When did eating get so complicated? I imagine the first humans reading the title of this article then bursting into howls of laugher saying, “You eat when you’re hungry and when there’s food available! Article done!” And while I wish it were always that simple, unfortunately, the motivation behind human eating behavior is more complex.
Having a thorough understanding of the various reasons behind why humans eat is invaluable. Being aware of the different factors which contribute to the choices you (or your clients) make around food, gives you the ability to solve existing “challenges” and develop programs that work in real-world scenarios to facilitate sustainable behavior changes.
Through this article, I will layout a blueprint you can use when designing/modifying nutrition protocols for yourself or your clients.
**This blueprint was designed with the concept in mind that you (or the client you are working with), are committed to the execution of the plan and the attainment of the desired goals. The motivation and commitment are already there, all that’s needed now are a few new strategies or modifications to current procedures to facilitate real-world application.
Physiological influences are the most obvious factors which contribute to human eating behavior. Food (i.e. energy derived from food) is essential to human life; if we didn’t eat, we would die. To prevent this undesirable effect from happening, our bodies possess multiple mechanisms that increase our drive to eat if it senses a shortage of energy influx is happening.
This increased drive to eat (or to keep eating after starting) and our desire to stop eating, occurs through physical and chemical changes in various short and long-term signals, including: stomach distension, blood plasma concentrations of cholecystokinin and glucagon-like peptide 1, decreases in blood glucose, leptin changes, ghrelin concentrations, and more (1). Along with these physiological changes, another factor which falls under this same category of physiological influences, is the hedonic properties of food. Simply put, if something tastes good to us, there is a greater likelihood we will eat more of it compared to something that doesn’t taste as good.
How does this information practically apply?
In-regards to these physiological drivers, yes, you cannot completely eliminate their influence. With that said, there are some very effective strategies you can use to help minimize or prolong the unfavorable effects of these natural forces:
- Incorporate refeeds and diet-breaks. Since this article is being published on the 3DMJ website, I am going to make the assumption that many of you reading this are already well aware of these strategies; I am simply going to list them and move on.
- Manipulate macronutrient intake. Each of the macronutrients (protein, fat, carbohydrates) have different physiological effects inside the body once ingested. When these nutrients enter the G.I. tract, numerous hormones are released into the bloodstream with different macronutrients prompting the release of different hormones. For example, cholecystokinin (CCK) is released as a function of the presence of fat (i.e. long-chain fatty acids) or protein (i.e. amino acids) (2), where as glucagon-like peptide 1 (GLP-1) is produced primarily in response to carbohydrates and fat (3). Through these hormonal changes and the varying actions required for assimilation, each of the macronutrients effect satiety and satiation differently (e.g. fat slows down gastric motility more so than carbohydrates, therefore having a beneficial effect on satiety and prolonging the time until feeling the desire to eat again). Simple adjustments to macronutrient intake (e.g. higher-fat, lower-carbohydrate, or vis versa) can help to increase satiety, reduce caloric-intake, and therefore increase the effectiveness and enjoyment of the diet.
- Modify current eating behaviors. This is a catchall phrase to include all of the above strategies, as well as all of the other components which contribute to the overall nourishment process (e.g. number of meals, meal-frequency, etc.). Taking a closer look at someone’s eating behaviors allows you to identify patterns which are interfering with execution and accuracy of the plan. Some examples could be: excessive snacking, unconscious eating, abnormal macronutrient distribution (normally due to following old-school dieting-rules—”No carbs after 6 pm!”), modifying food choices, etc. Identifying some of these ineffective patterns and modifying the behavior to one which is enjoyable and conducive to you or your client’s goals can have night and day effects on the plan’s execution and consistency.
There is a common phrase which says, “You cannot separate physiology from psychology”, and it’s absolutely true (within this context). Let me ask you a question…have you ever eaten because you were bored, stressed, upset, angry, excited, or because of any other emotion, EVER?
I am going to make the safe assumption that everyone has done this at least once in their lives, which validates the claim mentioned above. As I alluded to at the beginning of this article, if the only reason humans ate was in response to physiological hunger and satiety feedback, the whole human eating experience would be much simpler. But again, it just doesn’t work like that.
How does this information practically apply?
If you have designed a plan which is physiologically compatible and have worked through all of the above strategies to ensure it is effective in managing hunger and satiety signals, but are still running into problems with “real-world” execution, then looking at psychological influences (beliefs, thoughts, and attitudes around food and eating) may lead you to the solution.
I recently finished a 3-part series on non-physiological reasons related to eating, which I will link here:
In these articles, I touch on the various psychological (and sociological) factors which affect eating behavior. While these articles touch on some of the information we are going to cover in the next section, they layout a few very effective strategies for conquering emotionally driven eating behaviors (in-particular parts 2 & 3). If you have identified that the cause(s) behind the accuracy and consistency issues are linked to eating for emotionally driven reasons, give these articles a read to learn some practical strategies you can use to resolve those challenges.
Modern Societal Norms, Cultural Customs, & Environmental Influences
This is an umbrella category for all of the external factors that influence human eating behavior. Up until now, everything we have focused on have been internal factors that affect our behavior; however, there are many factors outside of ourselves that also influence what we eat. Some of these include: family traditions, holidays, celebratory events, even things like time of day and food availability.
While the number of external factors that influence human eating behavior are quite vast, the strategies to manage them are relatively similar:
- Manage your environment. This is one of the most underrated yet effective strategies—it works exceptionally well and requires very little effort. Managing your immediate environment (kitchen, car, work-space) lets you capitalize on the powers of proximity and convenience. By reducing the number of food options and proactively setting your environment up in a way so that it’s easier to adhere than not adhere, can contribute to your success as much as anything else—If it’s not there, you can’t eat it.
- Proactively design situation specific strategies. This includes: holidays, weddings, birthday parties, etc. Do you or your client have a strategy going into these events, or do you just “show-up and hope for the best”? Depending on the situation and your current goals, doing things like: moving refeeds, shifting calories from surrounding days, eating lighter before the event, sticking to nutrient dense foods at the event, etc., can all be used to formulate your strategy. The method I often use to create strategies for myself and my clients is to ask this question:
How can I enjoy the event and stay on track with my goals?
Answering this question will allow you to formulate a strategy that achieves both aims.
- Ask for support. This is a useful strategy for those who are getting a lot of push-back from their family, friends, and co-workers. To summarize a much larger point (before this article turns into a book), if you have someone in your life you truly care about and who has an influence over you and your behaviors, sit-down with them and inform them of your goals (or lifestyle changes). Let them know how much these goals mean to you, how challenging the attainment of them is going to be, and how having their support would mean an incredible amount to you. If those closest to you understand how important this goal or lifestyle change is to you, there is a much greater chance they will be supportive of your efforts. This is especially true if you are using methods which take into account their needs and feelings as well.
Many factors influence human eating behavior, and for a nutritional program to be effective and sustainable long-term it must take into account all of these different contributing forces. While this article is not comprehensive, it is my hope that it brings awareness to the many factors which influence human eating behavior and it provides you with some real-world strategies you can begin using immediately to create effective and sustainable plans for you and your clients.
I hope you benefited and enjoyed reading this article. If there is anything you’d like me to write about in the future, please feel free to reach out to me at: stevetaylorRD@gmail.com. You can also find me on:
Mailing List: http://eepurl.com/cgrTfv
- De Graaf C, Blom WA, Smeets PA, Stafleu A, Hendriks HF. Biomarkers of satiation and satiety. Am J Clin Nutr 2004;79:946–61.
- Degen L, Matzinger D, Drewe J, Beglinger C. The effect of cholecystokinin in controlling appetite and food intake in humans. Peptides2001;22:1265–9.
- MacIntosh CG, Andrews JM, Jones KL, et al. Effects of age on concentrations of plasma cholecystokinin, glucagon- like peptide 1, and peptide YY and their relation to appetite and pyloric motility. Am J Clin Nutr1999;69:999–1006.