Even the healthiest eaters are prone to occasional food transgressions — a dinner downed in front of the TV, a lunch wolfed down on the way to an appointment, a snack attack that sneaks up on us. As long as such lackluster eating experiences are the exception, and not the rule, they’re probably no cause for worry. But what about when the occasional “whoops!” becomes part of a more persistent pattern?
Over time, such patterns can become ingrained tendencies — unconscious ways of interacting with food so automatic, and so subtly destructive, we don’t fully recognize the damage they’re doing to our bodies and minds, or just how habitual they’ve become.
The first step in disentangling ourselves from such tendencies is identifying where problem-eating patterns may have taken root in our own lives. The next step is deciding which of those patterns we want to take on first — and how.
“Trying to address too many habits at once is overwhelming,” says Brian Wansink, PhD, director of Cornell University’s food lab and author of Mindless Eating (Bantam Books, 2006). “For most people, changing one or two habits at a time is plenty.”
To help make your untangling efforts easier and more successful, we’ve investigated five of the most common problem-eating patterns. Read on to get expert insight on the ways each might be affecting you, and how — with awareness and self-compassionate experimentation — you can break free of them for good.
Eating too fast is endemic to a fast-paced way of life. “We live too fast, we drive too fast, we talk too fast . . . why should our relationship with food be any different?” asks Marc David, MA, founder and director of the Institute for the Psychology of Eating and author of The Slow Down Diet (Healing Arts Press, 2005). “Learning how to slow down with food is a metaphor for slowing down with life.”
Mind-Body Toll: Bolting your food robs you of the full satisfaction of eating, leading you to eat more than you otherwise would. Digestion starts with the brain’s sensory experience of seeing food, smelling food and anticipating food, David explains: “When you eat too quickly, you bypass food’s sensory pleasure.” Both biochemically and neurologically, he notes, “this has the effect of slowing the metabolism and diminishing your body’s ability to burn that food as fuel.”
Eating too fast also inhibits proper digestion, David explains. Do anything quickly and you trigger the body’s stress response (a.k.a. fight or flight). As a result, breath becomes shallow, blood is channeled to the arms and legs, and digestion shuts down.
From an evolutionary standpoint, turning off digestion made sense. Speed often meant danger. If a tiger was on your heels, digesting lunch wasn’t a big priority. Today, our environment is less immediately threatening, but our basic biochemistry hasn’t changed. Devour an egg-and-cheese muffin in rush-hour traffic and the body’s fight-or-flight response kicks into high gear: Digestive enzymes dry up, gut transit time may speed up (causing diarrhea) or slow down (causing constipation), and nutrient absorption grinds to a halt.
• Guard mealtime. David calls on Americans to “reclaim their right to dine.” That means scheduling dedicated time to sit down at a table and savor your food. Fend off the impulse to whittle away your lunch hour running errands or downing breakfast at your computer.
• Take five to 10 slow, deep breaths before every meal to flip on the body’s relaxation response, a built-in protection against stress. Breathing deeply expands the diaphragm, stimulating the vagus nerve, which runs from the brain to the colon and activates the relaxation response, thwarting fight or flight.
• Pace yourself. If you normally eat breakfast in five minutes, for example, take 10. “If you are a fast and furious eater, it’s time to change gears,” says David. “The more time we set aside for a meal, the more we place ourselves in the optimum state of nutritional and calorie-burning metabolism. The less time we take for a meal, the less the body is able to determine when it is full.”
If you hide chocolate in your desk drawer, stash potato chips in the utility closet or keep a candy bar in your nightstand, it’s a sign you have mixed feelings about your own snacking tendencies. Sneaking food implies that the food and/or the appetite for that food is “bad,” says David. “When you label things ‘bad,’ like any good criminal, you will do it in secret.”
Mind-Body Toll: Secretive eating feeds the shame spiral that perpetuates poor eating habits. “Any behavior that takes place in secret tends to go hand-in-hand with shame,” says Michelle May, MD, a board-certified family physician and author of Eat What You Love, Love What You Eat (Greenleaf Book Group, 2010). “If I eat something ‘bad,’ then I feel guilty, and I feel like a ‘bad’ person for doing it.”
The brain is similarly shackled by joyless eating. Compared with actively savoring food, eating in secret can create stress, which means the release of fewer endorphins, the pleasure chemicals that promote digestion. Endorphins help assimilate nutrients and, ultimately, burn calories. “The chemistry of pleasure is intrinsically designed to fuel metabolism,” says David. “When food comes with a helping of guilt, the nervous system registers only a minimum of pleasurable sensations and we are physiologically driven to eat more. We’re compelled to hunt down the pleasure we never fully receive, even though it’s continually within our grasp.”
Eating furtively easily leads to overeating because it allows you to skirt the emotions at the heart of the issue. Instead of sitting with an uncomfortable situation or emotion, seeking a quick pleasure fix through food becomes a way to change or manage emotions quickly, says May. When the urge strikes to eat behind closed doors, stop and ask yourself what emotion you are trying to escape. “You may think you are overeating ‘just because it tastes good’ or ‘because you lack willpower,’’’ says May, but that’s rarely the case. “The ‘why’ becomes clear only when you explore the feelings that underlie your actions.”
• Notice which foods you stash or squirrel away. Note what triggers the desire for that food. What scenario typically precedes the sneak attack? Which foods cause the greatest guilt? Next time the urge to stealth-eat strikes, David suggests asking yourself, “What is my body really hungry for?” Other than food, what comes to mind?
• Don’t allow others to shame you. “There may be people in your life who feel like they can judge what you’re eating,” says May. “Tell them ‘I appreciate your intention, but when you tell me what I can and can’t eat, I feel angry and guilty, and it actually makes me feel like eating more. I’d appreciate it if you stop commenting on my food choices.’”
• Redirect your inner rebel. Sneaking “forbidden” foods can be a thrill. “There’s a part of us that likes breaking the rules,” says David, “and engaging in secret eating can be exciting.” If that’s true for you, look for other ways to appease your inner rebel. Say, do or try something a little edgier than you normally would, or look for a way to more openly express your authentic self.
Starving and Stuffing
Tuning out the body’s hunger signals during the day creates an energy and nutrition deficit that can set you up for uncontrolled eating later. “If all day it’s coffee and cottage cheese, then night falls and all hell breaks loose, that’s a sign you’re setting yourself up for overeating and making poor food choices,” says Keith Ayoob, EdD, RD, FADA, a nutritionist at Albert Einstein College of Medicine in New York.
This problem-eating behavior — sometimes called night-eating syndrome (NES) — is more common in men than women and often goes hand-in-hand with weight gain and, sometimes, depression. NES is often defined as eating 25 percent of one’s total calories after the evening meal more than three times a week. “And the calories people binge on usually aren’t salad,” Ayoob says. “Let’s face it, it’s hard to make good decisions when you are hungry.”
Mind-Body Toll: When the body is deprived of food for more than a few hours, blood-sugar levels nosedive. That triggers a voracious appetite for quick-energy foods (carbohydrates). On cue, you gobble carbs, which makes blood sugar rise but doesn’t initiate the gentle, rolling hills of energy the body needs to stay on its game. Instead, carb-heavy snacks and meals translate to big blood-sugar spikes and deep valleys. “Our willpower is no match for our physiology,” says Annie Kay, MS, RD, lead nutritionist at Kripalu Center for Yoga and Health and author of Every Bite Is Divine (Life Arts Press, 2007). “The biggest determinant of hunger later on is big drops in blood sugar early in the day.”
A 2007 study published in the International Journal of Obesity found a strong correlation between NES and weight gain. And that makes sense, because eating in the middle of the night — when your circadian rhythm has your body in “sleep mode” — makes it harder to process food properly.
• When you finish one meal, plan the next. At breakfast, think ahead to lunch and make a sandwich or pack up leftovers to take to the office. After dinner, consider what healthy breakfast fare you can enjoy the next morning. Maybe slice some strawberries for cereal or make a couple of hardboiled eggs. People who want to eat well may need to accept that this involves a certain amount of advance planning, says Ayoob. “That doesn’t mean you can’t ever have treats or be spontaneous,” he notes, “it just means that planning and prepping healthy options is a must.”
• Factor a protein source into every meal and snack, aiming for a small protein infusion every two to three hours to help keep your blood sugar steady. Top your salad with a hardboiled egg or chicken breast, eat your crackers with hummus, add miso to your bowl of quick-cook noodles, or mix up a protein drink if you don’t have time for anything else. If you graze, reach for small-but-filling portions of protein-rich foods, like a dozen almonds or a tablespoon of nut butter with apple slices.
• Plan a preemptive strike against the post-work binge. Hectic workers often ignore the body’s needs for nourishment during the day — either because they’re too distracted or too busy to eat. “After work, when the brain finally gets permission to attend to our physical needs, the body is as ravenous as a neglected dog, and so we tend to overeat,” says David, who suggests eating a high-fiber, protein-rich pre-dinner snack to take the edge off hunger pangs and curb the urge to binge later.
Ever made it through a stressful scenario only to be gripped with a sudden compulsion to eat? Those cravings probably come courtesy of cortisol, a hormone made in the adrenal glands and unleashed into the blood when the body faces a real or perceived threat. Elevated cortisol levels arouse the appetite, especially sugar and fat cravings. Just knowing that can make you more conscious of what motivates your food decisions.
“Noticing that you aren’t hungry but you feel like eating is half the battle,” says May. “Ask yourself in that moment, what else can I do to address this emotion?”
Mind-Body Toll: Like an air traffic controller, cortisol signals where energy is delivered inside the body. And studies show that cortisol prefers to divert extra calories into deep abdominal fat (a.k.a. visceral fat), which is more detrimental to health than the superficial flab in, say, love handles.
Stress also reduces your gut’s acidity and, consequently, its ability to absorb key nutrients. A final insult? Not only does stress-induced cortisol damage your body’s ability to digest properly, it also decreases your body’s ability to repair itself.
• Exercise your options. If stress sends you running to the refrigerator, remind yourself that eating won’t erase the stress, says May. Try making a list of things you find relaxing, such as a hot bath or taking your dog to the park, and keep the list on the pantry or refrigerator door. Next time you are stressed and tempted to reach for a snack, pause to look at the list and consider your alternatives.
• Conserve your energy. Keep in mind that the setup for stress-induced splurges can build over the entire day, says Kay. “Practicing self-awareness, such as noticing negative self-talk, and taking deep breaths at the first signs of stress, can put you on a different path.” Taking more frequent breaks can also help dispel stress, making it more likely that you’ll get through the day with your self-awareness intact.
• Cut yourself some slack. Beating yourself up after a stress-induced splurge only fuels negative feelings. Instead, acknowledge what happened and move on. “Turning to food at times of stress is part of being human,” says Eunice Chen, PhD, co-director of the eating disorders program at the University of Chicago Medical Center. “Stress eating only becomes a real problem when it’s your only way to deal with stress.”
Mindless eating tends to be most noticeable after the fact: You plunk down on the couch with a full bag of chips, and before you know it, the bag is empty. Or you sit down at your desk with a sandwich, check your email, and suddenly there’s nothing but crumbs. Eating mindlessly is a natural byproduct of a hyper-stimulating environment, says Wansink: “We have too many things competing for our attention and food drops to the bottom of the list.”
Wansink calls the food environment we build for ourselves “choice architecture.” In broad strokes, his research shows that the easier and more unlimited our access to food, the more we’ll choose to eat. Keeping a candy dish on your desk, stocking lots of treats in the pantry, sitting down with an entire bag of chips, and keeping food within reach while we are driving, computing, having a meeting or watching TV — scenarios like these all lay the environmental groundwork for mindless overeating.
Mind-Body Toll: A 2006 study published in the journal Physiology & Behavior found that people’s caloric intake can balloon by up to 71 percent when they eat in front of the tube. Wansink explains that eating while watching TV is a problem for two reasons: “First, you don’t pay attention to whether you’ve had 14 or 40 potato chips. Secondly, you often won’t stop eating until the end of the show, regardless of whether you’re full or not.” Another problem: Such eating patterns can become mutually reinforcing — it becomes hard to watch TV and not eat.
• When you eat, just eat. If you’re going to have a meal or snack, eat it before you sit down to do anything else, and then put all edibles away before you begin your next task. If you tend to eat while watching TV, instead keep your hands busy by folding laundry, paying bills, giving yourself a pedicure, holding a mug of hot tea, lifting weights or knitting.
• Make the mechanisms of mindless eating work for you, advises Wansink. “If you’re three times more likely to eat the first thing you see in the cupboard, make sure the first thing you see is something healthy. If you’re 30 percent more likely to eat more if you face the buffet, don’t face the buffet. If you eat third and fourth helpings of dinner, leave the serving bowl on the stove or put leftovers away before you sit down to eat.”
• Never eat out of the package. Even if you just want a handful of chips, put them on a plate. Plating food increases your awareness of portion size, says Wansink. “Dishing out a ration makes you see exactly how much you are eating.”
The first step to rerouting any problem-eating habit is recognizing it. The good news? From there, change can happen almost immediately. Start by implementing one or two healthy shifts, and you might be surprised by how many others come along for the ride.
You might also be surprised by how much you discover about yourself in the process. “The antidote to modern food culture is bringing more self-inquiry into your day,” says Kay. “This is far from a chore — it’s a juicy opportunity to delve into what’s going on in your body and mind.”
Catherine Guthrie is a health writer in Bloomington, Ind., and a contributing editor to Experience Life.