• The Psychological Side of Healthier Eating

The Psychological Side of Healthier Eating

Why do people do the things they do, even when they know these things are unhealthy or destructive?  On some level, these behaviors are reinforced.  Imagine a slot machine – it doesn’t give a payout every time, but there is just enough of a reward every once in a while that it keeps you feeding the machine in hopes of a jackpot.  Now, transfer this pattern to another potentially unhealthy behavior – eating.

Eating makes people feel better.  Hunger is uncomfortable and communicates the need to take action – “Eat something to fuel your body so it can keep functioning.”   However, there are other sensations which may also be soothed or tended to through the action of eating.  “Emotional eating” is feeding one’s feelings rather than one’s stomach, eating to reasons other than hunger.  This covers the whole range of emotions or experiences from the positive (a birthday or promotion) to the negative (fight with a loved one or stress at work).  Responding to bodily sensations with food isn’t going to result in a pattern of healthy eating behaviors, but these choices certainly feel good in the moment.  If people know what the “right” choices are, why is it so hard to make them? Rewards for making the healthier choices often aren’t readily visible.  It’s much easier to prioritize the immediate gratification and overlook the price associated with these choices.

Choices don’t happen inside a bubble.  Rather, there’s an interaction between thoughts, feelings, and behaviors.  The chain of events of which most people are aware is: THOUGHT (“My boyfriend doesn’t love me) > FEELING (Sadness, loss, and other negative emotions) > BEHAVIOR (Binge on cookies, ice cream, or other comfort foods).  There’s actually an interaction between all three components: Behaviors can trigger thoughts and feelings – eating a lot of cookies leading to feelings of guilt or remorse and the decision “I’m such a pig for eating like that!  I’ll never do that again!”

Even when someone decides to make positive food choices and feels good about these choices, the changes don’t seem to last.  It’s disruptive to change a long-standing pattern of behaviors.  These new actions are moving toward a desirable goal but are still rocking the boat.  When one can anticipate an unsettling experience, it’s possible to take pro-active measures to reduce the  impact of increased negative thoughts/feelings and to build the strength of positive, adaptive thoughts/feelings.

Where are you at right now?  Part of change is establishing a baseline.  Keep a food log that includes situational factors.  Are there times or locations when less healthy choices are made?  Perhaps the company of certain people?  When in these situations, are there particular thoughts that tend to arise?  Are there “rationalizations” for certain food choices?  “Today was a tough day at work, so I deserve a treat.”  “I won’t enjoy my dinner out with friends if I have to restrict what I’m eating.”

What feelings that are associated with these thoughts and situations?  Are some emotions associated with positive choices or with negative ones?  Negative emotions  (including boredom) can be strong triggers for unhealthy food choices.  When feeling overwhelmed, depressed, self-critical, or dejected, it is much easier to say, “Forget this! I’m going to eat whatever I want.  It might make me feel better and I doubt I can feel any worse!”  While this may feel true in the moment, giving into these negative feelings can perpetuate a cycle that undermines the goal of healthier eating.  Attempting to manage negative feelings through eating can build even more negative feelings, reinforce negative thoughts, and strengthen defeatist attitudes.

Where do you want to be?  Goals are most helpful when they are specific and measurable.  If you start with a broader aim (“I want to be fit” or “I want to be skinny”), ask yourself some questions.  What does “fit” mean for me?  What weight makes sense for you – your height, your frame, your body composition?  Break the goal down into smaller steps.  Instead of “eating better” (which is broad and vague), consider the components that contribute to this – “incorporating fruits and vegetables into my meals,” “reducing snacking between meals,” or “practicing portion control with servings.”  Target behaviors are most effective when they’re:

–           Narrow in scope – specificity helps to maintain focus

–           Unambiguously defined – anyone observing would identify the target behavior

–           Measurable – frequency, duration, intensity, quantity

–           Appropriate or adaptive – healthy, constructive, and suited to your circumstances.  Increasing smoking may help reduce food intake, but is that a behavior you really want to encourage?

How will you track your progress?  Just as with observable, measurable goals, track your progress in the same way.  Don’t rely just on the scale, as the number can fluctuate on a daily basis – include other concrete numbers such as body measurements and the way your clothes fit.  When you have an emotionally “blah” day or feeling “fluffy,” you can refer to these objective details to help you challenge the subjective emotions.  Monitoring progress by charting your efforts – track the frequency with which you’re addressing each one.  You can find patterns as you address struggles and to reward yourself for your successes.

When making changes, it helps to anticipate the bumps that might be encountered.  Even with the best intentions, it isn’t possible to be 100% successful.  There will be slip-ups, food choices that undermine efforts, and days of not caring or wanting to throw in the towel.  Once a pattern has been identified, develop a plan that anticipates difficulties and provides alternatives.  While many elements of a healthy eating plan may sound like common sense, the implementation and maintenance are quite challenging.

Anticipate your triggers – look for patterns.  Do you eat more when you’re stressed, tired, or bored?  When you can predict vulnerabilities, you can coach yourself through these patches.  Have healthier food choices on hand so whatever eating you do won’t be as damaging to your goals.  Schedule activities, supports, and distractions to help you through these windows.

Out of sight, out of mind – if tempting foods are not available, you won’t be as tempted to eat them.  It’s much more difficult to eat potato chips if you need to drive to the grocery store instead of walk into the kitchen.  Sometimes cravings are triggered by the accessibility.

Forewarned is forearmed – if you know about an up-coming challenge to your healthy eating behaviors, plan in advance.  Dinner out with friends?  Ask for a restaurant with healthier food options.  Check the menu in advance, reducing the lure of temptations in the moment.  Modify your food and fitness choices for the rest of the day/week to accommodate this splurge.

Activities with purpose – defined tasks can help reduce impulses and urges.  When going to the grocery store, have a specific list.  If there are other items that you’d like to buy, write them at the bottom.  Then, the next time you’re shopping, reassess if you still want to purchase it. Sticking to your purpose reduces the likelihood of bringing tempting foods home. There may be some discomfort in the moment, but there is also reduced anxiety on a larger scale.

Structure – structure can help reduce uncertainty and increase a sense of purpose.  Planning meals and activities in advance can help one to better focus and prioritize activities, increasing the likelihood of making healthy choices.

Concrete, short-term goals – With abstract deadlines, people are more likely to lose motivation – there’s wiggle room in  meeting the due date when it’s more remote.  Work toward weekly goals and reward yourself when you meet these goals, just not with food.

Be accountable to someone – one of the best motivators is knowing that someone will ask about your progress.  Be vocal about your goal and your plans for reaching it.  Enlist the support of friends and family, but be mindful of relationships that tend to be negative triggers.

One step at a time – with the life-long goal of healthy eating, it can be difficult to put your efforts in perspective.  It’s easy to feel overwhelmed by eating healthy forever, so consider compartmentalizing.  Break it down into small pieces that can be handled one at a time.  Can you make healthy food choices this week?  How about for today?  Or this meal?  When looking at the smaller pieces, decisions are not as overwhelming.  Efforts are easier to maintain for briefer periods.  Each “bite” is more manageable and can be pieced together to complete the larger objective.

Keep your eye on the prize – Why are you making these choices?  Question yourself on a regular basis:  Am I really hungry for food right now?  Is this a positive food choice that supports my efforts?  Could I eat something else?  Could I do something else?  Am I strong enough to endure these temporary feelings of discomfort?  How can I take care of myself?

It’s easy to identify the healthier food choices, but it’s so hard to choose those foods and walk away from the other options.  There are challenges to be faced down every day.  You can’t walk away and eliminate food from your life.  The key to success is being able to adapt – your environment, your thoughts, your feelings, your behaviors, yourself.  Approaching each situation with awareness and intentionality will increase your success rate and bring you one step closer to meeting your goal.  However, it’s important to remember that healthy eating is a perpetual pursuit – once you establish these patterns, the aim is to maintain them for the long haul.  Taking care of yourself really is a life-long project.

– Elspeth Bell, Ph.D.

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