We’re surrounded by opportunities to eat and drink, so how do we avoid them? Professor Jane Ogden helps us become stronger in the face of temptation.
Losing weight and keeping it off is notoriously hard. We’re getting larger, and obesity rates are growing, too – 27% of people in the UK are obese, and this is set to double by 2050. To help explain the epidemic, researchers have looked at the role of the so-called obesogenic environment – the influence of the food industry with its powerful advertising, for example. Or the availability of cheap ready meals and unhealthy takeaways that discourage us from shopping for food and cooking for ourselves, and prompt us to eat out and snack more often. Coincidentally, many triggers for overeating are physical: the biscuit tin, the overstocked fridge, carefully positioned snack foods in supermarkets and the cake passed around at work.
All of these cause mindless buying and mindless eating. When this cycle is repeated, the mindlessness becomes habitual, so those who eat biscuits with their afternoon cup of tea do so because it feels normal, and not doing so doesn’t feel quite right. Unlike emotional triggers for eating, however, these physical triggers can be avoided if we make small changes to our daily routines or environment.
Our environment also affects our activity levels. Fewer of us do manual work, and most of us regularly use cars, computers and watch TV, which makes us more sedentary. We take lifts and escalators instead of stairs, and out-of-town shops and cinemas mean we’re even more reliant on transport. All this creates a world in which it’s easy to gain weight and it requires a real effort to remain slim. Being more aware of these environmental factors allows us to change our response to them and get back in control. Here’s how to set healthier habits and start losing weight without even trying:
Timetable your meal times
Eating is a habit, and when you change it, it’s the change itself that feels strange at first. For example, if you never eat breakfast you won’t crave it (your norm is not having breakfast). But if you get into a healthy breakfast-eating routine, not having breakfast will soon start to feel peculiar. To help prevent overeating, pin down food to three specific times each day and learn that it’s OK to feel hungry in between meals, as you know when the next one is coming – it will start to feel strange to eat in between meals. A recent study by my PhD student, Cristina Ruscitto, showed that planning their meal times actually helped long-haul cabin crew recover better from jet lag.
If it’s not there, you can’t be tempted
Make lists and plan. We’re clearly more likely to eat what’s around us, so only bring food into the house that you plan to eat. Make a schedule of your meals for the week, write a list of ingredients for these meals (not snacks), buy only these ingredients and bring them home. If you don’t think it’s a good idea to eat an item, don’t buy it. This will be easier if you go shopping when you feel full, by deliberately avoiding the supermarket aisles that sell fizzy drinks, sweets, chocolates or cakes, and by not taking small children food shopping with you if you can help it.
Call food a ‘meal’, not a ‘snack’
Hunger is a perception that is influenced not only by what, when and where we eat, but also by the words we use. In our study, we gave people a pot of pasta that was called either a ‘snack’ or a ‘meal’. Those who ate the ‘snack’ – even though it was the same amount of food as the ‘meal’ – ate more later on, probably because our participants forgot what they had eaten and didn’t consider their ‘snack’ to be as filling. So call food a ‘meal’ – eat ‘breakfast’, ‘lunch’ and ‘dinner’, and tick them off your mental list of meals as you go through your day.
Pin food to a specific place
We’ve done a series of studies at the University of Surrey that show it also matters where you eat. Our research confirms that eating in front of the TV or while driving can make you eat more, as you’re distracted from eating and the food you eat doesn’t make you feel as full as it’s not being processed properly. We’ve also found that eating while standing up (with a plastic pot and plastic fork) or on-the-go (while walking) can make you eat more later on. So eat your food as a meal, pin your meal to a specific place – ideally at a table with a chair – and, as often as you can, eat with others. Soon eating elsewhere will start to seem strange.
Take more time to eat
A lot of food is eaten mindlessly, quickly and while focusing on something else or hurrying from one meeting to the next. Research shows that eating more mindfully can help people eat less and better manage the triggers in their environment. Recent studies suggest that this can also be achieved by simply chewing food more so that it takes longer to eat and makes you think about what you’re doing.
Find other ways to manage your emotions
Food fills many other roles in our lives apart from simply stopping hunger and keeping us alive. Many people, for example, use food to regulate their emotions. Research by Tatjana Van Strien in the Netherlands confirms that people often turn to food when they’re bored, fed up, angry or under stress. This can be a particular problem if your environment is full of food, giving you something to reach for whenever the emotional need arises. So remove these ‘tempting’ foods from your environment. Then retrain yourself to find other ways to manage your emotions, such as phoning a friend, listening to music, dancing around the kitchen, singing loudly, going
for a walk or having a hot bath.
Bags of crisps used to be 30g, and we would eat these and then stop. Today, many bags are ‘grab bags’ holding 60g or more, but very few people eat a 30g portion from a larger pack and then stop. Instead, they eat the lot – twice what they used to eat. We now live in a world where portion sizes are bigger, we have snacks in our cupboards and drive-in fast-food restaurants where we can buy thousands of calories’ worth of food without even having to stop driving to eat it. And we eat it not because we’re hungrier than we used to be but because it’s there. Start paying attention to portions and be aware of how much and when you’re eating. Knowledge is power.