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Why Do We Eat?

The reality is, we eat for a variety of reasons. First and foremost, we eat to stay alive. We eat to support and sustain bodily function. This is what hunger pangs tell us.

Don’t we also eat because…

  • It’s noon and, therefore, lunchtime?
  • We have dinner plans with friends?
  • We have a craving for the chips in the cabinet?
  • We feel like it?
  • We’re bored/tired/stressed/sad?

Judith S. Beck, a behavioral therapist, explores these reasons for eating in her book, The Beck Diet Solution. I’m not always a fan of diet books, but I found Dr. Beck’s point of view valuable because she doesn’t give nutrition and food advice, but behavioral advice. She breaks down eating cues into five major categories.

  1. Biological
    We eat and drink to support the biological processes of life. Hunger pangs alert us to this, and drive us to eat. In an ideal world, this would be the only reason we eat. If we all only ate when we genuinely felt hungry, keeping a healthy body weight would not be an issue. But alas… see below.
  2. Environmental
    We eat because we see or smell food. (Commercials! Driving past Dunkin’ Donuts! Pastries in the office kitchen!) Food is everywhere in our society. On one hand, we are lucky to live in a food-abundant environment, but this makes saying “no” extremely difficult.
  3. Social
    We eat because we’re around people who are eating, or we are offered food. We all have those food bullies or diet saboteurs in our lives. “Oh come on.. just try it! One won’t kill you!”
  4. Emotional
    We eat because we feel stressed, anxious, sad, lonely or bored. (This would be the quintessential post break-up pint of ice cream.) Some people eat when they feel happy or excited.
  5. Mental
    We eat simply because we are thinking about a food. We might realize it’s mealtime and think it’s time for food, even if we don’t feel hungry yet.

Now what? First, get to know yourself and your eating habits. Tracking or keeping a journal is always a great place to start. Use a chart like this just for a few days to assess what you’re eating and in what circumstances you’re eating.

Once you’ve identified your main hunger cues, you can go about managing them. This is a highly individualized process and will depend on your own habits and lifestyle. In general, follow these tips:

  1. Avoid or remove the cue altogether
    Example: If the chocolate jar on your desk at work is a strong environmental cue for you, get rid if it!
  2. Modify the cue, or your response to the cue
    Example: If everyone at work always orders Chinese food for lunch, try ordering first and setting a good example. Steamed veggies, chicken with sauce on the side and brown rice are all great and healthy options when it comes to takeout.
  3. Involve others—ask for help and support
    Tell your family, friends or coworkers about your weight loss goals, and ask them to help you stay on track. Who knows, maybe they’ll join you!
  4. Plan ahead
    Now that you know what your cues and problem areas are, plan around them. If lunch is always a weakness, plan ahead and pack your lunch.

Regardless of how you manage your cues, awareness is a great place to start. Start tracking or keeping a journal today, you might be shocked at what you learn.