As the new year rolls in and people consider their 2018 resolutions, we’re being flooded with advice on what to eat. There are endless new books, TV shows, magazine articles, and blogs advising us on how to lose weight, stay healthy, avoid disease, and live longer.
Although the health experts’ views on how to achieve these goals may differ, they have one thing in common: They only focus on what to eat. But eating well is about much more than just what you eat; it’s also about when, where, why, and how you eat.
When to Eat
We live in a culture in which being busy is valued. We often skip breakfast, rush through lunch, and are too busy to make a proper meal in the evening. The traditional three-meals-a-day structure of our lives is disappearing, and people are getting heavier and heavier as more snacks are consumed than ever before.
Yet when we have regular, specified meal times, we’re less likely to snack between meals or make unhealthy food choices driven by hunger. People who have regular eating habits and avoid unplanned snacking are more likely to achieve a balanced weight, according to a study published in the journal Current Obesity Reports.
Where to Eat
Not only are meal times disappearing, designated meal places are also on the way out. People eat in the car, at their desks, on the street, or in front of the TV. Yet much research shows that eating on the go or eating while distracted can make people eat more, since they aren’t aware of how much food they’re consuming. It can also make people consume more later on as they “forget” that they’ve eaten.
Conversely, if you have a designated room or café that you always eat in, the meal becomes a habitual event. The food is then the focus, which helps you feel fuller and more satisfied. You’re also more likely to mentally register the food as “done,” so you’re less likely to reach for a snack before the next meal.
If you ask people why they eat they tend to say “I’m hungry” or “I enjoy eating.” But for the majority of people, food is far more complicated than that. Eating is often about regulating emotions; we eat when we’re fed up, bored, or in need of a comforting treat.
It’s also about social interaction and communicating who we are to the rest of the world. Imagine a first date—what would you cook? A roast dinner might be too maternal, instant noodles too student-like, and oysters too desperate. Food can talk, and it’s used to show others the kind of person you are—especially in the age of social media and “food porn.” But when food fills so many more complex roles for us than simple nourishment, we lose connection with the basics—hunger and satiety.
We need to rediscover our natural eating rhythms and cues: the feeling of hunger emerging, the way food tastes better when we’re hungry, and the moment when we’re satisfied but not overfull. We also need to learn other ways to manage our emotions and find ways to socialize that don’t revolve around food.
How to Eat
Fullness is a perception, like pain or tiredness. So we eat more when we haven’t properly processed that we ate. But if we eat at a designated time in the day called “a mealtime,” at a designated place called a “meal place,” and tell ourselves “this is a meal,” then this mindful approach to eating can make us feel fuller and more satisfied.
Dietitians, nutritionists, and celebrity chefs are right to focus on what to eat. But eating well is also about when, where, why, and how food is consumed. And if we can eat well and feel satisfied, food can be put back in its rightful place so that we can start to eat to live, rather than live to eat.
is a professor of health psychology at the University of Surrey in England. This article was originally published on The Conversation.