How to Change Your Habitual Eating Patterns
Everyone has a number of ingrained eating habits and triggers; think of craving cookies around Christmas or popcorn at the movies. However, for some people, these sorts of triggers can lead to eating patterns that can be harmful over time.
The Science Behind Food Triggers
Scientists say that when people are exposed to hyper-palatable foods, foods that are highly processed and high in sugar, salt or fat, their brains react in the same way that they do to drugs. Just as some people can’t enjoy a cocktail after work without risk of excessive drinking while others have no problem, people who suffer from food addictions are at risk of binging or overeating in a way that others are not.
In other cases, people will reach for specific “comfort foods” when they are experiencing negative emotions. The foods that people identify as comfort foods tend to be high-calorie and high-fat choices such as macaroni and cheese, chocolate pudding or ice cream.
Food addiction is not yet recognized as a diagnosable disease, and some even question its existence. Researchers do say that if food addiction is real, it likely only affects a small percentage of the population (about 2 percent), meaning those who will actually be diagnosed as “addicted” to food would be a small percentage, although a much larger percentage may be “affected” by the food but not considered addicted.
For the rest of the population that struggles to maintain a healthy relationship with food, food triggers become less of a science and more of an individualized issue. We all have an emotional relationship with food, and we have all created patterns around food that form as we move through our lives. For some, however, food becomes a coping strategy that is used to reduce negative feelings. Some turn to food in the face of triggers such as habit, boredom or stress.
Breaking Harmful Eating Habits
If you are a habitual overeater, there are steps that you can take to become more conscious of what and how you eat. A few of the ways to identify and control a trigger:
- Keep a food journal.
- Decide if your food habits are serving you well.
- Make a plan.
- Constantly reevaluate.
Write down what you eat, when and how you were feeling. Were you hungry? Bored? Just craving something? By learning how your foods and moods intersect, you can better identify food triggers.
What are you getting out of the way that you currently eat? If you are finding that you have a tendency to overeat and then feel bad, this is a habit that is not beneficial. By making more conscious choices, you can get what you want out of the foods you eat.
Once you’ve identified the triggers for unhealthful eating, decide what you will do instead. For instance, you may decide that you’d rather go for a walk if you are feeling blue, or call a friend on the phone. Have a few plans in place so that you can control habitual eating.
Are your new plans working, or are you falling back into old habits? By seeing what is working and what is not, you can continue to develop plans to beat unconscious eating for good.
Breaking old patterns is not something that will happen overnight. Do not feel discouraged if it takes a few tries and a few changes for new patterns to stick. By understanding what your triggers are and developing new ways to deal with them, you can defeat habitual overeating and progress toward a healthier relationship with food.
View or download a PDF of the original article entitled Retrain Your Brain: How to Change Your Habitual Eating Habits by Eliza Kingsford, MA, LPC, NCC