Your day’s eating choices go beyond what you eat. If you want to have healthful eating habits, these factors play a part.

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On Nutrition

Eating for health isn’t just about what you eat, it’s about when, why, where and how you eat. You make numerous eating choices over the course of the day, and while those choices matter when you want to be your healthiest or feel your best, your eating behaviors matter, too. Even the most nutritious diet is missing something if you eat at irregular times, dine when you’re distracted or snack because you’re stressed or bored.

 

When you eat can affect what you eat

While there is no clear, consistent evidence about when or how often we should eat, for weight or health, skipping meals or eating on the run are two habits that don’t do us any favors. Some people skip meals in an attempt to cut calories, others to save time (“I’m just too busy to stop and eat lunch”). Many meal skippers claim to not be hungry at certain times of the day, most commonly at breakfast or lunch. Often, the hunger is there, but we don’t notice it because our mornings are chaotic, or we’ve made such a habit of ignoring midday hunger when we’re busy that we lose the ability to recognize it.

Trouble is, whether we are tuned into our body’s hunger signals or not, meal skipping often leads to stronger hunger the next time you eat, making it hard to make thoughtful decisions about what or how much to eat. This can lead to less-than-nutritious choices and sometimes less satisfying choices (if you end up grabbing whatever’s handiest). It can also cause you to eat past the point of fullness before your stomach has a chance to say, “OK, we’ve had enough” to your brain.

If this sounds like you, it may help to try putting the when before the what. Focus on eating regularly spaced meals, going no more than five hours without eating. (Overnight is an exception.) But don’t eat so frequently that you’re grazing. When you’re constantly eating, you might never feel true hunger. This makes it difficult to know when you truly need to eat.

 

Why you eat can affect how much you eat

Although humans’ primary reasons for eating are to fuel our body and satisfy hunger, with pleasure running closely behind, in fact there are a lot of reasons why we eat. Stress. Cravings. Comfort. Boredom. Impulse. While occasionally eating for reasons other than sustenance and joy isn’t a big deal, if it’s a frequent driver of your eating behavior it may contribute to overeating. It also can get in the way of finding more meaningful ways to soothe or entertain yourself.

If you have a history of chronic dieting, then why you eat (and when you eat) may be dictated by externally imposed or self-imposed rules — whether you’re actually sticking to the rules or rebelling against them. Not a recipe for a good relationship with food!

 

How — and where — you eat can affect your digestion and your satisfaction

Do you eat mindfully, or mindlessly? When you eat mindfully, you are aware that you are eating and you notice the taste, texture, color and aroma of your food. You start eating because you are getting hungry, and you stop eating when your body or taste buds tell you you’ve had enough, not just because your plate is empty. You feel truly satisfied.

To eat mindlessly is to eat while you are distracted or lost in thought. You are operating on autopilot. You eat quickly and barely taste your food. You might start eating because you are hungry, but it might also be because you are bored, stressed, or just because you always eat lunch at 12:30. You stop eating because your food is gone. Mindless eating is eating based on environmental cues, such as the presence of food or other non-hunger eating triggers. This can lead you to eat unhealthful foods, eat too much food, or both.

Where you eat can make a difference. Eating in the car, at your computer, in front of the television or standing at the kitchen counter interferes with focusing on your food. Eating at a designated dining table and minimizing other distractions help us pay attention to the primary task at hand — eating. Bonus mindfulness points if the table is cleared of clutter and you make a little effort to create a pleasant eating environment.

On a physical level, eating mindlessly is similar to eating while you are feeling stressed, because in that moment your body can’t tell the difference between being distracted and being stressed. This interferes with digestion as well as satisfaction and may also contribute to increases in blood-sugar levels, fat storage and chronic inflammation.

 

Looking at the big picture

Many people go through their life eating without a thought considering the when, where, why and how. But food is too important to make these elements of eating an afterthought. This is where food journaling comes in. Keeping a food journal may not seem exciting, but it is a valuable tool for increasing awareness of your overall eating patterns. Like it or not, our memories can’t provide the same level of detail.

When you write down what you eat (no need to go crazy with measuring), when and where you ate it, and anything notable going on around the time you are eating (extreme hunger, cravings, stress, fatigue), you give yourself the ability to objectively look at your eating patterns and connect the dots. For example, you may notice that your midmorning fatigue is tied to skipping breakfast, or your ravenous hunger when you get home from work is because you haven’t eaten since lunch seven hours ago. Once you see the situation clearly, you can decide to change it.