Diet is a 4-Letter Word

The psychology of eating

Tired of Dieting?

Try intuitive eating

Remember when you were two?

Me neither, but pictures of that time of my life show me smiling, laughing and eating an ice cream cone while wearing a bikini and standing in my baby pool. That was long before I knew that ice cream was 'fattening' or that you had to look a certain way to wear a bikini, and eating ice cream wasn't the best way to achieve that look.  

I'm not sure when it happened for me, but research suggests that somewhere between the ages of 2 and 5, most of us lose our ability to eat healthily and naturally on our own. Rather than listening to what our bodies are telling us that we need, we learn to eat for:

  • Social reasons (e.g., birthday parties)
  • Emotional reasons (e.g., having a bad day)
  • Sensory reasons (e.g., passing a bakery and you have to go in even though you just ate lunch) 

Over time, we begin to ignore internal cues (i.e., hunger), and pay attention to external cues (i.e., taste, smell, variety; especially high fat and/or high sugar foods). In fact, 30-50% of us engage in unconscious or ‘mindless’ eating on a fairly regular basis and all of us have done so at one time or another. This can cause “conditioned hypereating” and make you twice as likely to be overweight. Or we make 'rules' about what we should and should not eat to look a certain way. Or because we think our way of eating is 'correct.' I certainly fell into this latter category.  As a result, many of us start to view food as the enemy. We forget the way we used to eat with joyful abandon. And instead food becomes not fuel for our bodies, but something we think we should have control over - or alternatively, feel that food controls us. 

According to Evelyn Tribole and Elyse Resch, this alters our relationship with food in such a way that we form different types of eating personalities.  

  1. Careful Eaters - very aware of and pay attention to what they put in their bodies. On the outside, they seem to be “perfect” eaters, as they are very nutrition-conscious. However, if you look closer, you’ll see someone who: Displays agony about every bite of food allowed into their bodyCarefully analyze food labels for ingredients, fat grams, and calories – or carbs depending on which ‘diet’ they are on right nowAsk the waitstaff numerous questions about nutrition content and preparation before ordering a meal 
  2. Professional Dieter - constantly dieting. They know a lot about portions, calories, and dieting, but they are constantly diet because dieting has never worked for them. Their eating choices tend to be based on losing weight not health. If they are not currently on a diet, they are anticipating their next diet. Because they tend to label foods as ‘good’ or ‘bad,’ they often binge eat or partake in Last Supper eating when a forbidden food is eaten. They feel like they have to “eat now” because they cannot eat these foods tomorrow when they start their diet, so it’s their ‘last chance.’ 
  3. Unconscious (Mindless) Eater - The unconscious or mindless eater engages in paired eating: eating while doing another activity. Tribole and Resch in their book Intuitive Eating break mindless eating into 4 categories: 
  • The Chaotic Unconscious Eater - very busy people. They usually have an overbooked life and will eat whatever is available. They recognize that nutrition and diet is important but they don’t have time to focus on it. They may go long periods of times without eating due to their hectic schedule. So when they do eat, they often over eat because their bodies are deprived of calories and nutrition. 
  • The Refuse-Not Unconscious Eater - very vulnerable to the presence of food, whether they are hungry or not. If food is lying around at meetings, candy dishes, or on a counter, it will be gone in no time flat!  Most of the time they don’t realize they are eating or the quantity of food they are consuming. Thus, social events centered around food are problematic because they will mindlessly over eat passed the point of satiety. 
  • The Waste-Not Unconscious Eater - often grew up in poverty or in a nutrition-deficient household. They focus on the monetary value of food and are driven by getting as much food as possible for their money. As a result, they will clean their plate and possibly others, so as not to waste any food. 
  • The Emotional Unconscious Eater - uses food as their primary coping mechanism, especially when they have to deal with uncomfortable emotions, such as stress, anger, and loneliness. Their ‘coping’ ranges from eating a single candy bar to chronic binge eating.  

Now that you know what problems you may have with food, it’s time to focus on what to do about it. According to Tribole and Resch, there are 10 steps to recovering a healthy relationship with food.

They call these the 9 principles of intuitive eating. 

  1. Stop dieting attitudes and behaviors – restricting your food intake sets you up for mindless eating because you are so hungry
  2. Honor your hunger and fullness – relearn what it feels like when you’re hungry and when you’re full
  3. Make friends with food – there are no ‘bad’ foods and labeling foods as ‘off-limits’ only makes you want them more
  4. Challenge those who question your eating habits (even yourself) – Say no to grandma’s seconds and ignore the nay sayers who ask “are you going to eat THAT?”
  5. Respect your fullness - if you’re hungry, eat; if you’re full, stop.
  6. Enjoy your food – that’s right. Taste it. Savor every bite. Wolfing down your food leads to overeating because your brain doesn’t realize it’s had enough to eat.
  7. Learn more appropriate coping skills – food is your friend, but it is not the solution to all of your problems.
  8. Respect yourself and your body – learn to love yourself and your body as it is now. Only then will your body work with you to lose that unwanted extra weight.
  9. Get out there and move – ‘Exercise’ is a loaded word, so let’s use play or movement. Just get out there and do something you enjoy that gets your body moving every day.
  10. Honor your health – By all means, if your doctor has put you on a special diet for a medical condition, follow it; but also do your own research and learn as much about your condition and how to maintain optimal health. 

What step will you take today to repair your relationship with food? 

Mary E. Pritchard, Ph.D., is a professor in the Department of Psychology at Boise State University.

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