I don’t meet many people these days who can honestly tell me that they only eat because they have to – it would be the rarity for sure. In fact, in my whole nutrition career when I have asked this question in workshops and at events, I can remember only a handful of people who ever put their hands up to say yes, they just eat to survive.
The reality is that many of us eat food just because it is there. We eat to be sociable and because we feel like it is rude to saying no. We eat food because it’s free, because we don’t like to waste things, because we have learnt to finish every scrap on our plate.
We use food as a reward, a treat and something to ‘do’ when you need a break in the day – have a coffee or a muffin and back to work you go. Food is used to ease pain, manage emotions, as a form of comfort and pleasure as well as punishment and escape. Food has become a drug of choice for many, but it’s not a very good one.
The cycles that some of you go through with eating are painful. I know that. I feel it and as I have mentioned before, I have been there. The disappointment you have from overeating at a dinner party and also having dessert when your goal was to lose 5kg by summer. The anger you feel towards yourself for having the cheese and crackers at your friends place when you told yourself you wouldn’t. The frustration on the drive on the way home only makes you want to have a bar of chocolate when you get home to punish yourself more. It doesn’t have to be this way; you just need to get to know why you do what you do and find solutions to help you manage better.
What you need to do first up is to identify your ‘Eating Type’ at different times of the day and in different situations. Awareness is the first stage of change.
There is any number of ways which we could define eating types here I am dividing the types of eating that we do in four different types:
Fuelling the Fire
Pleasure and Joy
Habit and Haze
Let’s look at these in a little more detail.
Fuelling the Fire
When you are eating to ‘fuel your fire’ you are making conscious decisions about what to eat based on what you know your body needs by choosing foods which are nutrient dense, healthy and delicious. This isn’t just a case of eating because you have to for survival, but more than you feel in control of the choices you make around food. Eating when you are hungry, stopping when you are full. Saying yes to food you want and need, no to food you know won’t make you feel good in half an hour’s time.
Fuelling the fire is nourishing your body from the inside out and is all about making choices which genuinely make you feel good – and that’s our goal! When you a sit down and eat to fuel your fire you feel good before, during and after eating. You certainly get pleasure and joy from eating this food, but in a slightly different way to the treat food I have outlined in the next section.
Ideally, this is the way should be eating most of the time. It doesn’t mean just living off lettuce and sparkling water at all – this is eating a wide variety of delicious healthy foods which taste amazing but that serve your body, mind and soul at the same time.
Look back at what you ate yesterday and so far today. How many of your meals, snacks and anything else you nibbled on or drank was to help you fuel your fire?
Pleasure and Joy
This is fabulous eating – the times when you have a delicious slice of carrot cake at a café and you enjoy every single mouthful and feel zero guilt after it at all. It is the time when you are with your friends or family at an ice cream parlour and they have your favourite flavour there which no one seems to ever have – you have a single scoop, eat it slowly and every mouthful is sheer heaven.
When you are eating for true pleasure and joy as a treat and conscious indulgence, there is no guilt attached. You won’t need to confess to your gym buddy that you were bad or ‘failed’ – you will have whole heartedly enjoyed what you ate or drank, and here is the important part to reinforce. You CONSICOUSLY made the decision to eat or drink whatever it was. You made that decision based on wanting to feel good before, during and after – not because you were ‘treating yourself for being good’, you ‘deserved it’ or that you couldn’t say no because someone else was buying it for you – that is a totally different ball game and I would put that into the habit and haze category or reactive response.
There is room in your life for delicious food that isn’t always 100% fuel for your body – some people might argue with me on that, but I think life without an ice-cream in Italy, a homemade cookie from your grandma or a slice of cake on your wedding day is pretty sad and unnecessary. These are real treats.
If you are eating purely for joy and pleasure say 1-2 meals or snacks a week, there is nothing wrong with that – that is how I live. The thing is though, that you really need to have worked A LOT on getting over all of the eating for the wrong reason stuff (I am coming to this next) before you can reach this point. So set this as your goal – you will get there, but it will take time.
Habit and Haze
This is the type of eating many of us do, much of the time. Eating unconsciously and mindlessly on autopilot.
When we are eating out of habit, because it is ‘breakfast time’, 12.30pm or mid-afternoon fatigue has hit us, chocolate or a biscuit seems to be the logical and habitual option. Do you have a coffee every morning because your friend buys you one on the way to work? Or maybe because you have a favourite coffee shop and love going in there and feel like it is a good mental start to you day? If so… is this a habit that is really helping you get where you want to go or is it just a habit?
I used to have 6-8 black coffees a day, a habit for sure and coffee was how I mentally started my day. Now I religiously start my day by reflecting on how I want to feel, writing down an intention of what I want to create in the day ahead or goal of some kind and having a cup of herbal tea – I now find that much more awesome.
We really are creatures of habit, especially when it comes to food and drink.
You might be a picker, nibble at food or graze; all of these are learned habits. This was a chronic issue of mine for YEARS. Having had a very dysfunctional relationship with food for so long, I never felt like I could commit to eating a proper meal and kind of felt that nibbling and picking at things didn’t count! Eating half the cake mixture before it was baked, a handful of nuts here, half a packet of crackers there, you know the story – it used to drive my brothers mad. From a nutritional point of view I was falling so short, so far behind and not getting what I needed at all.
Grazing isn’t always a bad thing, but something to be aware of because these habits can lead you far away from a happy healthy life if you are just eating food mindlessly and picking at whatever is around you all day. If it is carrots and snow peas – rock on, but lollies, crackers or slices of cheese might be the more common culprits or like me, picking when I was cooking – a disaster. I probably had more than half my daily energy needs (kJ/calories) a day from food that I could hardly remember eating.
Do you eat food just because it is there? At lunch do, a party or BBQ do you get stuck into the nuts, chips and dips? Were you even hungry do you think? Try to remember the last time you were out and eating with other people, did you eat more than you needed or make choices that deep down you really didn’t enjoy?
Sometimes a habit is simply that we can’t say no, we feel that we will let someone down, disappoint or offend sometime by not eating what they have offered you. Other people can lead you off course – your partner bringing home a king sized chocolate bar when you have just started a new gym program, your work mates who insist they can’t have a wine if you’re not having one or your friend who starts baking and bringing treats over the minute you declare you are on a health kick. Whether deliberate or not, other people can add to your challenges when it comes to eating for the right reasons. Blaming them and becoming the ‘poor me’ victim is no use though, your job is to make decisions and choices about the way you think and act based on what is right for you and not fall into the traps.
If someone is offended by you saying no thanks to a scone or a glass of wine, it is their problem to deal with not yours. Provided you say it in a nice way, deliver your message confidently and swiftly move on, no issue should arise. If you have always been the person to say ‘yes’ to food/drink and a massive night out, it might take a while for people to get used to you changing, but you aren’t becoming a different person – you are just developing into a happier, healthier version of yourself. Just remember, eating something to make someone else feel better is not going to help anyone and will make you feel worse.
If you eat when you are bored or have nothing else to do, you have just created another habit which means that food equals entertainment. Sure it can do, but is certainly isn’t helpful and long term doesn’t help you look or feel good.
Haze eating (or mindless eating) is also a habit. Eating in front of the TV, whilst reading emails, when you aren’t really consciously aware of what is going in your mouth and how much you are eating. This is a danger zone! Your brain will struggle to help you stop when you are full (if you even know what that is anymore?!) if it is distracted by other things. I am not suggesting eating in silence and having to worship every mouthful of food you eat, but sitting down, TV off, away from email and looking at what you are eating, enjoying each mouthful slowly and chewing your food properly at every meal and snack is important.
This is basically all the other types of eating that don’t fit into the types outlined above and this category is massive and for most people I have worked with who have ever struggled with their weight and tends to be the root of most of their problems.
Reactive response eating is using food or drink to help manage or control a feeling that you have. It could be anger, frustration, disappointment or sadness. It could be self-doubt, lack of self-worth, self-hatred and not feeling good enough. This is where food can become a form of self-abuse, a form of self sabotage and can become a way to punish yourself. I think that emotional eating, which often seems to be linked to eating sweet foods as a form of comfort, is really less than half the picture. Most people I have ever worked with felt guilty, before, during and after eating and only felt about one minute of joy about their experience. Then they spent the rest of the day psychologically beating themselves up – that doesn’t sound like comfort to me?! That’s punishment.
If you eat or drink to reward yourself, treat yourself for being ‘good’ you are having a reactive response. If you have had a bad day at work, don’t have time to go to the gym and get angry at yourself for being hopeless so drive by a petrol station and grab a pie or cookie or even head to a drive though for a burger, that is a reactive response.
We also have learnt as a society that over eating because it is a special occasion be it a birthday, Christmas, Easter, Anniversaries, engagements, reunions, parties or just because it is a long weekend is to be expected and is all part of it. Feeling sick from over eating on Christmas day is almost part of the planning – it’s madness! Why do we want to eat until we feel sick? We are lucky enough to know that food will be there tonight, tomorrow and for the rest of our lives. I am not being a party pooper, I LOVE food – but gorging because it is socially normal is crazy. I absolutely used to do it, but now, have taught myself not to and feel so much better for it.
You are not bad, stupid or ridiculous for doing this, even if you know you are doing it which a lot of people seem to, all that has happened is that you have LEARNT to use food and drink for something it was not designed to be used for. I have had clients who are eating like this 95% of the time – it’s a living hell.
Tune in to you – ACTION IT
The first stage of change is awareness, so it is my time to hand over the reins to you and ask you to tune into what is going on for you.
Keep a food diary for the couple of days or ideally weeks and next to each thing you eat, right down what ‘type’ of eating this was for you? It will soon become very clear if there are things you need to be working on to move towards 95% fuel eating and 5% pleasure and joy. If most of your eating is haze, habit and reactive – there is work to be done.
Check out this poster to print out and pop on your fridge to help remind you to tune into your eating type.