We know that for many people diets do not work, and there are a range of physical and psychological reasons for this. One major problem for people who are trying to manage their weight and eating is that diets do not address the psychology of eating – that is, the reasons that you overeat in the first place. Until these reasons are identified, understood and properly addressed, it is unlikely that any diet or healthy eating plan can work long-term.
In uncovering the reasons why you eat, it may be helpful to identify the type of eater that you are. Researchers in the Netherlands have identified three different eating patterns: External Eating, Emotional Eating and Restrained Eating (the Dutch Eating Behaviour Questionnaire; van Strien, Frijters, Bergers & Defares, 1986). Once you can identify that type of eating pattern you have, you can tailor strategies to fit your style, rather than the one-size-fits-all approach of standard diets.
If food tastes good to you, do you eat more than usual? If you see or smell something delicious, do you have a desire to eat it? If you see others eating, do you also have the desire to eat? If you have something delicious to eat, do you eat is straight away?
External Eaters are likely to answer a resounding “Yes!” to these questions. For some, (and usually people who do not struggle with eating), the desire to eat is triggered by internal cues, such as the feeling of hunger or a grumbling tummy – but for an External Eater, the sight, smell or thought of food is enough to trigger eating, regardless of whether you are actually hungry. An External Eater is likely to face a battle with their inner food demons when walking past a bakery, if there is food out on a table or buffet, or if they remember that packet of Tim Tams in the pantry that suddenly starts to call their name.
Strategies might consist of managing your food environment differently – so not having the Tim Tams in the pantry to begin with, putting leftovers straight in containers in the fridge before sitting down to eat, or not walking down the confectionary aisle at all. Another strategy could be to mindfully pause before you eat and ask yourself “Am I eating because I’m hungry, or because I just feel like it?” The more often you pause, and the longer you pause, the more opportunity you have to do something differently.
Do you have the desire to eat when you have nothing to do? Do you have a desire to eat when someone lets you down? Do you have a desire to eat when you are…irritated, discouraged, lonely, or are approaching something unpleasant?
If this sounds like you, it could be that you eat in response to stress, negative emotions, or even positive emotions (i.e. using food as a reward). For you, just focussing on the food itself is not likely to be effective in the long run (you probably already know this). Until you find other ways of responding to your emotions, food is likely to continue to be your default strategy when the going gets tough. People become Emotional Eaters because it works. Food tastes good. Food can feel soothing and nurturing, and give you something to do, or to distract yourself with. I can quite honestly say that I would much rather have a piece of cheesecake than do my tax return. Most people at some point will have something yummy to cheer themself up – it becomes a problem when that is your only way of dealing with emotions or perhaps eating seems to stop you from having to feel anything at all.
Strategies for Emotional Eating involve learning to understand you emotional reactions, and respond to them without food. This could involve developing mindfulness skills to help you to “sit with” the feeling, or learning to have feelings without becoming overwhelmed by them. You might find therapy helpful in giving you the skills to so this.
Do you try to eat less at mealtimes than you would like to? Do you often refuse food because you are concerned about your weight? Do you watch exactly what you eat?
If you are a Restrained Eater you are probably aware that you are constantly watching what you eat, and feel as if you are on an endless diet. You may have periods of “being good”, but then slip up, which triggers an out-of-control cycle, after which you have to start all over again. You might have a range of different dress sizes in your wardrobe, which reflect whether you are in a ‘good’ or a ‘bad’ phase, and it is very difficult to find a happy medium.
For a Restrained Eater, strategies may involve addressing your relationship with food and dieting, and “all-or-nothing” thinking patterns which trigger the cycle. Paradoxically, the more you try to control your food intake, the more out-of-control you are likely to become. Strategies may involve uncovering the thought processes and emotional reactions you have to “being bad” so that they don’t end up in a binge.
What if they all apply to me?
You may feel as if you fit into all three categories. It is definitely possible to have features of more than one pattern going on, and this might explain why you continue to struggle with eating and your weight, and why standard approaches have failed you. Developing mindful awareness of your triggers and patterns will help you to unravel the mystery underlying your struggle – until you work with the why of eating, the struggle may continue.