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Global Network

For Immediate Release: October 15, 2009

NN: The Reasons We Eat

Nutrition Notes
Week of November 2, 2009
Contact: Alice Bender, (202) 328-7744

The Reasons We Eat

Karen Collins, MS, RD, CDN
American Institute for Cancer Research

Classifying the influences on our eating habits is the subject of two recent studies of two very different groups. One study focuses on overweight, low-income, recently post-partum U.S. women, the other on middle-aged European women. The categories identified in these studies are also all supported by research in a wide range of populations and provide a useful structure to help us evaluate our eating habits and identify specific targets for attention.

Convenience (easy access to prepared food and snacks) was a top link to overweight in the U.S. study, and numerous studies demonstrate that access to food has a profound influence on our eating. For example, when a dish of candy is on someone’s desk, he or she eats more than when a lid hides the candy or when it is on a nearby surface that requires getting up to get the candy.

You can make food less readily available by keeping serving bowls of food off the table, storing sweets in cabinets rather than out on counters or tables and limiting the amount of high-calorie processed snack foods you bring home. Break habits of automatically buying cookies or snacks when you stop at convenience stores, stand in the grocery checkout lane or stop for coffee. Choose restaurants that offer reasonable portions and healthy options rather than all-you-can-eat-buffets.

Emotional eating, a major link to overweight and overeating in both recent studies, includes eating when sad, bored, restless or anxious. In yet another study , those who said they were most likely to eat in response to emotions and least confident about being able to control this eating were over 13 times more likely to be overweight or obese than those who reported the least emotional eating and most confidence about control over it.

Some research suggests eating in response to negative emotions can be a comfort, a way of “swallowing” feelings instead of expressing them or a distraction from worries seemingly too great to handle. Depending on the type and degree of difficulty people have with this, they might read about or take classes in problem-solving or stress-avoidance, work with a registered dietitian trained to include coping skills or seek referral to a mental health professional.

Inappropriate Restraint was a third major factor tied to excess weight in both of these recent studies of women and weight. Restraint seems to have two different faces, since it has been linked with lower calorie consumption and lower weight, but also with weight gain and overweight. The European study of middle-aged women adds important insight by differentiating between the two types of restraint. Rigid restraint involves strict eating rules and a downside that it may promote binge eating once you break a rule. It was linked with greater short-term weight loss, but after two years was unrelated to weight. However, flexible restraint, a habit of moderate self-regulation and compensation for occasional high-calorie choices, was one of the strongest predictors of weight loss at two years.

To encourage flexible restraint while avoiding over-rigid rules, experts urge us to create stable eating habits to meet nutritional and hunger needs without fostering a sense of deprivation. The Center for Mindful Eating recommends mindful eating that honors our food and our body’s hunger signals, portions that make sense and attitudes free of depriving rules and unrealistic expectations.

A fourth major influence on weight in the study of middle-aged women – confidence in one’s ability to continue healthy physical activity – reminds us that weight control involves more than our eating habits. Factors other than those listed here, such as norms in your friends and family, undoubtedly influence eating choices, too. But these three factors provide a good start in finding one or more influences likely to play an important role in your efforts to eat healthfully.


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