions to food be managed? Dr Olivia Petit, a post-doctoral research fellow at the Imagineering Institute in Malaysia and the INSEEC Business School in France, recently published an article in Psychology & Marketing entitled Pleasure and the Control of Food Intake: An Embodied Cognition Approach to Consumer Self-Regulation. (Petit is interested in consumer behaviour, consumer neuroscience, sensory marketing and food behaviour.)

Food choices

The article points out that food marketing and advertising lead consumers to making inferences about taste. These inferences facilitate product recall and willingness to consume the product. When dieting, people are likely to base their food choices solely on health aspects as they don’t perceive healthy food as pleasant. Advertising campaigns may help people to control their food intake more easily by questioning the negative relationship between healthy versus tasty food. For example, the Swedish grocery retail chain, ICA Sverige AB, adopted sensory labels (juicy oranges rather than Florida oranges) to try to entice consumers into eating more fruit and vegetables.

By highlighting the pleasure of eating healthy food, properly designed advertising could lead to food associations that facilitate the selection of healthy foods. Highlighting health consequences devalues healthy food choices.

The challenge, according to the article, is to develop healthy food advertising campaigns that use strategies that evoke embodiment to facilitate mental simulation and tackle the ‘dysfunctional inferences’ of taste and reward.

A healthier diet can also lead to redefining oneself. This stems from the idea that we express who we are through what we consume. There is research that argues that self-identity influences behaviour. While the marketplace can direct identity formation, it is also a place for expressing one’s identity. In communicating our identities to others, we consume certain products and actively avoid others. People who wish to portray a health-conscious identity will engage in activities and consume products that signal that meaning.

But Foley-Nolan sounds a note of caution. “I’m no psychologist but to me, your weight and what you eat are not the only definition of you,” she says. “If you seriously think that your weight and what you eat are the only things you have to tackle, you need to think of all the other things – and the things that people value in you. While encouraging change, I would say you should use your common sense.”

She believes in not being overly tough on oneself either. Have some dark chocolate occasionally – two squares made from at least 70 per cent cocoa is best. “But don’t let it all hang out or you will beat yourself up for doing that and you’ll feel bad afterwards.” So moderation is still key.

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