By Aisling Daly, Registered Public Health Nutritionist RNutr, MSc, BSc, PhD Candidate
When we think about dietary habits, we usually focus on the content and quality of what we are eating. However, of equal (if not more) importance, is the consideration of how and why we are eating.
When we talk about how we eat, we usually categorise these into different eating behaviour styles, that is the style of eating that helps show what can motivate or influence you when making food or eating choices, separate to responding to your feelings of hunger. Whilst many different eating behaviour style exist, three of the most commonly researched and reported styles of eating include:
1. Emotional Eating - Which is eating in response to your emotions, predominantly negative emotions, like feeling stressed, nervous or anxious, but it can also relate to positive emotions such as feeling happy during a celebration
2. Restrained Eating - Which refers to actively avoiding certain foods or restricting your food intake to prevent weight gain or to promote weight loss, in other words, dieting practices
3. External or Uncontrolled Eating - Which relates to eating more than usual in response to sensory aspects such as the smell, taste or sight of food, or being around others who are eating a certain type of food, in other words being influenced by the immediate food environment – physical & social (1,2).
There isn’t one eating behaviour style that is inherently better that the other, and they rarely exist independently. However, what is important is being able to recognise when we are being influenced by certain things, thereby leading us to ask “Why am I eating this?”
Yes, we need to consume food to fuel our bodies, responding to our feelings of hunger and meeting our energy and nutrient needs. But, food is more than just fuel, it also provides satisfaction, enjoyment and comfort at certain times. If we are eating in response to our emotions, is this for a celebration? To provide comfort after a long, tiring week? Or as a distraction from boredom or from something causing you stress? There is nothing to say that any of these reasons are bad or wrong, but it can be helpful to check in and ask yourself how is this food serving me right now? If you have had a long, busy week and need that chocolate with your glass of wine, enjoy it! You deserve it! If you have a big project due or an exam coming up and you bake cookies as a distraction, or think that packet of crisps will cure your heartache, it may be time to dig a bit deeper (internally, not into the pack of crisps!) and see what might be a better solution.
The origins of the restrained eating theory lead back to restraint as a form of dieting, where people actively restrict their food intake or avoid certain foods out of fear of becoming fat or in an attempt to lose weight (3). However, we now know that dieting is not an effective method for long-term weight loss, whatever form it might take (4). Restrained eating habits are often more common in those with a higher weight, however it is difficult to know the direction of this association, and it can often have a cyclical type effect. Are people overweight because of their lack of restraint in eating, or are they more restrained due to their higher weight? Overweight people may feel a social pressure to lose weight, but periods of intense dieting may lead to persistent hunger and a breakdown of restrictive control, which may result in excessive food intakes and further weight gain (5). In relation to dieting habits, restrained eating may not be so beneficial, however if we consider restrained eating in relation to avoiding those high fat, high sugar “treat” or “junk” type foods, maybe some restrained eating behaviours are not so bad overall. This highlights again why it is important to ask “Why am I eating this food?”, or in this case, “Why am I not eating this food?”. Is it with a focus on losing weight as part of a diet, or is it to improve overall health, based on healthy eating guidance? Getting the balance between some active restraint and a healthy, balanced diet and lifestyle might be tricky, but checking in on your reasons for choosing certain foods at certain times can be a good start.
Simply put, external eating can be described as eating in response to food-related stimuli, regardless of your internal state of hunger. Think how often you are tempted by a certain food being available, or how the smell of a dish might draw you to it. If a friend or colleague has something that looks nice, are you tempted to buy that too? If you’re at a party, do you dip into the bowl of chip n dip a few too many times? It may feel like external eating it just that – outside of your control. From a higher level, the food environment can be controlled, or equally influenced, by those in charge – Be it through a food policy limiting the amount of vending machines or treat foods available, or by providing easier access to health-promoting foods, for example. On an individual level, external eating can be difficult to manage, since we are often a product of our environment and we can only eat what food is available and accessible to us. Therefore, planning our food and meals can be helpful, removing the need for or the temptation of impromptu purchases. Getting a balance between limited external eating habits without being overly restrictive can be a challenge, but again bring it back to the question “Why am I eating this food?”. If the answer is for hunger, joy or satisfaction, then eat away! If the answer is “It was just there”, maybe think on this further.
Getting to know your own, individual habits and cues for eating can be beneficial to help reduce mindless snacking or impromptu food choices, but also to remove any guilt you might feel for eating at times when it is perfectly ok to eat and enjoy your food. Diet culture is all around us and it can be hard to ignore. Yes, we should take some control over our eating habits for the benefit of our health, but remember that health encompasses both physical and emotional health, so we need to feed and support both appropriately. There is no “magic pill” answer on what is right or healthy when it comes to food and eating. A one-size-fits-all model doesn’t work. Take a step back, think about what food you need to appropriately fuel and nourish your body and your mind, and once you have the basics covered you can happily enjoy those foods that bring you pleasure and enjoyment as well.
This is a concept known as “Intuitive Eating”, and it is in fact the complete opposite to a traditional diet (6, 7). Without telling you what to eat and what not to eat, intuitive eating allows you to be the master of your own body, taking guidance from healthy eating recommendations but ultimately allowing your own body and hunger levels to determine what, when and how you eat. Following intuitive eating principles can help you to recognise, identify and distinguish between your physical hunger and your emotional hunger, thereby allowing you to make food choices to satisfy the type of hunger you are feeling at the time, and ultimately enjoy your food.
1. van Strien T, Frijters JER, Bergers GPA, Defares PB. The Dutch Eating Behavior Questionnaire (DEBQ) for assessment of restrained, emotional, and external eating behavior. Int J Eat Disord. 1986 Feb 1;5(2):295–315.
2. de Lauzon B, Romon M, Deschamps V, Lafay L, Borys J-M, Karlsson J, et al. The Three-Factor Eating Questionnaire-R18 Is Able to Distinguish among Different Eating Patterns in a General Population. J Nutr. 2004 Sep 1;134(9):2372–80.
3. Herman, C. P., & Mack, D. (1975). Restrained and unrestrained eating. Journal of personality, 43(4), 647–660. https://doi.org/10.1111/j.1467-6494.1975.tb00727.x
4. Ge Long, Sadeghirad Behnam, Ball Geoff D C, da Costa Bruno R, Hitchcock Christine L, Svendrovski Anton et al. Comparison of dietary macronutrient patterns of 14 popular named dietary programmes for weight and cardiovascular risk factor reduction in adults: systematic review and network meta-analysis of randomised trials BMJ 2020; 369 :m696 doi: https://doi.org/10.1136/bmj.m696
5. Hibscher, J. A., & Herman, C. P. (1977). Obesity, dieting, and the expression of obese characteristics. Journal of Comparative and Physiological Psychology, 91(2), 374–380. https://doi.org/10.1037/h0077334
About The Author
Aisling Daly is a Registered Public Health Nutritionist (RNutr) with the Association for Nutrition. She holds a BSc. Human Nutrition from UCD and an MSc. Nutrition for Global Health from LSHTM in London. She is currently researching a PhD in Food Choice and Eating Behaviours in teens at TU Dublin. Her key areas of interest are in understanding behaviours around food and eating; how and why do we eat, and how can we harness this to support healthier eating habits and attitudes.