Recognize the challenges
It isn’t easy to adopt an approach to healthy eating that’s sustainable for the long haul. After all, it takes more than knowing which foods are best to eat and how much to eat at any given time. While eating is essential for survival, it can also be an inherently enjoyable activity.
However, we live in a world where highly palatable packaged and ultra-processed foods are plentiful and ubiquitous. Food companies specifically formulate these foods in a way to hit the taste buds’ “bliss point,” which refers to the perfect combination of added salt, sugar and fat that keeps consumers craving more.
With these foods, “our bodies struggle to regulate themselves, which makes it harder to hit the brakes on eating,” says Ashley Gearhardt, a professor of psychology and director of the Food and Addiction Science and Treatment Lab at the University of Michigan in Ann Arbor.
That’s why it’s important to understand the psychology of eating, including what drives your personal eating behavior. Then, you can use these insights to train your mind to adopt healthy eating habits as a way of life.
The elements of eating
When it comes to healthy eating, one of the hot concepts these days is intuitive eating, a practice that encourages people to tune out external messaging (from diet culture and the like) and tune into their body’s signals. That means giving yourself full permission to eat when you’re hungry and to eat what you want to eat.
“Intuitive eating involves trusting your body to make food choices that feel good to you without judgment,” says Rachel Goldman, a clinical psychologist in New York City and a clinical assistant professor of psychiatry at the NYU Grossman School of Medicine.
This way, you can eat foods you enjoy until you feel satisfied, not stuffed, and feel good about the way you’re eating. In fact, a 2022 study published in the American Journal of Health Promotion found that women who scored higher in measures of intuitive eating tend to have lower psychological distress, body mass index and disordered eating patterns, compared to those with other eating profiles.
Pinpoint your patterns
Before you try to change a particular eating habit, you need to know what exactly you’re dealing with. That’s why psychologist John Foreyt, a professor emeritus of medicine at Baylor College of Medicine, recommends keeping a food journal or diary that tracks when you eat healthfully and when you don’t. This will help you to become more mindful of your eating habits and identify differences in your state of mind and circumstances between the two patterns.
“Then, you can develop a strategy to deal with the psychology of eating, rather than the eating itself,” he says.
“Once you develop self-efficacy — believing you’re in charge of your life — it becomes easier to stick with healthy eating habits,” Foreyt says.
A May 2023 study published in the journal Nutrition found that people who engage in meditation practices have reduced dysfunctional eating behaviors and negative emotions. That’s a double victory!
Consider your values
If you want to make specific changes to your eating habits, think about what you value, then link that to the choices you’re trying to make, suggests Kathryn Ross, an associate professor of clinical and health psychology at the University of Florida in Gainesville.
“Understand who or how you want to be as a person and apply that to your choices,” Ross suggests.
Making this connection can motivate you to act in accordance with what you value and improve your eating habits in the process.
Think of food as fuel
You’d try not to put low-quality fuel in a luxury car you own on a regular basis, so why not treat your body the same way? Focus on nourishing yourself with delicious, nutritious foods — like lean protein (such as chicken and fish), healthy fats (including nuts and seeds), fruits, vegetables and whole grains (like oats and quinoa) — and refuel with a meal or snack every three to five hours during your waking hours. You’ll give your body and mind what they need to thrive.
“The idiom that you are what you eat has a lot of truth to it,” Gearhardt says.
“It can be hard to feel like your best self when you’re giving your body foods that don’t really nourish it,” Gearhardt adds.
If you want your own brand of proof, she recommends thinking about how you feel after eating certain foods versus others: Do you feel energized? Satisfied? If not, you may want to tinker with your choices.
Focus on the act of eating
Whether you’re having a meal or a snack, hit the pause button on all other activities so you can eat without distractions. Slow down and tune into the flavors, textures and aromas of what you’re eating. That way, you can maximize your enjoyment and honor your body’s satiety signals. These are key elements of “mindful eating — being fully aware of the experience of eating,” Goldman says.
“When you use all your senses to experience what’s in your mouth and you slow down and fully chew the food, you will feel satisfied sooner,” she adds.
Indeed, a 2022 study in the journal Eating and Weight Disorders found that the practice of mindful eating is associated with less emotional eating and less uncontrolled eating.
Banish food guilt
When you make yourself feel guilty for eating a cookie or a piece of chocolate cake, you may be setting yourself up for a pattern of unhealthy eating habits and lower levels of perceived control over your eating when you’re under stress, according to research. As a result, the guilt trip can dampen your enjoyment of the food.
“Labeling foods as ‘good’ or ‘bad’ is a form of all-or-nothing thinking, which is a cognitive distortion,” Goldman notes. “It’s unhelpful.”
Instead of thinking about foods this way, remind yourself that any food that is medically safe for you to eat deserves a place in your eating plan, suggests Vivienne Hazzard, a registered dietitian and postdoctoral fellow at the University of Minnesota School of Public Health. This is true even when it comes to processed foods — that is, if they’re consumed in moderation.
“Allow yourself the freedom to include all foods in your diet, and focus on enjoyment,” she says. “Think about: Is this a food I enjoy? If it is, it brings something good to your life.”
In fact, a 2022 study published in the journal Health Psychology Open found that positive psychology constructs like these are associated with eating healthfully, fewer negative emotions and other healthy behaviors related to diet — all of which point to a healthy upward spiral.
5 tips for practicing intuitive eating:
— Pinpoint your patterns.
— Consider your values.
— Think of food as fuel.
— Focus on the act of eating.
— Banish food guilt.
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Update 09/25/23: This story was previously published at an earlier date and has been updated with new information.