How our brains drive our food choices – without us even realising

What we eat is dictated by our minds as much as our stomachs, as Professor Jane Ogden tells Senior Dietitian Victoria Taylor.

Food decision-making illustration

If you’ve ever treated yourself to a snack to make up for a bad day or chosen a different meal based on who you were with, then you’ll know that food choices aren’t just about hunger.

Recent research has given us new insight into what influences our decision-making around food. If we can understand our patterns of eating behaviour, then we can change them for the better.

What affects our food decisions?

Firstly, there’s a pattern inside our heads telling us what food means, the roles it plays in our lives, what we like and don’t like, and how much we should be eating.

It starts from childhood, when we give children food as the easiest way to calm them down – we learn food is a good way to manage emotions. And if our parents said, ‘Eat your vegetables and you can have pudding’ or ‘Let’s have a treat and go out for ice cream’, we learn that sweet foods are treats and vegetables are boring, and treat foods make us feel special.

Even as adults, it’s surprisingly hard to tell when you’re genuinely hungry

Even as adults, it’s surprisingly hard to tell when you’re genuinely hungry. Feeling cross or upset can feel like hunger. Having a cup of tea at 11am can make you want to reach for the biscuits. Try to remember that these feelings are perceptions – they aren’t always driven by physical need.

You don’t go to bed every time you feel a bit tired; most of us wait until bedtime. And you don’t have to eat every time you feel a bit hungry.

Secondly, there are triggers in our environment – what other people are eating, what we see or smell – that prompt us to eat. Now, we are exposed to those triggers all the time. We have food advertising, cheap ready meals and takeaways.

We have a much looser approach to ‘meals’ and ‘snacks’. Eating has become unpinned from specific times and places, so people eat at any time of day.

Do we need to learn to adapt to the world we live in?

We don’t have to be victims of our environment, we just have to take back control where we can.

If you do your own shopping, you control what comes into your house. You might work somewhere where people bring cakes and biscuits into every meeting, but you can say you don’t want that and suggest healthier habits for the workplace.

Try to remember that these feelings are perceptions – they aren’t always driven by physical need

Eating at planned times and being more mindful of what and where you’re going to eat also gives you a bit of resilience.

So, if you’ve told yourself you’re going to have lunch at noon, then when the cake trolley comes round mid-morning it’s easier to think ‘why would I ruin my lunch by having cake now?’

Woman shopping in the supermarket

But isn’t it hard to change the way we think?

A lot of the time our thoughts are automatic and we may not be aware of them. Having a trigger to change your lifestyle, such as a heart attack or a diagnosis of a condition, can be a wake-up call. That makes it easier to start putting the effort in.

Even if you haven’t had that kind of wake-up call, if you’ve decided you want to change your habits then you probably have powerful reasons – it’s good to stop and reflect.

Why do so many people have a difficult relationship with food? And how can they improve it?

Often, a problematic relationship with food comes from years of failed dieting. That can make food more of a preoccupation – it starts to fill more of our lives. Then there are the ways we use food for emotional regulation and social interaction.

It can help to remember that food is a bit of life, but not all of life. Food is just food at the end of the day. But many of us forget that – we use it to fill up all the little holes in our lives, and that creates a problem. With dieting on top of that, you add in forbiddenness and guilt, and it becomes complicated.

Pin food to certain places: the table, a café, the common room. That way, food gets put back where it belongs

One way to break out is to pin food to certain times: breakfast, lunch and dinner. Plan what you’re going to eat and what time you’ll have it, then stick to it: have breakfast and don’t eat again until lunchtime, even if you feel hungry at 11 o’clock.

You don’t have to respond to hunger by eating: respond with ‘I’m eating lunch at 12 o’clock so I’ll be ready for when it comes’. Then pin food to certain places: the table, a café, the common room. That way, food gets put back where it belongs rather than filling up all the nooks and crannies of our lives.

If you use food to deal with difficult emotions, it can help to find a replacement. In our research, successful dieters have found that exercise, talking to friends, singing, playing a musical instrument or finding a new hobby, can be good substitutes.

There is no miracle cure, but there are tricks, and you have to know what they are and find what works for you. Make eating part of the rhythm of your life, and try to detach it from all the other times in your life.

How the brain plays tricks on us - What the research says

1. Don’t eat while distracted

What happens while you’re eating can be as important as what you eat. One of Professor Ogden’s studies, published in 2013, compared how different types of distraction can affect our eating behaviour.

Watching TVShe looked at 81 people, divided into four groups – driving, watching TV, chatting to someone, or on their own. First, the people watching TV ate more than any other group. Second, how hungry people felt while driving was not related to how much food they ate.

This suggests that distractions while eating mean we are more mindless about what we consume so the food we eat doesn’t fill us up. We are therefore more likely to continue  eating, and also eat more later on.

2. How you eat matters

Professor Ogden has also explored how feelings of hunger and fullness are affected by the language we use and how we eat.

In research published in 2017, 80 participants were given the same amount of a pasta dish. They were divided into two groups and told it was either a snack or a meal.

Small bowl of pasta with tomato sauceEach group was divided again and asked to eat either standing up with a plastic fork from a disposable container, or sitting at a table with a knife, fork and ceramic plate.

After eating the pasta, participants were given access to bowls containing sweet and savoury snacks, and the amount that they ate was measured.

People who’d been told the pasta was a snack ate more of the snacks afterwards compared to who were told it was a meal. And people who ate with a plastic fork while standing had more than those who ate it from a plate with a knife and fork.

Something as simple as the label given to the food and the way it was eaten changed what people ate later on. But it shows the amount we eat isn’t just dictated by hunger.

Jane OgdenCV - Professor Jane Ogden

  • Professor in Health Psychology, University of Surrey.
  • Researches eating behaviour, parenting and food, and management of obesity.
  • Author of more than 190 research papers as well as books including Fat Chance! The Myth of Dieting Explained, The Good Parenting Food Guide and The Psychology of Dieting.

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