Using Eating Psychology to Improve Health

The Psychology of Eating: Identifying and Addressing Unhealthy Patterns

Many people struggle with eating healthfully. Some understand the types of foods they should be eating but just can’t get on a healthy track. Others are unsure about what “eating healthy” really means. For the former situation, one way to start to overcome obstacles is to consider the psychology behind eating.

“When we think of health and wellness, food is closely tied in, as is fitness. The overwhelming message we get from society is that food and activity dictate our weight. It’s essentially that model of ‘calories in, calories out.’ There is so much more to it than that. There are so many more layers of health,” states Emily LaVoie, Eating Psychology Coach at Riverside Healthcare.

Nutritionist vs. Eating Psychology Coach

LaVoie differentiates the help a nutritionist provides from what she does as an eating psychology coach. Whereas a nutritionist helps individuals identify what foods are nutritionally sound versus those that aren’t, an eating psychology coach really hones in on what is keeping people from making the right decisions or why they’ve failed at dieting in the past.

“Somebody who needs eating psychology coaching often says to me, ‘I kind of know what I should eat, but I’m really struggling to do it. I know what is healthy and I know what is unhealthy. I know what I should eat more of. I know what I should eat less of. I just can’t make myself do it. I can’t make myself do it consistently enough to get the results that I want,’” notes LaVoie.

Digging Deep to Find a Solution

In the initial meeting with her clients, LaVoie dives deep with an extensive set of questions—many that may seem odd for a stranger to ask. Yet, she needs to be able to fully understand one’s situation so she can get to the bottom of where the trouble exists.

“Examples would be, I want to know what your childhood was like. I want to know what your relationship with your parents was like when you were a child. What is it like as an adult? Are your parents still alive? What about your relationship with your siblings? How is your relationship with your significant other? How are your finances? Do you like your job? Do you like where you are living? All of those stressful things are oftentimes where challenges with food are rooted,” she explains.

From that in-depth look, LaVoie can start to form a plan from which her clients can then embark upon.

Unwanted & Unhealthy Eating Patterns

Unhealthy eating habits take many forms, including overeating, binge eating, emotional eating, stress eating, boredom eating, and food addiction.

LaVoie defines binge eating as eating an immense amount of food in a short timeframe. It’s typically accompanied by intense feelings of guilt, and therefore many binge eaters hide their behavior from others—sometimes in extreme ways. “Perhaps they wait until other people in the household go to bed. Or, maybe they do it in their car and then secretly dispose of the ‘evidence’ if you will,” she shares.

Food addiction is another common problem and often involves strong substances in food like sugar, chocolate, and caffeine. While LaVoie considers this a true addiction, it differs from alcohol and drug addiction. “We don’t need drugs and alcohol to live. We do need food to live,” she adds.

LaVoie also makes the distinction between eating disorders and disordered eating. Eating disorders are viewed by the medical community as a clinical diagnosis and life threatening. They are usually diagnosed by a physician, psychologist, or psychiatrist. Alternatively, disordered eating is not considered a “life or death” scenario—but it still may have negative implications in peoples’ lives.

Getting to the “Why”

LaVoie wants people to know that unhealthy eating habits are not impossible to break away from, especially if you understand the “why.”

“When you really break down and peel back the layers, a lot of it has to do with eating for comfort and for pleasure. That’s not a bad thing. We do eat for reasons besides hunger,” she assures. “It begins to become a problem when we don’t have enough comfort and pleasure coming into our lives from other avenues, and we continuously are looking to food as the only way of getting those feel-good feelings.”