The psychology of healthy eating

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Most of us when it comes to 'eating healthy' we consider the nutrients, calories and other nutrition-related information. One important area of healthy eating habits that is often overlooked is the Psychology of eating.
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It takes around 20 minutes for the body and brain to recognise we are full, but in our modern societies most meals are eaten so quickly, they are finished before 20 minutes is up. Clearly, it isn't satiation of hunger which tells us to stop eating. 

Our eyes mislead us and we stop eating by judging whats left on our plate rather than considering whether we're feeling full after each mouthful. We can't see kilojoules in a meal, our eyes aren't good judges of food intake and are easily tempted. If we see food we think of it more,  then our bodies prepare for eating by increasing salvation and hormone production to process food, our hunger increases and consequently we eat more. 

There's a well-known study that demonstrates how psychologically healthy eating is trumped by the irrational "mind in the stomach." In the study 54 adults were recruited to eat as much free soup as they desired for lunch and fill out a questionnaire- at least that's what they thought. In reality, half the participants were given bowls that secretly self-refilled as soup was pumped up from underneath their table into the bowl as they ate. The other half were given bowls that are openly refilled by waiters. 

The participants with self-refilling bowls thought they had eaten the same quantity of soup as the other participants, when in fact, they had eaten a whooping 73% more! Visual cues affected intake. As long as there was soup in the bowl, the participants kept eating, unaware of how much they were truly eating

What role does psychology play in weight management?

Psychology is the science of behavior. It is 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.

What treatments are used for weight management?

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 the person's "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 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 control, 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.

What does cognitive behavioral treatment involve?

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/weight loss. 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 am 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."

What strategies will help me manage my weight?
To lose weight, it’s helpful to change your thinking. Weight management is about making a lifestyle change. 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 your weight.

Things to “do” for healthy eating

  • Don't skip meals.
  • Do keep track of your eating habits.
  • Do limit night eating.
  • Do drink plenty of water.
  • Do delay/distract yourself.
  • Do exercise instead of eating when you are bored.
  • Do be attentive when you eat. Don’t eat while watching TV, working, driving.
  • Do only eat in certain settings (kitchen table).
  • Do watch your portion sizes.
  • Do allow yourself to eat a range of food without forbidding yourself a particular food.
  • Do give yourself encouragement.
  • Do be gentle with yourself! Try not to beat yourself up when you lapse.
  • Do think of eating as a lifestyle change.
  • Do use the scale mindfully. Weigh yourself no more than once a week.
  • Do make healthy food choices.

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