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The Importance of Understanding Your Eating Habits

Learning about your relationship with food can help improve your eating behaviors and patterns

Person reflecting on food and exercise

You’ve just eaten too much pizza and too many wings. And now, you’re beating yourself up for overeating and not making the smartest food decisions. We’ve all been there.

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It can be easy to get into a habit of self-blame, shame, guilt and regret. But it’s important that you understand your relationship with food: The how and why of what we eat.

Learning more about food psychology can help change how you view food and provide you with a set of tools and tips to improve your relationship with food.

Psychologist Susan Albers, PsyD, explains the role that psychology plays when it comes to food, eating, weight management and mental health.

What is the psychology of eating?

What we eat affects how we feel. Food should make us feel good. It tastes great and nourishes our bodies. But if you eat too little or eat too much, your health and quality of life could be affected. This can result in negative feelings toward food.

“By learning how to make healthier and more mindful choices, you may be able to manage compulsive eating, binging and weight gain,” explains Dr. Albers. “By taking charge of your appetite, you may also gain a feeling of calm, high energy levels and alertness from the foods you eat.”

Overall, there are many benefits to changing engrained, unhealthy eating habits, such as:

  • An increase in energy level and alertness.
  • A more positive relationship with food.
  • Improved health.
  • Easier movement.
  • Improved body image.

While we often have the best intentions to eat healthier, this is often a challenging task.

Factors that influence our eating behaviors

Dr. Albers says many factors can influence our feelings about food and our eating behaviors.

These factors include:

  • Cultural.
  • Evolutionary.
  • Social.
  • Family.
  • Individual.
  • Economic status.
  • Psychological.

“Many people use food as a coping mechanism to deal with such feelings as stress, boredom or anxiety, or even to prolong feelings of joy,” says Dr. Albers. “While this may help in the short term, eating to soothe and ease your feelings often leads to regret and guilt, and can even increase negative feelings. You aren’t actually coping with the problem causing the stress.”

Additionally, your self-image may suffer as you gain or lose weight, or you may experience other undesired effects on your health, such as elevated blood sugars, cholesterol levels or blood pressure.

How can psychology help with weight management?

Psychology is the science of behavior. It’s the study of how and why people do what they do. For people trying to manage their weight, psychology addresses:

  • Behavior: Treatment involves identifying the person’s eating patterns and finding ways to change eating behaviors.
  • Cognition (thinking): Therapy focuses on identifying self-defeating thinking patterns that contribute to weight management problems.

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Cognitive behavioral treatment is the approach most often used because it deals with both thinking patterns and behavior. Some areas that are addressed through cognitive behavioral treatment include:

  • Determining your “readiness for change”: This involves an awareness of what needs to be done to achieve your goals and then making a commitment to do it.
  • Learning how to self-monitor: Self-monitoring helps you become more aware of what triggers you to eat in the moment and be more mindful of your food choices and portions. It also helps you stay focused on achieving long-term progress.
  • Breaking linkages: The focus here is on stimulus regulation, such as not eating in particular settings and not keeping unhealthy food choices in your home. Cognitive behavioral treatment also teaches distraction — replacing eating with healthier alternatives — as a skill for coping with stress. Positive reinforcement, rehearsal/problem-solving, finding social support and changing eating habits are specific techniques used to break linkages.

Cognitive therapy strategies

Cognitive therapy addresses how you think about food. It helps you recognize self-defeating patterns of thinking that can undermine your success at eating healthier and managing your weight. It also helps you learn and practice using positive coping self-statements.

Examples of self-defeating thoughts include:

  • “This is too hard. I can’t do it.”
  • “If I don’t make it to my target weight, I’ve failed.”
  • “Now that I’ve lost weight, I can go back to eating any way I want.”

Examples of positive coping self-statements include:

  • “I realize that I’m overeating. I need to think about how I can stop this pattern of behavior.”
  • “I need to understand what triggered my overeating, so I can create a plan to cope with it if I encounter the trigger again.”
  • “Am I really hungry or is this just a craving? I will wait to see if this feeling passes.”

Other weight management strategies

To improve your relationship with food and your body, it’s helpful to change your thinking. Weight management is about making a lifestyle change. But it’s not going to happen if you rely on short-term diet after diet to lose weight.

To be successful, be aware of the role that eating plays in your life and learn how to use positive thinking and behavioral coping strategies to manage your eating and weight.

To help get you started, here are a few tips:

  • Don’t skip meals.
  • Do plan meals and snacks ahead of time.
  • Do keep track of your eating habits.
  • Do limit night eating.
  • Do drink plenty of water. Staying hydrated helps your body operate at its best.
  • Do delay/distract yourself when experiencing cravings.
  • Do exercise instead of eating when you’re bored.
  • Do be attentive when you eat.
  • Do only eat in certain settings.
  • Do watch your portion sizes.
  • Do allow yourself to eat a range of foods without forbidding a particular food.
  • Do give yourself encouragement.
  • Do look for a support person to help you stay motivated and accountable.
  • Do be gentle with yourself.
  • Do think of eating healthfully as a lifestyle change.
  • Do use the scale mindfully.
  • Do make healthy food choices.

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Bottom line?

Knowledge is power. And learning more about the food choices you make and how they make you feel can lead to smarter choices and decisions over time.

“Focusing on how and why you eat is just as important as what you eat,” stresses Dr. Albers. “By being mindful of your habits and relationship with food, you can empower yourself and reveal the way to eat that is truly nourishing to your body and mind.”

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