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Changing Eating Behavior

Just as important as what you eat is how you eat. There are three different aspects of eating behavior that affect the development of lifestyle diseases:

  1. Sensitivity to external signals, such as aromas of food

  2. Ability to limit your eating

  3. Emotional eating

Because these aspects need to be approached in different ways, it’s important to be aware of what is most urgent to focus on.

A study recently investigated how these aspects of eating behavior are influenced by people’s fundamental motivation.1 The researchers assumed that people strive to avoid negative conditions and foster positive ones. In some individuals the desire to avoid negative conditions (called avoidance behavior) dominates. In others the desire to promote positive conditions is strongest (called promotive behavior).

Avoiding negative conditions or promoting positive conditions?

For individuals with avoidance behavior, safety and security are central. If they reach their goals – to avoid risks – they experience calm and harmony. Magnetic camera investigation of the brain has even shown that brain activity in these persons increases tangibly with negative information.2

On the other hand, persons with promotive behavior get increased brain activity with positive information instead. Their goals revolve around new possibilities, performance and ambitions (social or professional).1

Where do you stand on the scale between avoidance and promotive behavior?

Studies have shown striking differences in eating behavior depending on whether avoidance or promoting dominates.1 This can also provide clues on how you can best influence your own eating behavior.

In persons with promotive behavior eating habits are more often governed by external signals, and they are attracted even more strongly by odors, tastes, colors and food that provides new impressions and enjoyment. The risk naturally is that there will be too much of a good thing.

Pizza can be a strong temptation

These individuals are often motivated more by thinking about the benefits of new health habits, such as increased well-being, better stamina or new experiences of nature, than avoiding health risks.1 Fruits or vegetables can be attractive new goals, and the immediate environment may need to be cleared from tempting junk food that gives strong signals. Preparing food yourself may mean that you eat less because the odors during cooking stimulate satiation.3 Eating slowly and really taking in the tastes also contribute to smaller portions (and more enjoyment).

Individuals with avoidance behavior, on the other hand, more often demonstrate emotional eating.1 Eating can become a way to avoid negative emotions and instead focus on the immediate satisfaction of food or sweets.4

Studies show that eating behavior is not influenced very much by emotions in themselves but instead by how emotions are handled. Someone who suppresses negative emotions may have short-term relief, but risks experiencing long-term difficulties in the form of reinforced emotional eating, low well-being or depressive complaints.4

Man at a cafe

An effective method to cope with emotional eating is to try to accept your feelings and observe them from outside, as if at a distance, in order to more easily be able to reassess and see them in a greater perspective.4 Mindfulness and meditation have also been shown to reduce emotional eating, simply through accepting and getting distance to emotions instead of suppressing them.5

What can you adopt for yourself from these studies?6 It may be worth thinking about your general eating behavior and how it interacts with life as a whole. Through getting to know ourselves better we can also better tackle our health habits.

How can you change your eating behavior?

References

  1. Pfattheicher S et al., Front Psychol. 20;5:1314, 2014

  2. Cunningham, WA et al., Cognitive, Affective, & Behavioral Neuroscience 5: 202, 2005

  3. [In Swedish: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=zoTNrbGjTd4]

  4. Evers, C. et al., Pers. Soc. Psychol. Bull. 36, 792–804, 2010

  5. Alberts, HJ et al., Appetite 58, 847– 851, 2012

  6. The aspect of eating behavior that deals with the ability to limit your eating has no clear connection to promoting or avoidance behavior, but it does have to weight. Persons with high BMI often focus on this aspect.

More to come

We are about to launch the full English version of the Swedish medical university initiative, PriusHealth, providing daily thought-provoking questions to unlock how you relate to yourself, to others, the larger us, as the way to improve your health.

Available both as an open website and a full guided program, it will be launched summer 2017. If you would like us to keep you informed of its launch and thereby get free access to more content, then click here.

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