Prepared by Mosadi Brown

Change Your Relationship with Food

Environmental Cues

Did you know that our environment is a strong influencer in why we eat the way we do?

We pick up cues from our environment that are determinants to our eating behaviours.

These environmental cues can lead to problematic eating.

There are ten common environmental influences to eating behaviours:

  1. We live in a fast paced world and it is easy to...
    • Eat at your desk at work
    • Dashboard dine (eat in your vehicle)
    • Eat in front of the tv or computer
    • Eat while you are doing other things like cooking, cleaning, or shopping
  2. We expect a lot from ourselves and this can put a lot of pressure on you as multiple demands are placed on you simultaneously.
    • A high level of stress can affect our eating habits!
  3. Food is readily available!
    • It is rare to drive down the street without seeing a sign for a fast food restaurant or convenience store.
    • It is easy to grab and go not so healthy options at the mall
    • There is food onsite at gas stations
    • Often - food samples are given at pharmacies, clothing stores, and department stores
  4. Persuasive marketing and advertising makes food big business.
    • Food marketing is a powerful influence to our eating habits
    • Food marketing can be a strong challenge to our will power
    • Free samples, coupons, bonuses (eg. 2 for 1), sales all influence what we buy
    • A play on words is common in marketing to increase sales and may even be misleading.  For example an advertised diet or recommendation may not be the same as a recommended healthy diet or healthy eating.
  5. Packaging and food storage is another influencer to eating behaviours.
    • If you have a lot of storage space - you can store more food.
    • This is important in North America because we tend to grocery shop once per week.
    • Whereas in Europe, it is more common to shop daily (and typically they have less room for  food storage).
    • A study showed that when packages are doubled in size people eat up to 25% more at meals and up to 45% more at snacks.  The more we buy the more we consume. 
  6. We have lots of food choices these days.
    • For just about every food - there are varieties upon varieties to select from.
    • A study was done using chocolate candies.  One bowl was all of the same colour for the candies - the other bowl had multiple colours for the candies.  People ate 43% more from the bowl containing multi-coloured candies compared to the one that contained all of the same colour.
    • Same idea when we go to a buffet - we tend to eat more because of all of the choices!
  7. Food pricing - influences our eating habits.
    • Having deals on signs such as 2 for 1 or buy 3 get 1 free can persuade you to purchase more even if you don't need to!
    • Another common one is at fast food places - picking up 2 slices of pizza costs less than buying 1 slice only.  Or 2 for 1 chocolate bars when you go to pay for gas.
  8. Food is readily accessible.  I had a client who binged on jelly beans.  We did a 2 week experiment where she kept the jelly beans in the kitchen instead of right beside her in the living room while she was watching tv.  After 2 weeks not only did she break the habit of binging on jelly beans every night after getting home from work - she also discovered that she doesn't even like jelly beans!  Just not having them beside her within reach gave her that awareness.  So ask yourself:
    • Do you have a stash of snacks in your desk drawer or vehicle?
    • Are there snacks sitting in your staff lunch room?
    • Do you do hobbies or paperwork at your kitchen table at home?
  9. Super large portions - our food portions keep growing.
    • Muffins have turned into mini cakes
    • Bagels have an average of 4 servings of bread
    • Sandwiches have grown to foot long subs
    • Theatre popcorn has grown from an average of 2 cups in the 50s to 21 cups - and if you buy the jumbo bucket, you get free refills!
    • Our beverage portions have become so large that auto manufacturers have had to make bigger cup holders.
  10. Optical illusions - our eyes can play tricks on us.  The size of our plates, utensils, and glasses can influence how much we eat.
    • A person will commonly pour more of a beverage in a short and wide glass compared to a tall and skinny glass.  In fact, bartenders will typically pour 25-30% more liquor into a shorter wider glass compared to a tall skinny glass.
    • Plates in restaurants and at home are larger.  It is common to underestimate how much we eat if the portion of food appears smaller on a larger plate.
    • The size of a serving spoon can also trick you into estimating accurately how much the serving size is.

It is no wonder that our environment can strongly challenge adopting healthy eating habits!  It is important to be aware of how we are personally influenced by our environment.

Eating Self-Awareness

What can I do?

Be conscientious of your environmental cues.

In the next week or two - pull your awareness to all of your senses and see how many of these factors you notice that influence or prompt you to eat.  Write them down for your own records!

Identify the type of hunger you are experiencing.

There are three types of hunger

Stomach hunger is the physical need for food.  It's been between 4-6 hours, your stomach is growling, and it is time to eat.  You are eating to nourish your body.

Mouth hunger is a food craving.  This is when you are looking for a food with a certain flavour or texture such as salty, crunchy chips, or creamy and sweet - and you reach for the ice cream.

Heart hunger is when you are eating because of your emotions or how you are feeling mentally.  It can also refer to a learned behaviour around food or eating.

What can I do?

Take a day and ask yourself - am I experiencing stomach hunger, mouth hunger, or heart hunger?

You will be amazed at how much your self-awareness increases!

HALT - Before Eating 

HALT is another way to increase self-awareness of eating triggers.

H - Hungry, Hurt, Hopeless, Hyper, Happy

A - Angry, Anxious, Apathetic

L - Lonely, Lousy, Lethargic

T - Tired, Ticked Off, Tense

Consider the Circumstances

You may notice that it is when you are with certain people, in particular situations, or when specific events occur that you are more likely to eat problematically.

Sometimes these circumstances can lead to difficult feelings such as anxiety, anger, boredom, sadness which can trigger eating.

Reflect and ask yourself - do you have trouble eating when you are:

  • Around certain people
  • Dealing with a family member
  • Being criticized
  • Feeling rushed
  • Working in the kitchen
  • Celebrating a special occasion
  • Driving
  • Dealing with a certain co-worker
  • Working on the computer
  • Watching tv or a movie
  • Dealing with health issues
  • Just getting home
  • On vacation
  • Visiting a relative's home
  • Getting ready for, or in, bed
  • By yourself
  • Shopping
  • Studying
  • Eating away from home
  • Dealing with money issues
  • Saying 'no' in a difficult situation
  • Cleaning up

This exercise can be particularly effective for people who find it difficult to identify their emotions.

Emotions Inventory

Ask yourself - "Am I really hungry, or do I just want to change the way that I feel?"

There are many ways to feel from abandoned to angry to defensive to moody to serene to happy to isolated, you name it!

Take some time to identify your feelings before and after an uncomfortable eating episode.  Write them down or check them off of a worksheet before and then again immediately after the problematic eating took place.

This is helpful especially when eating is used to disconnect from uncomfortable feelings.

Once emotional triggers are identified such as in a journal or worksheet you can adopt strategies to change your thoughts and behaviours to help reduce the occurrence of these emotions.

You can also learn to manage these feelings without food especially with your heightened self-awareness.

Change Strategy

Ready to take positive action?  Nurture yourself in ways that do not involve food.  Write down ways that you like to unwind, do something pleasant for yourself, and/or ways that you nurture yourself.  Cross off the items that involve food.  Give yourself a non-food reward with the remaining items on the list that you created.

Remember that it takes 21 days to break a habit - steady progress toward your goal is the best approach and take good care of yourself along the way.




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