What Influences our Eating Habits: Are we (or not) fully in control of our choices?

Having spent over a decade helping clients improve their eating habits, it fascinates me how everyone has different eating patterns and behaviours and motivations as well as how different they all respond to even the same eating plan. Because we are all wired differently, which is part of the issue as, according to the research (Wansink/ Sobal, 2007), we make, on average, close to 230 food decisions every single day and close to 95% of those decisions are completely unconscious, believe it or not.

This means, we may not be in control of our food choices as we would like to believe. The point of this article is to bring to your awareness what those factors are as, once you have an awareness of them, it may be slightly easier to be more mindful about food choices you make and make alterations to your lifestyle in order to accommodate healthier eating patterns. And once you practice mindfulness for a certain amount of time – new patterns start appearing with new eating behaviours. So, we feel more in control as a result. And results follow too.

Influences on our eating behaviours can be due to social factors, our own physiology, psychology, hormones, visual factors such as food marketing, olfactory (influenced by the sense of smell), etc. It gets even more complicated when it is not just the single factor as, most of the time, it is more factors at once influencing our decisions and food choices. Here are some of the factors and I have left the most fascinated one for the end, so, stay tuned.

Take SLEEP as a one single massive influencer. There are numerous studies linking sleep deprivation with weight gain. University of California, Berkeley study concluded that lack of sleep made us desire food more and, at the same time, made our brain incapable of evaluating our appetite, whether we were hungry or not. Sleep deprivation has also been shown to increase stress hormone CORTISOL and higher cortisol levels – higher the fat and sugary food consumption, as another study at University of California concluded. It is all linked to STRESS, which leads to an increased appetite and brain’s inability to make right decisions and controlling our emotions. So, managing stress and improving our sleeping pattern could mean improving the amount we eat and choice of food we eat. Aim for 7-8 hours of good quality sleep.

HUNGER is another factor, hence the advice we often hear – “Don’t go shopping on a hungry tummy!” Studies show that, when hungry, we are more likely to make unhealthy food choices. Eating regularly and in balance of all the nutrients is the key in preventing hunger and, with that, unhealthier food choices later on, as well as over-eating, which too leads to obesity. With my clients, I usually give the advice of eating balanced meals every three hours on average in smaller quantities. It works!

Research on EXERCISE has shown that exercise improves insulin resistance, therefore contributes to stable blood sugar levels and, despite popular belief that we are more hungry when exercising, exercise can actually keep hunger at bay and it reduces our appetite. So, next time you feel hungry and know it is not time to eat or you have just eaten – put your trainers and headphones on, head on the treadmill, outdoors or to some HIIT class! It will not only decrease your appetite, but also make you feel more relaxed, lowering your cortisol levels, and, with that, your desire to eat high fat and sugary foods.

FOOD MARKETING has been found to have a big influence on what foods we choose. There are many examples of us choosing foods that APPEAR healthier because of the buzz words on packaging that suggest a healthier option, which does not need to be the case. “Lower fat” can also mean “more sugar”, so, be aware. Educate yourself on reading labels. Providing nutritional information or health benefits of particular foods has improved our choices for sure. Studies show that, when we read the labels – we pay more attention at health attributes rather than taste. I believe consumers are more and more knowledgable about foods they eat and knowledge, for sure, is the king and can help us make better food choices.

Another influence is our SMELL. Study from the University of Michigan in 2014 has found that food smell can influence our food decisions as it stimulates our taste anticipation, which triggers expected pleasure from those foods and enjoyment we may experience from eating them. I have been fascinated to find that food stores pump the smell of particular foods in order to increase its sales. One petrol station in the USA has pumped the smell of coffee around the store and that increased sales of coffee by 300%. How crazy is that!? But, I can believe it. Smell has a lot to do with emotions too. How many times your appetite was worked up because you could smell something that reminded you of home, of your mum’s or grandma’s cooking, etc.? Big businesses are certainly capitalising on “smell marketing”.

Also, our VALUES play a bit part on the decisions we make in terms of food choices we make as they stand directly behind our motivations and attitudes towards food. People who follow certain TRADITIONS will also follow a particular diet. Those that are so-called UNIVERSALISTS will more choose foods that are friendly to the environment or choose free range and organic produce, they may be vegetarian or vegan, avoid foods with palm oil that can be destructive to certain animal populations, etc. Those with POWER Values will choose a particular food, especially at the restaurants, because they believe it improves their social status or give an impression of wealth. These are just some values out of 10 different values that have been identified, which is a whole other topic, but values, as you can imagine, CAN play a big part in food choices we make.

There are more factors found to influence our food choices, which can make a difference in whether we are managing our weight well or not. Obesity has become a universal problem and reasons can truly be found in those influences that make us eat more food, even when we do not need to. There is one influence, however, that I find absolutely fascinating and it effects us all:

SOCIAL INFLUENCE

There are numerous studies on this subject and one of the longest studies is a 32 years long study by the Harvard Medical School that concluded that obesity IS spread through social networks of friends, siblings, spouses.

Research in 2007 by Christakis & Fowler concluded that:

  • If your friends are obese – your risk of obesity is 45% higher
  • If your friends’s friends are obese, your risk of obesity is 25% higher
  • If your friend’s friend’s friend is obese, your risk is 10% higher, even if you have never met them.

So, the question is – can WEIGHT LOSS be socially influenced too?

More studies confirm that it can indeed be the case. Those who work with someone to lose weight, with a coach or a support group or a friend on the same mission as them, tends to be three times more successful than those who are trying to do it alone and in isolation. Similarly, if your friends are healthy – you are more likely to be making healthy choices too and your odds of being healthier are massively increased, nearly doubled.

So, EATING HABITS, whether they are healthy or unhealthy, tend to SPREAD and this is mostly based on who you identify with. Being TOLD what is healthy or spreading health memes and messages has been found NOT TO have as big influence as SEEING someone you identify with actually eating it or learning about THEIR healthier eating habits. It is no surprise when I recently stayed with a friend and she decided to follow me in terms of my eating schedule and food choices – she dropped several lbs during my stay. It also happens every time someone stays with me for a few days at my house, they develop curiosity what I am doing and are inspired to continue making healthier choices once they go back home.

Psychologically, this influence has got to do a lot with the social identity theory: conforming to the food choices, eating patterns and behaviours of a community or a social group as a way of reinforcing our own identity. This can be a very positive and a very healthy thing. And, it can go the other way too, of course. I have seen it numerous times with my support groups – if one participant goes on holiday – others seems to adopt “holiday mode” and their resolve goes out of the window. If one does well, others will be encouraged too. The moment one gives in, others start reporting lapses too.

It is important to mention that this is NOT a need for approval at all. It is a simple mere fact that believing that others are eating healthily (or unhealthily) influences our own eating habits, particularly if we identify with them.When we tell or expose a person to how people they identify with usually eat, they will match their behaviour to the behaviour of that group. And this can happen consciously or even unconsciously, as studies show.

So, chosing associations and our tribe is important. It sends us in either positive direction towards health or in the opposite direction. So, not all of our choices are in our control. But, being aware of all the influences makes us more aware that they exist and that awareness, in itself, can go a long way in helping us reduce their effect.

This research has given me an insight into why all that happens. Certainly, hope is there because eating patterns are catchy – imagine all of us, all the health enthusiasts and influencers out there – imagine the effect we all can have on other people’s eating patterns and behaviours. This also makes me think… while some report being tired of seeing other people’s plates of food on their social media feed – perhaps, it is not them that matter at all, but those that we CAN inspire to eat healthier, be healthier and happier versions of themselves. Someone is always watching. Someone just as well may be inspired. And that is good enough for me.

Indeed, it goes without saying – be the change you wish to see in the world.

If you have been inspired by this article or wish to connect or place a comment, please do further below. Feel free to reach out if you have any questions and let me remind you of my free online wellness evaluation tool – find out YOUR wellness score and see how healthy you are!

Until next time, yours in health,

Sanela

Herbalife Health Coach & Nutritional Therapist

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *