The real reasons you can’t stick to a diet – and how to get past them: From childhood habits to emotions, a psychologist breaks down the classic culprits
- Our food behaviour stems back from the ‘food rules’ we learnt from our childhood
- How we eat is influenced by a range of factors from social pressures to our beliefs
- Food is not just about fuel for the body – ever since infancy, being fed is linked with emotion – feeling loved, cared for and soothed
- Dr Jen Nash, a food psychologist for wellness brand Healthspan and founder of EatingBlueprint, takes a look at what actually influences the way that we eat
The way we eat is heavily influenced by the teachings of our parents during childhood.
Basic table manners are ingrained into us as part of our upbringing meaning we adopt those that are important to our parent’s beliefs and habits and many of these habits form the basis of mindfulness techniques thought to help with weight management.
Food can act as an unspoken language in families, with parents showing their love and acceptance through their child behaving in the ‘right’ way around food.
Many clients I work with don’t realize how many ‘food rules’ they have inherited from parents.
They may feel discomfort and even anxiety when their efforts to lose weight encourage them to go against these rules, by leaving food on their plate for example.
This discomfort can cause them to revert to their default patterns of eating, and derail their weight loss efforts.
Childhood habits may impact how well we stick with a diet later in life
Mindfulness can help you start to become more conscious of the unconscious rules you are holding and notice that is your ‘inner child’ that’s feeling , say, the fear of mom’s criticism if you don’t finish your plate.
Becoming aware of these two sides, the ‘inner child’ that fears criticism, and the ‘inner adult’ who wants to lose weight in the here and now, makes it easier to see that while the inner child is trying to protect you, it has now been outgrown and can be let go of.’
The key driver for food choice is hunger but whilst the way we eat may be something of habit, what we choose to eat is much more complex and influenced by myriad of factors that can change from day-to-day.
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Temptation and social pressure
Temptation is seen as something negative and as far as food is concerned is often the Achilles heel of anyone trying to lose weight as being faced with your favourite food can often be too seductive to resist.
Our brains have evolved to have a ‘see food-eat food’ response from times when food was scarce, and that wiring hasn’t evolved to keep up with our food abundant environments.
People often tell me, ‘I’ve got no willpower’ when it comes to food, but I like to challenge this as a rather sneaky lie we tell ourselves.
All human beings show the skill of willpower in different areas of their lives (not stealing from others, getting to work even when we don’t feel like it, putting our kids’ needs first and so on), we just haven’t had the opportunity to translate the skill of willpower to the area of food. There are six steps to developing the skill of willpower that can be learned, practiced and mastered in the same way as other life skills we possess.’
This is also linked to social pressure and we have all been in the situation when friends talk us into ordering a dessert when out for dinner or that extra glass of wine in the pub.
Again, food can be an important way of communicating that we are similar to our peers and accepted – one of our most basic human needs.
Clients often benefit from developing assertiveness skills to say ‘no’ in a way that doesn’t alienate the other person. Well-meaning friends can subtly sabotage our efforts – often without really realizing. It may be threatening if you start to lose weight, because it may hold up a mirror to their need to make a change.
Habit, convenience and availability
Many of us stick to the same repertoire of dishes when it comes to deciding and most of us have certain foods that make their way into our shopping baskets week after week and this is often linked to convenience especially if you’re cooking for your family every day and have a busy life.
What we have access to also influences our food choices and the ability and desire to cook also plays a role in the food choices we make as cooking up a packet of fresh pasta with a cook-in-sauce may be your preference over a more time-consuming recipe.
Values and personal beliefs
Following a certain religion, supporting animal welfare or concerns about the environment are just a few values and personal beliefs that can impact on food choice.
This also extends to how much importance you put on nutrition and health, which may be due to your general outlook or a result of a diagnosis such as high blood pressure, high cholesterol or diabetes.
Those that view nutrition as a key priority are more likely to choose whole foods over processed and in a family setting see this as an important value to educate their children with.
This is an obvious driver for food choice and even though the money put aside for food is often the only part of the monthly budget that can be tweaked, it doesn’t mean that you have to eat an unhealthy diet.
Early economic factors also play a part.
Growing up in a low-income family and experiencing a lot of physical hunger in childhood can result in a drive to always have plenty of desirable food around – to never again experience that sense of not having enough to eat.
Again, getting conscious that this is at play is the key aspect to changing it.
We are all heavily influenced by the way we feel and this translates into food choice.
Depression, anxiety and stress can work in two ways, causing us to skip meals or reach for foods that make us feel better and these are often linked to nostalgia and childhood as we reach for sweet foods that make us feel good and comforted.
Food has never just been about fuel for the body – ever since infancy, being fed is linked with feeling loved, cared for and soothed.
Young people have a limited number of ways they can deal with emotions
As we grow into childhood and adolescence, food can become a shortcut for dealing with life experiences that are difficult to ‘digest’ – abuse, trauma, grief, bullying and many others.
Young people have a limited number of ways they can deal with emotions.
If parents show discomfort at the expression tears, anger and other high emotion, or prematurely shut down the child’s authentic expression of these, eating can become a much needed friend that helps the young person through.
Unfortunately, this is not such as great thing as in adulthood this can lead to a vicious cycle of weight gain and guilt.
Whilst the food choices you make may be transient depending on how flush you are, how you’re feeling or the time you have to cook, our preference for a particular taste is generally more consistent and is translated into the choices we make.
Tastes can be divided into four classic groups that are salty, sweet, sour and bitter but a preference for spicy tastes could also be included.
The way a food taste also influences the food choices we make and more widely the true flavor experience involves other factors such as strength, smell, texture, temperature and color or even the sound a food makes when eaten, which can also impact on what someone chooses to eat.
Even though meals are usually made up of a combination of tastes we all tend to have a preference for one in particular that we are drawn to and others that turn us off certain foods.
Our preference for certain tastes may also have something to say about the type of person we are.
Is it just a coincidence that words describing our major food tastes also express personality characteristics?
Research would say no and those we know who are ‘sweet’, ‘bitter’ or ‘sour’ may describe their food preferences as much as their temperament’.
Dr Alan Hirsch, a neurologist and psychiatrist at the Smell and Taste Foundation in Chicago has been conducting research on ’embodied metaphors’, linking tastes with personality characteristics.
Dr Hirsch reports that the food we choose can reveal our inner thoughts and feelings.
Eating preferences are driven by primal needs, and there are five distinct tastes that we can distinguish via our taste buds.
When we have all five of these tastes included in a meal, we are more likely to feel ‘complete’ i.e. truly satiated, when we’ve finished.
But many of us distinctly prefer some tastes over others, and research suggests it may be because these are subtle ways of expressing aspects of our personality’.
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