On the Menu: Why do we eat what we eat?

It’s important to discover the trigger for your urge to eat

Simple things like wrapping food in tinfoil rather than cling film can help you avoid facing tempting leftovers every time you open your fridge. Photograph: Getty Images

Simple things like wrapping food in tinfoil rather than cling film can help you avoid facing tempting leftovers every time you open your fridge. Photograph: Getty Images


Why you eat is just as important as what you eat. I’ve started asking the why question earlier in consultations now. It offers a glimpse into a client’s internal environment.

What is going on in the mind has a knock-on effect on how someone feels. Subsequently, how that feeling shapes their behaviour around food.

Sometimes the client has no idea why he or she under- or over-eats. That’s okay. It can take time to unravel and clarify. And the why question can be explored long after they have left the building. An examination of the triggers might have little to do with a real physical hunger and more to do with an internal milieu of anxiety, stress, fatigue or boredom.

Ultimately, awareness of these internal triggers is vital if someone’s behaviour or eating pattern is to change. Some inner triggers are emotions we try to silence with food. Of course an emotional hunger will never be satisfied with any amount of food. The gratification is usually short-lived.

“It diminishes at the same rate as the chocolates disappear. I can’t even taste them after a while but I will continue to eat until I’ve devoured the lot,” describes a very frustrated client.

That “out-of-control” rush, that self-loathing and hopelessness can follow for many.

Finding the underlying root
Finding the time to reflect on an underlying root of your relationship with food takes time but it is very worthwhile.

Knowing why you eat allows you to recognise your trigger as it begins to surface. Finding the space to pause and consider your choices is the real game changer.

That time between the stimulus and your response is where unhealthy habits are broken and new ones crystallise. The ability to name, claim and tame the trigger comes with practice.

As a mindfulness practitioner, Wicklow-based Bernadette Rock notices a mood of resigned acceptance in clients struggling with weight concern.

“Ah sure, what’s the point? I may as well eat, I’ve been this way for so long. Not eating this slice of cake won’t change that.”

The sociologist says: “It’s like telling yourself that you have no choice but to eat. Eating is your thing.

“Eating is what you routinely do when faced with a difficult situation or a difficult interaction with a family member.”

She gives an example of Claire, a 35-year-old mother of two young children, and her urge to eat when she puts down the phone after a difficult conversation to her mother.

“I just want to eat all round me, everything that isn’t nailed down.”

Rock reminds clients that they do have a choice. “Consciously pausing and slowing down before you reach for the packet of biscuits and asking yourself, is this the best way to care for myself right now, means that you are putting yourself in charge instead of mindlessly rushing to food and eating to escape.

“Now when Claire pauses and asks, ‘Am I really hungry?’ the answer is usually, ‘I feel overwhelmed by work.’

“Focusing on food cannot fix this anxiety. By pausing before eating, you are taking the reins back and taking charge of your needs. It’s a world apart from feeling out of control around food.”

Internal clues to hunger
There are, of course, internal cues we need to cultivate and honour. If ignored, hunger and fullness signals can be blunted. This can mean you end up eating whatever is placed in front of you, just because “it’s dinner time”.

The urge to plough through your meal and overshoot the “satisfied” mark can leave you feeling “stuffed”’ when you’re not tuned into just how much is enough.

Listening to the body, instead of focusing on external cues, allows you to slow down and enjoy whatever it is you eat, be it a crunchy piece of crisp-bread or a creamy dessert.

Eating consiously
Eating consciously or mindfully is not about dieting. It’s actually anti-dieting.

The Buddhist discipline of paying close attention to the sensation and purpose of each morsel may be a step too far for most, but savouring and relishing your food, getting more from less, checking in with the self are all practices that even big corporates like Google encourage in their health and wellness programmes.

Your two environments, both inside and out, motivate why you eat what you eat. The principle of deliberately paying attention to what is going on inside (mentally, emotionally and physically) is powerful.

Understanding how the outside or external environment influences you is crucial too.

In his book, Mindless eating, why we eat more than we think , Prof Brian Wansink offers several practical solutions to help minimise the effect of outside triggers, such as using smaller dinner plates and taller glasses to facilitate serving smaller portions.

Simple things like wrapping food in tinfoil rather than cling film can help you avoid facing tempting leftovers every time you open your fridge.

“Mindfulness means paying attention in a particular way, on purpose, in the present moment, and non-judgmentally,” according to Dr Jon Kabat-Zinn.

Several mindfulness-based programmes have adopted his mindfulness meditation model to help treat eating disorders such as binge-eating disorder, type 2 diabetes and weight loss.

Mindfulness eating therapy
In one study, mindfulness-based eating awareness therapy was used to target stress eating and cortisol levels.

The outcome was that obese participants experienced significantly lower cortisol levels and decreased anxiety but had no changes in weight from baseline.

The interesting thing was the control subjects gained a significant amount of weight during the study.

Importantly, those patients who reported the greatest reduction in stress also experienced the largest decreases in abdominal fat, which may be useful for lowering risks of disease over time. Food for thought.

Paula Mee is lead dietitian at Medfit Proactive Healthcare. Email pmee@medfit.ie or follow @paula_mee

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