You may think the answer to this question is obvious. We all know that we eat food for the energy we need to support our daily activities and ultimately to keep ourselves alive, right? Not so fast… Many of our modern day food choices suggest that the reasons why we eat is much more complex—and has far less to do with sustenance than we realize.
In primitive times, our ancestors had to work hard to obtain food—most of which was not calorically dense (think berries, seeds and other vegetation) in order to meet their nutrition and calorie needs. As a result, their energy expenditure was more closely balanced with their energy intake. Imagine if you had to hunt and gather all of the food that you needed to eat each day—you would be grateful that you didn’t require a higher number of calories in order to survive! Of course, now food is readily available and easy to access. But has this all been for the good?
Even though food is essential for survival, not all foods are created equal. Eating certain foods, especially in excess, may harm—not help our health and wellbeing. The obesity epidemic is one of our country’s most serious health problems. Did you know that adult obesity rates have doubled since 1980: from 15 to 30%, while childhood obesity rates have more than tripled? If eating was as simple as putting gas in a car, we would all be at an optimal weight and over-eating and obesity would not be on the rise. But it’s just not that easy.
Taking a closer look at factors that may impact your personal food choices can help you to make more informed nutrition decisions. I want you to refer back to your food journal (Unlock the Power of Food — Get to Know You). Think about how each of the following factors may influence your food intake. The list is not all-inclusive—you will likely identify additional factors that impact why you eat certain foods.
Although we are becoming more health conscious, the main reason we choose a particular food is because we like the way it tastes. Taste preferences are present when we’re born and continue to develop over time. How often are you eating certain foods just because they taste good, regardless of the nutritional value of the food?
Eating With Your Eyes Instead of Your Stomach
How many times have you been standing in line for coffee trying to decide whether or not you should buy that blueberry scone? Or you’re in the frozen food aisle of the grocery store pondering mint chocolate chip ice cream for dessert? For many of us wanting to eat something is all about how good it looks. It has nothing to do with hunger or fullness or nutritional value. It simply looks yummy.
And then there’s what I call the “buffet table syndrome.” You know, when your eyes are actually bigger than your stomach and you end up with a huge mound of food of different foods on your plate, regardless of hunger. Sound familiar? How often are you “eating with your eyes?” or “eating all you can eat?” What are your hunger cues?
Cost and Convenience
Cost and convenience also factor into our food choices—although admittedly taste may trump both. Cost is typically a consideration for most, as food prices continue to soar. For those of us who have limited cooking skills, or are short on time for grocery shopping and food preparation, convenience foods are an easy answer. In this case, our budget will dictate the quality of food eat depending on whether we stop for fast food fare or frequent five star restaurants. How often do you eat out? Where do you go? What do you choose?
Variety and more variety
Walk into any grocery store and the variety of options for a certain food category can be overwhelming. Take rice for example. The shelves at my local supermarket are lined with dozens of different kinds. They vary in color (white, brown, black, red); shape (short, medium, long); flavor (Thai, Spanish, Saffron); and cook time (minute, 10 minute, 30 minute). And this is only a fraction of what’s available worldwide!
With so many options available, how do we choose? Studies suggest that the greater the variety of food offered, the more we tend to eat. Add more choices, and consumption increases by an average of 25%. In contrast, monotonous meals don’t usually lead to overeating. Hmmm… how do we balance variety with intake? After all, food should be enjoyed! What does your food log show you about the variety of foods you eat?
People can be very impressionable when it comes to how much and what they eat. Typically, we consume more when we eat meals away from home, when we travel and when we are in the company of others. Some studies suggest that eating in large groups increases food consumption.
When you dine with health-conscious types, you may be influenced to eat differently. As a nutritionist, I’m amused by how my friends react to what I choose to eat—or don’t eat at a restaurant. More often than not, I find that people will change their meal order to something “healthier” just because I’m at the table! What social influences impact how you eat? Do you eat alone or with others? When it comes to food choices at the table with others, are you a food leader or a food follower?
We simply just don’t eat to satisfy hunger. We turn to food out of boredom, for comfort, stress relief, or as a reward. Unfortunately, emotional eating doesn’t fix emotional issues. Afterwards, the emotion remains, layered with feelings of guilt or anxiety because we ate more than we wanted to, or made a less than healthy choice. Becoming aware of how your emotions relate to eating is the first step towards making positive changes. You need to take a look at how you are feeling when you eat.
This week, make a commitment to yourself. Fill in the column under FEELINGS (in addition to the other columns of food/fluid item, amount, and where you’re eating.) (You can find a link to download the printable food log here). Next time, we’re going to explore the following question: Are you an emotional eater?