By Milou Fredrix
It’s that time of year again, summer is coming! TV is dominated by self-tanning creams and special K promotions and magazines seem to be consumed with tricks and tips on how to achieve that perfect summer physique. The main message is, get your body beach ready! Most tips and tricks seem to revolve around eating less calories and exercising more. No big surprises there. Not against losing a few pounds myself, my mind started wondering about eating healthy and resisting temptation. I decided to do my own research and look at some things I could do to improve my eating patterns, apart from for the obvious, ‘just eat less’ solution.
We live in a crazy world. We are constantly looking at our phones, thinking of our next project or in the case of us academics, worrying about the 100 participants we still need! Research shows that most people are so cognitively occupied that they fail to listen to their bodies when they are eating. Prof. Brian Wansink, also known as the ‘Sherlock Holmes of food’, has done a lot of research on eating behaviour and on how people decide when they are full. In his ‘bottomless soup bowl’ experiment, a group of people ate soup from a bowl that unperceptively kept filling itself again. What this experiment showed is that many people are a member of the ‘clean plate club’. In other words, people decide they feel full when their bowls or plates are empty. However, people eating from the ‘bottomless soup bowl’ would never reach the bottom of the bowl. As a result they ate 73% more soup then the control group! Even more amazing though, is that these people reported the same levels of fullness as a control group (have a look at the Bottomless Soup Bowl mini-movie here). Our stomachs are good detectors of how much we have eaten, yet we seem to rely on our sight to tell us if we have eaten enough. If the bowl is not empty, I am not full. Therefore, trying to eat mindfully without distractions and really trying to listen to the cues our body is giving us can be extremely beneficial in creating a healthier eating pattern. However, if you are stressed or busy with other things, make sure you use smaller plates and bowls. You might be able to trick your brain into thinking it is full!
Get it out of my sight!
A lot of research shows that food proximity and visibility influences our eating behaviour. Wansink (2016) found that we are three times more likely to eat the first edible item we see at home than the fifth. If you put your least healthy food at the front of the cupboard or refrigerator, that’s the one you are most likely to eat. Proximity to the actual food also plays an important role. In a study looking at candy consumption in the office, it became apparent that people ate significantly more candy when a candy bowl was see-through (therefore visible) but also if the candies were placed on their desk vs 2 m away. So when in doubt, make sure you get those M&M’s as far away from you as possible, preferably somewhere where you can’t see it!
Ego-depletion, rest up!
Everywhere I look, there seems to be pastry shops with my name on it. Inhibiting impulses of giving into temptation can be tricky business. Why do we give in to our urges even though our health goals should stop us from doing so? One explanation can be found in dual-process models. These models state that our behaviour is controlled by two interacting systems: the reflective system and the impulsive system. The reflective system is responsible for behavioural decisions that are based on facts, values and the potential consequences of our behavior. The impulsive system is responsible for automatic impulses and habitual behavioural tendencies. The reflective system needs cognitive resources, whereas the impulsive system works fast and needs little or no mental effort. These two systems are always competing with each other for your final response. They are often the angel and the devil on your shoulders.
Looking at a donut, the impulsive system could tempt you to demolish it whereas the reflective system would make you run. If you want to eat healthier, you may have to inhibit the quick automatic impulsive behavioural tendencies produced by the impulsive system. However you will need self-control or inhibitory control to do this! Many studies say that self-control comes from a limited pool of mental resources that can be used up. When you are tired or have been forcing yourself to sit down at a desk all day, your energy for mental activity goes down and your self-control is typically lowered. This is known as ego-depletion. When we are ego-depleted, our automatic impulsive system tends to take over in making our decisions. Many people, including myself, have tried to increase self-control through inhibitory control training. However results of these training programmes are very mixed. Until we know more, making sure you to get enough rest is really important in keeping your self-control up and running. Some studies even show that positive mood can cushion the impairing effects of ego-depletion. So make sure you get enough sleep, take breaks and have some fun to avoid losing self-control and attacking that donut!
I touched on the topic of mindful eating earlier. Dealing with food cravings is often accomplished through strategies of suppression or distraction. However, a different approach gaining popularity are acceptance-based strategies. Acceptance-based regulation is an important aspect of mindfulness-based interventions. That is, individuals who practice mindfulness experience and accept their cravings fully without actively attempting to change, avoid or control them. So people practicing mindfulness are really trying to accept the fact that they are craving something and accept that that is uncomfortable, but practice not acting on it. Results seem quite promising in that studies report lower cravings in people who completed a mindfulness intervention. Therefore, if you are tired of beating yourself up over craving yet another Bic Mac, try looking into mindfulness as a strategy for creating a healthier diet (see here or here for example).
These are just a few small things that we could take into account when trying to improve our eating pattern. What is important to keep in mind though, is to stay reasonable. Instead of attempting to find the perfect diet leading to a dream beach body, it seems more helpful to think of it as becoming healthier. The burden to conform to the mythological perfect body can leave us feeling unhappy, overwhelmed, and inadequate. People have a tendency to engage in upward social comparison. Given the often unachievable nature of models’ appearance in the media, we can start to feel bad about our own bodies. Jessica Alleva from Maastricht University has done a lot of research on how we can learn to love our bodies more and improve our body image. In her studies (for example here), she is aiming to improve body satisfaction by encouraging a functionality-based focus to the body. It seems that women trained to describe the functionality of their body, approach their bodies with greater body appreciation than control participants. Therefore it is important to remember that your body’s job is not primarily to be appealing to others. Its purpose is to carry you through the world. Rather than focusing on the way your body looks, focus on what it can do! Think you have flabby arms? Think about how strong your arm is and all the things it can carry instead. Make sure you love your body and treat it with the respect it deserves. Body image should not hinge on whether you look like a fashion model. After all, if there’s a beach and you have a body, you are beach body ready!