By Maryann Tomovich Jacobsen, MS, RD
The way people think and relate to food has a powerful effect on eating habits. That’s because thoughts determine how you feel, and feelings determine what you do.
There’s actually a good chunk of research on how “food thoughts” translate to eating habits. Below I’ve listed five common thoughts that steer people in the wrong direction and advice on how to turn things around.
1. I should/shouldn’t eat it
In a 2010 study published in Journal of Consumer Research, researchers presented people with identical bars but called one “healthy” and the other “tasty.” The subjects who ate the bars called “healthy” reported greater feelings of hunger — even though they ate the same thing!
The researchers found that increased hunger didn’t occur among those who preferred to eat healthy but it did in those feeling that healthy eating was being imposed on them. This is what should statements do — they make us want to rebel because the idea isn’t our own. Often people eat what they think they should only to turn around and eat even more of what they shouldn’t.
When those “should” statements about food pop up, ask yourself what you really want to eat. Yes, sometimes what you want might be indulgent but you might find that your body wants wholesome foods most of the time.
2. I had a tough day so I deserve some ice cream
While once in a while this is fine, constantly looking to energy-dense foods as a reward for a stressful life is bound to take its toll. There always seems to be a reason to eat something you think you shouldn’t (there’s that should word again), whether it’s a stressful job, vacation, or just the weekend.
Common advice is to find other ways to reward yourself, like a good book or a bath. While this can help, I also think these thoughts may mean it’s time evaluate your approach to eating.
Rewarding with food can be a sign that someone is looking for excuses to eat foods they like. Adding favorite foods in a balanced way can lessen the need to over-indulge when life gets stressful.
3. I already indulged, so why not keep eating bad food?
In a 2010 study published in Appetite, people were given the same slice of pizza but the way it was cut made it look bigger or smaller. The restrained eaters (those who restrict their food intake) ate more cookies after eating the perceived big piece than those who ate the made-to-look-smaller piece.
This way of thinking, called the “what-the-hell effect,” shows how food restrictors set themselves up for overeating. When they eat too much or slip in some way, they tend to “blow” the whole day of eating.
When these thoughts creep up, challenge them because they really don’t make sense. Why should what you eat at one meal affect what you eat later?
4. I’m not losing weight so what’s the use?
When someone reaches a weight plateau, there’s a thought that it may not be worth it to keep up with healthy habits.
To me, this is always a sign that the diet needs tweaking. If you truly enjoy what you are eating, then you would keep doing it regardless of weight loss. Often people choose restrictive diets because they bring quick results — the downside is that they are hard to maintain.
5. It’s healthy so I can eat as much of it as I want
A 2009 Study in Appetite showed that people ate 35% more of snacks when they perceived them to be healthy. Surveys also reveal that people tend to underestimate calories of foods they perceive to be good for them.
When you find yourself using this logic, turn to your internal cues for eating. Whether healthy or not, always decide when to stop eating based on feelings of satisfaction and comfortable fullness.
When we become conscious of our thoughts about food, we can challenge their validity and adopt healthier outlooks. Does you thinking about food affect how much and what you eat?