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Understanding Behavioral Eating and How to Improve It

Eating behaviors refer to the habits, attitudes, and relationships we have with food and eating. Our behaviors around food are complex and influenced by many interrelated factors. When these behaviors become problematic, it can negatively impact health and wellbeing. Behavioral eating describes a pattern of eating that is driven more by emotions, situations, and habits rather than physiological cues like hunger and fullness. It often involves eating for reasons other than fueling your body.

Some common types of behavioral eating include:

  • Emotional eating: Eating to cope with or soothe difficult emotions like stress, anxiety, sadness, boredom, anger, etc. Food is used as a coping mechanism.
  • External eating: Eating in response to food cues in the environment rather than internal hunger and fullness cues. This could include eating when you smell something delicious, see food ads, or have appetizing food readily available even if you’re not hungry.
  • Binge eating: Consuming unusually large amounts of food in a short period of time accompanied by feeling out of control over eating. This differs from overeating due to extreme hunger.

While behavioral eating can sometimes feel instinctive and automatic, the good news is it often develops from learned habits. This means with increased self-awareness, conscious effort, and practice of new skills, more balanced eating patterns can be achieved.

What Causes Behavioral Eating?

Behavioral eating is complex with many interwoven causes. Key factors that can contribute to behavioral eating include:

Genetic and biological factors

Research shows our genetics, hormone signals, and brain circuitry involved with reward and regulation of food intake play a role. Those with a family history of disordered eating patterns may be predisposed.

Early life experiences

Our early experiences with food and caregivers’ modeling shape our relationships and habits with eating from a young age. Those who experienced food scarcity or instability may carry strong food preoccupations.

Emotional coping

Many turn to food to cope with difficult emotions and life stressors in the absence of other coping skills. This reinforces the wiring of using food to self-soothe. Unresolved trauma and adverse experiences also raise risks.

Sociocultural influences

Messages we absorb from media, families, and societies about food, health, and bodies impact our body image, eating attitudes and behaviors. Diet culture promoting restriction and weight stigma also contribute.

Situational cues

Environmental cues like the smell, sight and convenience of food in our homes, workplaces and communities can unconsciously trigger eating outside of hunger. Things like screens, activities, and social situations can also prompt eating.

Habit

Eating patterns develop over our lifetimes through learned habits and repeated reinforcement. The more we eat for emotional or external reasons, the more this pathway is strengthened in our brains. It can become habitual and feel automatic.

With many intersecting causes, there is no single culprit for behavioral eating. It develops from a combination of biological, psychological and social/environmental factors.

Risks and Impact of Behavioral Eating

Left unchecked over time, behavioral eating patterns pose risks:

  • Weight gain & obesity: Emotional & external eating is linked with higher calorie intake and fat mass
  • Poor nutrition: Behavioral eating often involves intake of more nutrient-poor, highly processed foods high in sugar, fat and salt rather than whole, nutritious foods.
  • Disordered eating risk: Binge, emotional and external eating put one at higher risk of developing a clinical eating disorder.
  • Mental health issues: Bidirectional links exist between eating disorders, depression, anxiety and substance abuse. Those with mental health conditions have higher rates of behavioral eating8.
  • Chronic diseases: Obesity resulting from behavioral eating raises risks for heart disease, stroke, cancer, diabetes and more. Diet quality also impacts disease risk.

Beyond physical health, behavioral eating can negatively impact:

  • Self-esteem and body image: Guilt, shame and feeling “out of control” often accompany overeating episodes, fueling body dissatisfaction.
  • Quality of life: Preoccupation with food and body weight as well as dieting efforts can impair ability to be present and engaged in work, relationships and leisure.
  • Financial cost: Binge episodes on expensive carry-out meals or “comfort foods” add up, especially if frequent. Many spend excessively trying diet fixes.

In summary, behavioral eating tendencies often start small but when left unchecked can escalate over time, leading to significant physical, mental and social consequences. Early awareness and intervention is key to shifting habits.

Strategies to Improve Behavioral Eating

Transforming deep-rooted eating habits requires patience, self-compassion and commitment. It rarely happens overnight. However lasting change IS possible through research-backed strategies. Here are the main approaches:

1. Build Self-Awareness

Noticing behavior-eating patterns and triggers as they happen raises consciousness of habits we might be blind to on auto-pilot. Useful practices include:

Hunger-fullness checks: Check in periodically with your hunger level on a 1-10 scale. Notice if you’re eating according to physical rather than emotional cues.

Food & mood journaling: Jot down what you ate, portions, hunger levels before/after, emotions and situations. Patterns will emerge. 

Mindful eating: Slow down and pay close attention to sights, smells, flavors, textures and your internal hunger/fullness cues throughout each meal. Notice if you have a tendency to overeat past comfortable fullness.

Identify triggers: Reflect on your journal to pinpoint people, places, feelings and situations that frequently trigger behavioral eating like arriving home, feeling lonely or passing by the ice cream shop.

2. Address Emotional Drivers

It’s important to develop healthy coping strategies for stress and difficult emotions rather than use food to numb, distract or avoid. Useful approaches include:

Counseling: Working with a counselor or therapist can help identify and resolve root causes of turning to food like childhood wounds, unresolved grief or trauma. Finding healthy outlets to meet emotional needs is key.

Meditation & mindfulness: Taking time to tune into the present moment rather than being caught up worrying over the future or regretting the past can alleviate anxiety, rumination and depression. Over 15,000 studies show meditation boosts mental health and reduces emotional eating tendencies. 

Stress management: It’s key to have healthy everyday stress relief outlets in place before urges to emotionally eat strike like taking a walk, calling a friend, practicing yoga, listening to music or journaling. Discover go-to strategies that lift your mood.

Self-care: Carving out time for enjoyable hobbies, relationships and restorative activities gives life meaning and joy beyond food. Make self-care a priority, not a chore.

3. Modify Problematic Thoughts

Our interpretation of situations influences emotions which drive behaviors. Common unhelpful thoughts that encourage behavioral eating include 10:

  • Black and white thinking: “I already blew my diet by overeating at lunch, might as well continue eating junk food today and start fresh tomorrow.”
  • Catastrophizing: “Gaining a few pounds over the holidays is terrible. My weight is out of control!”
  • Should statements: “I should never waste food. I need to finish everything on my plate.”
  • Overgeneralization: “I’ll always be addicted to sugar. This is hopeless.”

Some strategies to challenge problematic thought patterns:

Cognitive Restructuring: Identify distorted thoughts and replace them with more realistic, empowering perspectives. For example, reframe “I blew my diet” to “It’s one slip up that I can recover from.”

Cultivate self-compassion: Treat yourself as you would a good friend by offsetting harsh self-talk with encouraging, nurturing messages. You are not alone in these struggles.

Uncouple emotions from actions: Just because you feel an urge to binge emotionally eat does not mean you must act on it. Sit with the feeling and allow it to pass rather than reacting impulsively. You always have a choice.

4. Establish Healthy Routines

Structure and planning healthy eating routines reduces likelihood of making impulsive, emotional decisions. Useful habits:

Meal plan: Take time weekly to plan balanced meals and snack options. Prep and portion ingredients in advance when possible for grab and go convenience.

Grocery shop strategically: Stick to the perimeter of the store getting produce, lean proteins and dairy. Limit aisles with packaged goods triggering behavioral eating. Shop after eating a balanced meal.

Practice intuitive eating: Reject diet culture rules. Give yourself unconditional permission to eat forbidden favorites in moderation. Nourish your body by tuning into hunger and fullness cues rather than following rigid external diet rules.

5. Control Your Food Environment

Since external factors can unconsciously trigger behavioral eating, set yourself up for success:

Keep trigger foods out of home: Don’t stock comfort foods you tend to overeat like cookies, chips, ice cream etc. Out of sight, out of mind.

Manage portions: Dish out proper portions onto a plate rather than eating straight from a large package which easily leads to overeating.

Drive differently: Take alternate routes avoiding fast food chains if that’s an external trigger. Bring healthy snacks like nuts, fresh fruit and hard boiled eggs while running errands to avoid temptation to go through drive-thrus when hungry.

Plan activities: Steer clear of problematic situations and replace them with healthy distractions. For instance, if you normally come home and binge while lonely, plan to hit the gym or meet a friend right after work instead.

When to Seek Professional Support

Despite your best efforts with the above strategies, if you continue having frequent episodes of uncontrolled overeating with associated distress and impairment in work or relationships, it may have progressed to a clinical eating disorder requiring professional treatment. Other signs warranting help include:

  • Quickly regaining weight lost from strict dieting (yo-yo-dieting)
  • Frequent weight fluctuations
  • Gulping food rapidly until uncomfortably stuffed
  • Feeling disgusted, depressed or guilty after overeating

Seeking therapy from qualified psychologists and dietitians specializing in disordered eating can help treat underlying emotional issues driving behavioral eating and improve health. 

The Takeaway

Behavioral eating patterns develop from a variety of genetic, biological, emotional, cultural and habit-driven factors.

Left unaddressed, consequences accumulate affecting physical health, self-esteem, finances and relationships. However lasting change is within reach through increasing mindfulness of habits and triggers, building coping skills for emotions, modifying thoughts, creating healthy routines and controlling problematic food environments.

Be patient with yourself and don’t hesitate seeking extra support from professionals if needed. With lifestyle changes and support, those struggling can go on to have healthy, balanced eating patterns and live vibrant lives no longer dominated by food issues.

References

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