The world is full of endless information advising us how to lose weight, stay healthy, avoid disease and live longer. All have different authors, with different views and different favourite super foods. The one thing they have in common is they only focus on what to eat.
But eating well is about so much more than the food we put into our mouths. And if we want to eat well in order to be healthier, stay thin, lose weight and live longer we need to consider when, where, why and how we eat as well.
When to eat
We live in a culture where it is prized to be busy. Too busy for breakfast, too busy for lunch and too busy for a proper meal in the evening. And so the traditional three meals a day structure to our lives is beginning to disappear and people are getting fatter and fatter as more snacks are consumed than ever before.
But if you have specified meal times, at regular intervals throughout the day, when you have planned what you are going to eat, then you will eat these meals and nothing else in between. You’ll learn to feel hungry AND enjoy this feeling, as well as remember that hunger goes away after the planned meal has been consumed.
Where to eat
Not only are meal times disappearing but designated meal places are also on the way out. And so people eat in the car, at their desks, walking down the streets or on the sofa in front of the TV. Yet much research shows that ‘eating-on-the-go’ or eating whilst distracted can make people eat more at that meal as they aren’t focusing on how much food is consumed, or even make them eat more later on as they ‘forget’ that they have eaten. But if you have a designated café, table or common room then the meal becomes an event; the food is the focus; the meal box can be ticked as ‘done’ and we become not only more full there and then, as we are thinking about eating, but also remain full in the gap until the next meal as we know that that meal has taken place.
Why to eat
If you ask people why they eat they tend to say ‘I’m hungry’ and ‘I like it’. But for the huge majority of people food is far more complicated than this. Eating is about regulating our emotions and eating when we are fed up, bored or in need of a treat. It is about social interaction; so we eat more for a birthday dinner or festive celebration than a simple night in. It’s also about communicating who we are to the rest of the world.
As a result people lose track of hunger and food fills many more roles in their lives than just preventing hunger and they live to eat rather than eat to live. We need to rediscover the feeling of hunger; learn that it feels nice to be hungry before a meal and that this hunger goes away once we have eaten; and learn other ways to manage our emotions and to socialise that do not revolve around food. This is helped by planning not only what to eat but also when and where to eat. And it is also helped by planning how to eat.
How to eat
Fullness is a perception, just like pain, tiredness or even what we see. So, in the same way that a headache hurts less if we drag ourselves into work and off the sofa to be distracted by our colleagues, we feel less full if we are distracted when we eat. And therefore we eat more because we haven’t properly processed that we are eating. But if we eat at a designated time in the day called ‘a mealtime’, at a designated place called a ‘meal place’ and tell ourselves ‘this is a meal’ then this mindful approach to eating can make us feel fuller after meals and then use this fullness to sustain us until we know the next planned meal is on its way.
Dieticians, nutritionists and celebrity chefs are right to focus on what to eat. But eating well is also about when, where, why and how food is consumed. If we can eat well then we can feel full again, and food can be put back in its rightful place so that we can start to eat to live rather than live to eat.
Jane Ogden is a Professor in Health Psychology at the University of Surrey. Her book ‘The Good Parenting Food Guide’ describes how to get children and parents to eat well without making food into a problem and her forthcoming book ‘The Psychology of Dieting’ explores the predictors of both failed and successful weight loss.
Jane is speaking at the second event in the 2017 Food Talks series: WELLBEING: How can we eat and live well in the future? The event takes place on Thursday 29th June 2017 (6.30-8.45pm) at the Impact Hub King’s Cross, and is brought to you by Impact Hub Kings Cross in partnership with the Food Ethics Council, Organico, Think.Eat.Drink and London Food Link, part of Sustain: the alliance for better food and farming. For more information and to attend the event, please click here.