Why Do You Eat What You Eat? Understanding Food Choices (Part 3)

One thing you can guarantee in life is that you will encounter multiple life altering changes. Whether of your own choosing or due to outside circumstances, change is inevitable.

I’ve had a couple of dramatic routine changes this year, the most recent in May when I left my full time job (for the second time this year) and decided to finally go out on my own! A big change in routine provides the perfect back drop for creating new healthy habits such as cleaning up our diet and assessing the foods that we purchase on a day to day or week to week basis.

It’s amazing how easily and quickly we can experience habit creep! Old patterns of behaviour slowly creeping back in to influence our new habits. This is why past behaviour and habits are the strongest predictors of future behaviour.

The Role of Habits

We are constantly forming patterns of behaviour. It’s important that we do so in order to prevent us from having to consciously think about every single action or behaviour we undertake. This frees up an enormous amount of mental energy to make decisions about important things like what to watch on Netflix (jokes). Driving a car provides the perfect example of developing automated habits. If you think back to your first time behind the wheel, as a learner driver you were very deliberate about all of your actions and the sequence in which they occurred such as indicating, looking in their mirror, head checking, braking and turning. However, as the skill of driving is developed over time, as a seasoned driver you now undertake most of these actions automatically without conscious decision making. Now you can devote your attention to belting out a tune while looking around to see whether any fellow travellers have spotted you.

In the same way, eating behaviour can exist as a series of automated habits that are developed and reinforced over time. People become familiar with the types of foods they know they can prepare, the sensation of being satisfied or over-satisfied, where certain items are located in the supermarket that they like to buy and even the position they place them in their pantry at home. There are so many layers to the habits we form around our eating!

Have you ever walked to the pantry with your mind elsewhere and before you knew it you were about to put food in your mouth? I’ll take that as a yes. Even healthy foods can become a vice in this way. I love roasted almonds and recently I was beginning to develop the habit of taking a small handful from the jar every time I walked through the kitchen so I needed to move them to break the habit!

When combined with our biological impulses such as cravings we can experience for certain food types, patterns of behaviour can be very difficult to overcome. Changing a food choice behaviour is not always as simple as having the intention to do so or making a rational alternative decision. Items such as chocolate, caffeinated drinks, soft drink, alcohol and cigarettes contain substances which provide physiological stimuli that we learn to crave due to the short-term reward we receive from these substances.

Without “choice architecture,” the purposeful planning and design of the environment to support new desired choices and behaviours, it can be very difficult to overcome the desire to consume certain foods and control impulsive behaviour. Willpower alone is rarely enough. There are many environmental factors that reinforce the habit as we associate the environment, whether that be physical, social or emotional, with the behaviour. So, changing the behaviour usually involves deliberately changing the environment.

In the final part of this series I will take a deeper dive into the role of the various levels of our environment on our food choices. In the mean time, if you are serious about understanding why you eat what you eat and creating healthy change that lasts, take note of the following:

  1. It’s near impossible to change a behaviour without first understanding what’s influencing that behaviour and what patterns or habits lead to that behaviour.
  2. Past behaviour is the strongest predictors of future behaviour unless you have a deliberate plan to redesign the environment which leads to the decision or impulse to undertake that behaviour.
  3. Merely saying “I don’t want to overeat” or “I quit chocolate” will rarely be enough and are more likely to cause you to feel like a failure the next time you do overeat or gorge yourself on chocolate!

To finish on a side note, one of our biggest pitfalls when it comes to our diet is guilt we feel as a result of eating. I believe that the guilt you feel due to eating is just as harmful, if not more so, than what you are putting into your body. It’s time you developed a positive relationship with food!