Psychology of food

Complicated. That’s how we often describe our relationship with food.

We celebrate at gatherings with decadent chocolate cake. We curl up on the sofa with mint-chocolate-chip ice cream to get over a bad break-up. We go on low-carb diets and juice cleanses when we feel sluggish. And, many of us may be trying to lead healthy lifestyles by eating apples, salads and veggies on a daily basis.

Is food something to enjoy or to control? How do we find balance, and how do we explain it all?

The first thing we should understand, says Associate Professor of psychology Leslie Frazier, is that eating is a phenomenon that involves your mind, body and surrounding environment.

Genetics, of course, is deeply involved in how fast our metabolism works, how much fat our bodies store and how much food we consume and which kinds of food we prefer.  

“Hunger cycles are regulated in concert by the gut and the brain,” Frazier explains.

For example, a hormone produced in the gut called ghrelin, “the hunger hormone,” is secreted when the stomach is empty, sending signals to the brain. This is the signal that we recognize as hunger. As we eat, other hormones are released, and our brain sends a signal that our hunger has been satiated.

“That’s the way our systems work,” she says. “But because of the way we are raised, social and cultural backgrounds and even the amount of fat we store in our bodies, these cycles get thrown off.”

The result?

According to Frazier, there are four major kinds of eaters.  

Internal eaters grab some food when we’re happy, celebrating, stressed or sad. This means we aren’t completely paying attention to when our bodies tell us we are hungry. We’re often eating when our minds and our emotions tell us to eat. ​

External eaters are those of us who eat in response to what we see in our environment. If we’re driving and we see a billboard ad of a refreshing soda bubbling in a glass cup, then we feel like drinking soda. If our significant other whips out the ice cream for a late-night snack, suddenly we want some ice cream, too.

Restrained eaters are focused on what and how much we eat. These might be those of us cutting out food groups from our diets to lose weight quickly or scrutinizing calories we consume. This type of eater values low caloric intake more than high nutrition and, Frazier says, that could lead to poor health outcomes. This is eating in response to self-imposed criteria rather than physiological cues.

Intuitive eaters are the people who enjoy food but mainly eat based on the cues we get from our bodies. We eat when we’re hungry and don’t eat when we’re not hungry. We’re not as influenced by our environment or our emotions. We’re eating in sync with our bodies.

Do any of these sound like you? Or do you sound like a combination of several of these? These categories are meant to give us loose ideas about attitudes toward eating, Frazier explains.

And, she adds, the average healthy adult should strive to be more of an intuitive eater, paying attention to the cues we get from our bodies to decide how much we eat.

“People should try to be mindful of both how the body is feeling in terms of hunger and satiety, but also how they are feeling emotionally,” Frazier says.

Catherine Coccia, a dietician and assistant professor at the Robert Stempel College of Public Health & Social Work, says childhood habits have an immense impact on how we view food as adults.

“Some of us grew up with parents who said we can’t leave the dinner table until we eat everything on our plates,” Coccia says. “Or we got used to eating a certain food as a reward, like going out for pizza. After we grow up, a person with that experience might feel like after doing a good job at work, they should go eat to celebrate.”

So how can we avoid overeating when we’re not hungry?

“We should not be encouraging our kids to be part of the clean-plate club,” says Coccia, who specializes in family and community nutrition. “That’s a big part of why we overeat. We start overeating young as kids, and then all of the sudden people tell us we have to lose weight.”

And for those who eat to either celebrate or indulge when stressed, the key is to reward yourself with something other than food, says Frazier. Figure out what can help you cope with stress or celebrate. Just a few options: Exercise, read a good book, relax at the spa, go watch a movie, take a stroll at your favorite store or visit a friend.

But why? Why does food become emotional? What messages does society send about food and how does this impact our choices?

Check in tomorrow with FIU News to catch the second part of this three-part exploration into the psychology of food.

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