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Do You Know the Real Reason <i>Why</i> You Eat?

12/10/2014 06:32 EST | Updated 02/09/2015 05:59 EST

If asked why they eat, most people would respond because they are hungry. But that seemingly obvious reason is the exception rather than the rule, according to a recent study on the psychology of food intake and portion control. The fact is that our eating decisions are motivated by numerous factors, and only a small fraction of those is based on actual hunger.

The need for nourishment can have multiple causes, many of which we are not even aware of. When we reach for food, we may seek to satisfy emotional as much as physical needs, perhaps even more so.

"Reasons for consumption are many and varied," said Dr. Katherine Appleton, a professor of psychology at Bournemouth University in Dorset, England and author of the study report.

"Few of us eat just because we are hungry. Most of the time, we eat as a result of how we feel, or what we think, or even, where we are and whom we are with. Most of these psychological factors, though, also result in us eating more than we know we should," she said to Food Navigator.

Her findings confirm what prior studies have also suggested, including those by Dr. Brian Wansink, the author of "Mindless Eating -- Why We Eat More Than We Think" (Bantam Books, 2006).

"We eat largely because of what's around us. We overeat not because of hunger but because of family and friends, packages and plates, names and numbers, labels and lights, colours and candles, shapes and smells, distractions and distances, cupboards and containers. The list is almost as endless as it's invisible," he writes.

By nature, we are genetically programmed to eat whenever opportunity presents itself, presumably stemming from times when food was much scarcer than it is today. And although the "feast or famine" scenario is no longer as common as it used to be, our instinct for making the most of opportune encounters still exists and influences our behaviour.

Even if we recognize these tendencies and consciously take counteraction, there is always the possibility that our control mechanisms get disrupted and overridden when we are faced with temptation, said Dr. Appleton, a response she describes as "disinhibition." Based on her research, she found that even very health-conscious individuals proved vulnerable in this regard. The "what the hell effect," as she calls it, is actually quite common, including among successful dieters once they start deviating from their regimen.

Keeping tabs on one's eating habits is particularly difficult when it comes to snacking. More than sit-down meals, snack foods are typically consumed without much attention. A study from the Netherlands found that intensely positive as well as negative experiences led study participants to reach for snack items to help them cope. Enjoying celebratory occasions turned out to be the dominant driver behind unhealthy snacking bouts, followed by opportunity-induced eating, the researchers said. Other motivators were a desire for gaining energy and dealing with stress. On all accounts, women were more inclined to utilize snacks for emotional reasons (both positive and negative) than men.

The most effective way to counteract urges for overeating is raising awareness, the study concluded. Once people become more conscious of their actions and the resulting damage to their health, they are better equipped to recognize the signals and avoid detrimental behaviour. In any case, knowing why we do what we do is always an advantage.

Food and Health with Timi Gustafson R.D.

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