3 strategies to find your way back to a peaceful relationship with food.
It’s one thing to know in theory why certain foods are so easy to over-consume, but it’s even more valuable to discover for yourself how food processing, certain ingredient combinations, marketing, and even easy accessibility affect you and your food choices.
So, it’s time to get a little nerdy, try some experiments, and learn some strategies that will help you improve your relationship with food, get healthier, and just feel more sane.
1. Get curious about the foods you eat.
We’ve established that processed foods are designed to be easy to eat.
For a food to be “easy to eat”, it has to be:
- broken down easily (less chewing), and
- low volume (doesn’t take up much physical space).
Less chewing + Low volume = More eating
Chewing takes time. The more we have to chew something, the longer it takes us to eat, giving our fullness signals a chance to catch up.
That feeling of “fullness” matters a lot too.
When you eat, your stomach expands. It’s partly through that sensation of pressure that your body knows you’ve had enough. Processed foods deliver a lot of calories without taking up much space, meaning you can eat a lot before you realize you’ve overdone it.
Experiment #1: Observe as you chew.
Yup, that’s right. I want you to count your chews.
Note: Don’t do this forever. We’re not trying to turn you into the weirdo who no one wants to sit next to at the lunch table. Just try it as an experiment to get some data about how you eat different foods.
First, eat a whole food—a vegetable, fruit, whole grain, lean protein, whatever—and count how many chews you take per mouthful. How long does it take to eat an entire portion of that food? How satiated do you feel afterward? Do you want to eat more?
Then, next time you eat something processed, count how many chews you take per mouthful. How long does it take to eat that serving of pasta, chips, or cookies? How satiated do you feel afterward? Do you want to eat more?
Make some comparisons and notice the differences. Contrast how long eating each of these foods takes you, how satiated you feel after eating each of them, and how much you want to keep eating.
How will you use that information to make food choices moving forward?
2. Notice the messages you’re getting about food.
Food manufacturers use creative marketing strategies to imply processed foods are healthy. And even if you know they’re not, they have other ways of getting you to buy them.
Here’s an example:
Ever notice that the produce section is the first area you pass through in grocery stores?
Grocery stores have found that if they put the produce section first, you’re more likely to purchase processed foods.
Experiment #2: Evaluate your pantry.
In this experiment, you’ll examine the foods you have in your home and the messages you’ve been given about them.
Note: Keep in mind that this is a mindful awareness activity. You’re not doing this to judge yourself or feel shame about the food choices you’ve made.
Look at your pantry with curious (and more informed) eyes.
Step 1: Look for “health halo” foods.
Step 2: Read the nutritional information.
Step 3: Count how many varieties of junk foods you have.
You’ll be more aware of the particular types of marketing you’re susceptible to, which you can use to make more informed food choices.
You’ll also have a better idea of which treat foods you prefer, and by reducing the variety of them in your home, you’ll cut down on opportunities to overeat.
3. Look for patterns.
We often use food for reasons other than physical nourishment.
Habits are powerful, for better or for worse. They can work for us or against us.
Luckily, we have control over this.
All it takes is a little time and an understanding of how habits get formed.
Experiment #3: Put the science of habits to work.
If you want to break the habit of overeating, you can use this trigger, behavior, and reward loop to your advantage. Here’s how.
Step 1: identify your triggers.
To differentiate overeating from binge eating, keep in mind that binge eating feels disassociated, out of control, hard to stop, and usually comes with feelings of shame and guilt.
Step 2: Find a new behavior in response to your trigger(s).
Step 3: Practice.
Every time a trigger pops up that compels you to eat, replace eating with a healthy feel-good behavior.
Repeat this loop until the new behavior becomes a habit that’s just as automatic as reaching for the jar of peanut butter used to be.