Eating habits describe more than simply what foods you enjoy because there are many factors beyond palate that influence choices and behaviours - from your genes and hormones, to how you and your friends socialize, to your job requirements, to cooking skills, to finances, to health, and more. And while certainly some of these factors are modifiable, it’s important to understand and respect that some are not.
By the end of this article you will have a better understanding of some of the many variables that influence your pattern of eating and consequently also understand that despite what you may hear from society, the notion it’s simply a matter of willpower is false.
While we are not walking math formula and where different foods have different impacts on hunger, cravings, and fullness, at the end of the day weight is about energy balance whereby if you consume more energy than you expend you’ll gain weight, and you’ll lose if you eat less. This is a truth regardless of what dietary intervention or macronutrient distribution you undertake.
No doubt there are many triggers, and every single one of them is influenced by hunger. The hungrier you are, the greater the impact of the trigger. Triggers can be habitual eating patterns (snacking in front of the TV), to emotional, to boredom, and of course can also be driven by social engagements and patterns. It’s not difficult to identify these triggers. Spending even just a week or two tracking when you’re eating can identify triggers both as you go along, or when you review and look for patterns.
Emotional eating, eating as a means to derive comfort in the face of strong emotions, is common. It also has a basis in physiology whereby eating decreases our bodies’ stress hormone levels and in turn provides us with short term partial comfort or relief. As far as weight gain goes, it may be that the foods that provide us with the most comfort have lesser impact on fullness which in turn may allow for increased energy consumption over time. It may also simply be that the combination of our physiological drive to eat with the psychological benefits of food is a recipe for easier gain.
The first step may be in identifying them - and a food journal is a great way to do so - just be sure not to use the food journal to shame, blame, or police your choices. The second step is perhaps less intuitive and that would be reanalyzing your patterns, but this time with a lens trained on fullness and hunger. At the end of the day, hunger is not most of our friends. Hunger leads millions of years of dietary evolution during times of extreme food insecurity and scarcity to make our choices for us. For many if not most people, overcoming challenging eating habits in the face of regular hunger is impossible to sustain, whereas changing our dietary patterns to enhance fullness can provide us with the leg up we need by reducing our physiological drive to eat.
Balanced is an ill-defined term but certainly it’s important to consume a fairly wide variety of foods if the aim is to ensure your nutritional needs are met. The more restrictive the diet in terms of eliminating entire categories of food, the more likely you will need to take supplements to ensure you’re meeting your nutritional needs.
Different categories of food will also have differing impacts on hunger and fullness and consequently consuming a wider variety may help ensure against some easily avoidable hunger.
There are a number of way to determine caloric needs. From calculators running various equations (some as old as the turn of last century and some much more recent and sophisticated), to indirect measurement through an indirect calorimeter, to direct measurement through a direct calorimeter (generally only found in research facilities). Generally speaking, the numbers tend to be quite comparable with a relatively small percentage of the population truly burning far more or far fewer calories than predicted.
When considering calories it’s crucial to remember that regardless of what any measurement suggests, there is a point where eating fewer calories won’t be sustainable because it leads to suffering of some sort - hunger, restriction, impact on social life or caregiving, etc. - and so consequently for those concerned about weight, the goal should be the smallest number that leaves you both happily satisfied and meeting your nutritional needs.
Again, right is a loaded term. What’s right for you may not be for someone else. Diets range widely in macronutrient composition (the percentage of your calories coming from carbohydrates, fats, and proteins) with all but the most extreme distributions not requiring surveillance blood work or supplementation. Speaking broadly, a fair bit of research would suggest that protein is the most filling or sating macronutrient and its inclusion with all meals and snacks may be helpful in managing hunger.
A growing body of research shows increased health risks associated with diets higher in ultra-processed foods. If you’re looking for an easy means to try to improve the quality of your diet, reducing ultra processed foods will likely see you markedly reducing your consumption of salt and sugar in your diet. If you’re looking for an easy means to try to reduce the calories you’re consuming, it may help there too as it would appear that those consuming more ultra-processed foods eat more calories overall.
If you’re trying to ensure a particular distribution of calories or macronutrients, planning in advance, especially in the early days of your behavioural changes, can be beneficial as it will allow you to ensure meals and snacks are balanced in the pattern you’re trying to cultivate.
An additional benefit of planning in advance is shopping - knowing what you’ll be consuming can help streamline grocery shopping while simultaneously decreasing risk of food waste or of not having what you need when you need it.
There’s a great deal of information on a food label, but not all of it is particularly helpful.
Three simple beginner rules:
What’s most important to remember about portion control is that it’s dictated in part by your own personal collection of genes and hormones that control your personal levels of hunger, cravings, and fullness, but also in part by your pattern of eating. Different frequencies of eating and distributions of macronutrients will affect how hungry you are when you’re eating and of course that in turn affects your portion control.
Rather than simply focusing your attention on trying to take and be satisfied on smaller portions despite wanting larger ones, it may be wise to also consider how different patterns of eating impact on hunger and cravings and how that in turn impacts on how large a portion you need to be happily satisfied.
Really the goal with unhealthy foods is to minimize them. Whether that’s by decreasing purchases of ultraprocessed foods, or reducing restaurant and fast food meals, or simply going through a 2 question process when considering an unhealthy indulgence where the first question is, “Is it worth it”, and the second question is, “What’s the smallest amount I need to feel happily satisfied”.
What I would not be recommending is overt restriction and creating categories of forbidden foods as for most of us, that won’t last and often leads to a buildup of frustration and suffering over time that can lead a person to stop all of their efforts altogether.
Ideally the goal would be to eat out less frequently, but sometimes our job responsibilities or social circumstances make that impossible. Given the caloric content of restaurant food the availability of alcohol, side dishes, and dessert options that aren’t likely on the menu at home, one of the easiest things a person can do is not arrive out to dinner hungry. Ensuring you’ve eaten well the day of, potentially even having a protein rich snack half an hour before dinner, may allow you to forgo sides and/or dessert and potentially choose a less indulgent main and/or pack some up to go.
Food cravings are part of the human condition. That said, organizing eating in a way to reduce hunger can often see their urgency and volume decrease. So too can the use of pharmacotherapy.
If your food cravings are always in the later parts of the day, it may be worth exploring changes to the calories and macronutrient distribution of your meals in the earlier parts of the day. You might try experimenting with any or all of a larger breakfast, increased emphasis on protein with all meals and snacks, or having an additional planned protein rich snack an hour before you regularly face your cravings.
When facing cravings, the two questions around indulgences are useful, “Is it worth it”, and “How much do I need to be happily satisfied”.
This is a myth really. While studies have been done on water and weight loss would appear that maybe it helps to affect a 2lb difference in weight at the end of a year.
What’s not a myth though is that the volume of the foods you consume has an impact on fullness and total energy consumption and here, water rich foods (vegetables for instance) and other foods with low energy densities, can help with fullness and potentially reduce hunger and total daily energy intake.
There are certainly some medical conditions where ensuring larger quantities of fluid intake is important (for instance people with recurrent kidney stones), but generally, unless you have a medical condition impacting your ability to sense or respond to thirst, drinking water when you’re thirsty (as opposed to sugar sweetened beverages like soda and juice), is the most important thing to remember to do.
Though they get a bad rap, adding non-nutritive sweeteners to water (flavour crystals/drops) is certainly a wiser choice than turning to juices or sodas. Home water carbonators are also an inexpensive option to soup up your water.
Weight loss goals, while understandable in terms of people having them, aren’t likely helpful, nor are they goals. Meaning that weight loss is an outcome. It’s a destination. But it’s not a behaviour. It’s also crucial to remember that there are many factors that affect our weights that we will not be able, wanting, or willing to change.
Better goals to set would be around behaviours. Things like maintaining a food diary, minimizing ultraprocessed foods or restaurant meals, exercising, cultivating sleep, and more. These are the behaviours that may have an impact on weight.
Think of it a bit like school. You can go to class, do your homework, and study your best, but whatever grade you get doing so is your best grade. And not all kids who study the same about get the same grade, nor does every kid trying their best get an A+. Your goals should involve your goals around going to class, doing your homework, and studying your best, and whatever grade you get is great and worthy of pride.
The road is the goal.
The most important strategy is to appreciate that you’re going to struggle and stray at times. Sometimes for obvious reasons like illnesses, tragedies, holidays, travel, birthday, and more. And other times for no obvious identifiable reason other than you’re a human being.
When you do fall off your best intentions rather than asking yourself destructive questions like, “What’s wrong with me?”, “What’s my problem?”, “Why can’t I do this?” where your brain will readily tell you what’s wrong with you, what your problem is, and why you can’t do this, ask more constructive questions like, “What could I do today that will help even a little?”, and “What could I do today that I could be proud of?”.
The notion of a plateau is generally flawed. It suggests that something artificial has led to a person’s energy deficit to disappear when in reality the deficit disappeared due to changes in energy intake and output. Those changes may have come from a celebratory weekend, or travel, meals out, tragedy and more. The other possibility of course is that it’s a floor rather than a plateau, where unless a person finds changes they enjoy that lead energy intake to remain consistently lower or energy output to remain consistently higher there simply aren’t more losses to be had.
One of the easiest things a person might do in these situations is to spend at least a week or two trying to quantify their dietary intake just as one might do with money if they felt they were spending too much and were trying to figure out how and why.
Exercise has minor direct effects on weight, but may play an important indirect role. Directly exercise simply doesn’t burn enough calories to be fair. Figure that as far as your modifiable weight goes, 80% is by way of food, and only 20% by way of fitness. That said, indirectly, exercising regularly may help underwrite dietary change by way of its impact on energy, sleep and potentially mood.
There is no best exercise for a particular body or lifestyle. The best exercise for you is the one you enjoy enough to sustain. Similarly the amount you should be doing is as much as you can enjoy - and some days of course this won’t be very much.
Something that’s too often forgotten is that everyone’s daily routine is very different and that to find time, energy, and motivation to purposely exercise in the name of health requires a great degree of privilege. One mistake that many people make in trying to incorporate exercise into their daily routine is to think that unless the quantity of exercise is large, it’s not worth it. It’s simply not true. It’s not true for health and it also may not be true for exercise in that at least one study looking at people who were encouraged to find large blocks of time to exercise vs. those who were encouraged to find 10 minute blocks saw the shorter block people exercising more in total and enjoying greater gains in fitness.
Mindset affects most things in life, but one of the most common challenges in mindset with weight loss is all or nothing thinking. Believing that setbacks, things you likely accept in all other areas of your life, won’t or shouldn’t occur with your weight loss efforts is broken thinking, as just as with everything, there will be good and bad days, weeks, months, and even years.
Consider fitness. Even the world’s most consistent exercisers and greatest athletes will face times when due to injury, illness, or life circumstances they will find themselves thrown from their routines for extended durations. When life lets up and they get back at things no doubt they will have to spend time, perhaps even long amounts of time, regaining the strength and endurance they lost. What they won’t do though is decide not to bother. Yet with weight loss people will often give up on their efforts simply because life got in their way.
Body image is a challenge given the world we live in where we are taught regularly that worth is determined at least in part by appearances. While it would be truly wonderful if there were an easy means to right our maladaptive thoughts around body image, the truth is if it’s something you’re struggling with, overcoming it takes time and expertise. Seeking out counselors with expertise in body image work may be an option, and so too might self help like from The Body Image Workbook by Thomas Cash which clinical studies have demonstrated to help in increasing body image satisfaction and decreasing body image distress.
As mentioned earlier in this post, setbacks and failures are normal and to be expected. And really they respond well to the simple strategy of constructive questions. If and when you recognize that things have gone off-kilter ask questions designed to set yourself up for easy victories and build off them. Questions like, “What can I do today that will help?”, or, “What can I do today that I can be proud of?”.
If you’re aiming to cultivate a permanent lifestyle change, you’ll need to enjoy it. If your efforts increase your life stress, or lead you to neglect your self-care, or your family, or your work, it’s worth taking a step back to evaluate your efforts under the lens of can you enjoyable keep them up for the rest of your life? If the answer’s no, spending some time reflecting on which aspects of what you’re doing aren’t sustainable and finding means to change them so as to reduce their burdens - even if that means a slower and less loss. Better to lose less more slowly than to regain weight lost quickly through suffering.
Rather than setting outcome goals (how fast or how much you hope to lose), set goals instead for the behaviours that will help you to get there. These might be goals set around keeping a food record, cooking, reducing restaurant meals or caloric beverages, cultivating sleep, consistency in exercise, and more. The reason it’s far wiser to set these sorts of goals is that we simply don’t have control over all of the variables affecting our weights. From genetics, to other medical conditions, to life circumstances, and more there are dozens if not hundreds of things affecting our weights that we either won’t be able to change or we won’t want to change, which is why weight loss goals often lead to disappointment despite our best efforts. Working on being as proud of your best efforts and you would be of your best friend’s or closest relative’s best efforts, is an exercise worth considering.
Before celebrating your small victories, you need to recognize them, and when it comes to treating ourselves with the same love, empathy, and respect we treat our friends we often come up short. Take the time to reflect on your small victories as if they were being won by your friends and then take the time to consider how you might be propping them up, supporting, and pumping them with praise and then do the same for yourself.
The easiest way to ensure your long term success is to use strategies that you enjoy enough to sustain. If you can honestly look at your life while you’re losing weight and state you could happily keep living that way, your chance of regain is markedly lower. Put more simply, whatever you do to lose the weight, if you keep doing it, will keep the weight off.
You’re going to fall down. If your instinct is to kick yourself while down, you’ll be far less likely to get back up. Treating yourself with the same degree of love, compassion, empathy, respect, and understanding you would to your closest relative or loved one is an attitude worth cultivating.
The most important point to recognize regarding our eating habits is that they’re only partially within our direct control, and even then, our best efforts will vary depending on our life circumstances.
Determining patterns of eating that leave you the most satisfied with the smallest amount of energy intake may well require trial and error and using a food diary to help to identify patterns is the best tool to help in that regard.
Finally, sometimes our best efforts don’t lead to dramatic changes on our dietary patterns and/or on our health or quality of life. The good news here is that we are finally at a place in time where there are safe and effective medications to help.
Think of your eating habits as evolving. And just as with evolution, changes that are gradually and slow rather than dramatic and abrupt are more likely to survive. It’s about continually striving to improve - even if that’s following a setback where the obvious improvements are skills that were once already established. Because falling down is part of every aspect of life. The secret to long term success, and it’s not much of a secret really, is picking yourself back up and getting at it again.