Knowing your Non-Hungry Eating Style could be the Key to Your Long-Term Weight Loss – No Dieting Required.
Sarah is always stressed at work. Her days feel out of control, rushing from one thing to the next, and she often lets her lunch break slip by unnoticed – she doesn’t have time, and it’s not like she needs the extra food anyway! She lives on coffee for energy during the day. But by the time she collapses on the couch at night, she’s both physically and emotionally drained. It’s her only time for herself, and she’s been so good all day, that it feels justified to eat a packet of biscuits and a tub of ice-cream for dinner. It’s quick, it tastes good, it’s her ‘me’ time. But the next morning, trying to squeeze into her work pants, she doesn’t feel satisfied anymore - just sick and bloated. She resolves to try and be ‘good’ today – skip breakfast and just eat fruit to make up for last night.
Researchers from the University of Tasmania would call Sarah’s dominant eating style ‘Restricted Eater’ (and a bit of an ‘emotional eater’ too). Their hope is that by giving her this label and an understanding of what’s driving her food choices, Sarah can achieve weight loss without focussing on counting calories, exercise, setting weight loss goals or using other, more traditional motivational strategies.
Here’s what you need to know to get started on using this idea yourself.
The Eating style Types
The program (‘Food for Thought’) categorises people into one of three Eating Style Types.
External eaters are influenced by the environment and other external events shape their eating – think eating food just because it’s in front of you, needing to clear your plate no matter what, getting your money’s worth at a restaurant, or eating because others are encouraging you to.
Emotional eaters tend to rely on food to change how they’re feeling. This is the ol’ ‘I’ve had a bad day gimme some chocolate!’ type of eating. Eating because of emotions can be used to avoid or change a whole range of feelings, from eating because you’re bored, to eating because you’re sad, to eating because you’re feeling angry and out of control and what you put in your mouth is one thing you do have control over.
Restrained eaters tend toward the yo-yo weight loss/gain patterns related to psychological inflexibility. Restrained eating at its extremes can present as either anorexia (severe restriction of calories) or bulimia (overeating and then purging through either laxatives or vomiting). It doesn’t have to be that extreme though: this category also applies to people who eat very little throughout the day and then gorge themselves in the evenings. The mind of a restrained eater polarises both food and themselves as either ‘good’ or ‘bad’. This makes it difficult to maintain a regular eating pattern from a balanced range of foods. Instead, they swing between being ‘good’ by eating very little and/or eating very healthily, and then rebelling against their own restrictions and eating a lot/making poor food choices and calling this food and themselves ‘bad’. This then leads to the need to be ‘good’ again through restricting eating, and so on.
Which style dominates your non-hungry eating? It’s important to remember that we all have elements of each style in our eating behaviour, but researchers suggest everyone has a dominant style which directs most of their non-hungry eating. This is true regardless of whether you have health concerns as a result of your eating or not. There are very few people who eat strictly because they’re hungry, without being influenced by the environment, their feelings or their thoughts!
Using Your Style To Help with Weight Management
Knowing your eating style helps change your relationship with food. Once you know what kind of eating style you have, you’ll start to become aware of when you’re eating not because you’re hungry, but for other reasons. As you get better at recognising when you’re using your main eating style, you’ll start to become more aware of your own eating habits, and this awareness alone makes it much more likely that you’ll start to change your eating habits. This is because just bringing information to our conscious awareness starts to help us to change. Psychologists (and dieticians, and personal trainers and many other health practitioners) have long known this and exploited its benefits. Keeping a food diary isn’t just so your trainer knows what you’re eating – they also know that when you’re forced to write it down, you’ll start to rethink that extra piece of cake.
"Awareness is the first step to change"
For example, if you’re an external eater, you’ll start to notice this in action when you’re out with others at a restaurant. And once you recognise it, once you’re conscious of what’s going on, then you’re in a position to make a different choice. Once you know that you’re influenced by the need to not waste food/money, then you might decide to ask for a doggy bag from the restaurant rather than eat it all on the spot.
This kind of awareness helps you to stop from feeling bad because you weren’t ‘motivated’ or ‘disciplined’ enough to follow the diet. It gives you a more specific reason and understanding of your behaviour, and this allows you to see the other options available for satisfying that. It’s hard to know how to just get more ‘motivation’ but if you know that what drives you is a need to connect to others (through eating), then you start to see that there are alternative ways to get that connection with others. You won’t always make a choice to avoid non-hungry eating, but you will feel more in control of your eating.
Using Your Style to Help Increase Mindfulness and Satisfaction
Once you know your style, you’ll become more conscious about the way you eat. You’ll be able to see when you’re eating inflexibly, or when emotions are driving your food choices.
Not only does this help you feel in control with regards to eating, it also increases how enjoyable the experience is for you.
For example, if you identify that you eat emotionally, as a way of changing your mood, then start to be mindful of that. With emotional eating, you want the food to make you feel better, right? And once you know that’s what you’re doing, you can check in with this idea while you’re eating, and make sure that you really are feeling better. Otherwise, what’s the point?
Once you’re conscious that’s what you’re doing, other possibilities to shift your mood will more easily present themselves. You can evaluate whether or not the ice-cream does make you feel better overall (i.e. if you feel guilty afterwards, it’s not doing its job of changing your mood properly!), and whether other alternatives to shift your mood might work. Going for a walk, having a shower or watching your favourite TV show might also work to shift your mood too. This isn’t to say you won’t choose the ice-cream! But if you do, you’ll do so with the awareness that you’re doing this to improve your mood. This makes you fully aware of how your mood does change when you’re eating, allowing you to get the full benefits of the experience by increasing mindfulness while you’re doing it.
Using Your Style to Understand Your Values
How and when you engage in particular eating styles can also provide a clue to what you value. If you’re the type of person who’s strongly influenced by the environment when you eat, then look at which environments encourage that. Is it when you’re with family, and you eat more because it provides a sense of belonging with them, or which is important to you? Do you eat emotionally when you don’t stick up for yourself (self-confidence/independence value) or when you do something that you know goes against who you are (integrity value)? Do you restrict your eating whenever you’re stressed? What is stressing you out? A lack of achievement? A lack of relaxation? Fear of not being a good enough parent? Whenever you see your dominant eating style emerging more in your life, you can use this as a sign that you’re out of balance with your values somewhere. With a bit of self-reflection, you’ll be able to find out what’s causing the change, and then work to get back to being your best self in that situation – and watch your eating style go back to normal along the way!
Eating plays a large role in so many aspects of our lives. Our choices of foods can reflect our values, our stress levels, and our feelings about ourselves. Most of us won’t ever just use food as fuel for our bodies – there’s too many different opportunities for pleasure in food for that! But you need to remain in charge of your relationship with food. If food is running your life (particularly if you’re stuck in a cycle of eating poorly and then trying to correct the problems that occur as a result), then you’re wasting a lot of time and energy that could be directed into living your values: something which provides much more lasting satisfaction than any plate of food ever could.
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Lana Hall, Psychologist. Helping you to live your best life, using the power of psychology.