Do any of these situations sound familiar?
- Your meals usually come out of a carton, a vacuum-packed bag, or over the deli counter.
- You almost never eat alone: TV, the Internet, phone, or your favorite magazine is there for nearly every meal.
- You find it next to impossible to walk away from free food, even if you're not hungry – including all-you-can-eat buffets, supermarket sample tables, and those "taste me" booths at flea markets.
- You spend more time regretting what you ate than preparing it.
- You eat when you're hungry. Also when you're sad, mad, hurt, annoyed, irritated – even, sometimes, when you're overjoyed.
If you find yourself saying "That's me," you may have fallen prey to one or more unhealthy eating styles, mealtime or lifestyle habits that can get in the way of weight control.
Sometimes, destructive eating patterns are easy to spot, such as when you turn to food every time you're facing a problem. But often, the cues are so subtle that these unhealthy habits go unnoticed.
"Because we have been living with these habits or 'eating styles' for so long, we often don't even realize we are doing them," says Linda Yerardi, RD, LD, a dietician at Mercy Medical Center in Baltimore, Md.
So while you might recognize that you overeat when you're very upset, Yerardi says, you're less likely to see how little, everyday stresses are also driving your eating habits, with nibbles and bites that add up by the end of the day.
Another example: Eating while watching television or reading may make us feel less lonely, says weight loss coach Janice Taylor, but it also causes a disconnect with the fact that it's mealtime. And that, she says, often means a disconnect with how much you are eating.
"Television puts in you a light trance, and to some extent, the Internet or even reading a magazine can do the same thing," says Taylor, author of Our Lady of Weight Loss: Miraculous and Motivational Musings from the Patron Saint of Permanent Fat Removal. "So you end up chewing one mouthful while already shoveling another one onto the fork, without even tasting what you're eating."
Finding Your Eating Style
While eating styles are as individual as we are, some researchers believe they can be grouped into just a handful of behavior patterns.
After analyzing surveys from more than 5,000 men and women, researchers Larry Scherwitz, PhD, and Deborah Kesten, MPH, identified seven common patterns.
"Each of the newly identified eating styles was independently related to self-reports of overeating frequency; five of the seven were significantly related to overweight and obesity," the authors wrote in Explore: The Journal of Science of Healing, which published their findings.
Some of the unhealthy patterns identified by the study include:
- Food Fretting: You're overly concerned with what you eat, and have a negative relationship with food.
- Task Snacking: You almost always eat while doing something else -- like watching TV, answering email or even cooking -- which can lead to overeating.
- Emotional Eating: You turn to food not only during life's traumatic moments, but anytime you feel stressed, anxious, or a little upset.
- Fast Foodism: Simply put, you're "hooked" on processed and convenience foods, and you gulp them down fast!
- Solo Dining: You use food to fill a social void – and the more often you eat alone, the more you eat.
- Unappetizing Atmosphere: You eat behind the wheel, at your desk, or standing up in front of the refrigerator. This keeps you from concentrating on what you're eating, and makes it more likely you'll overeat.
- Sensory Disregard: Mealtime is hectic, and you disconnect entirely from the eating experience. This leads to eating without thinking, and that usually means overeating.
While you may not see your own exact situation in these categories, Taylor says the bigger picture here is that all seven behaviors serve a single purpose: They take the focus off appetite and provide another reason for eating.
"Whether it's a distraction, an amusement, a comfort, a consolation -- if you are not eating mindfully, and you are not one with your food, chances are you are going to overeat," says Taylor, creator of the "Kick in the Tush Club" weight loss newsletter.
Solving the Problem
So what can you do to home in on your bad eating habits – and change them?
First, says, psychologist Abby Aronowitz, PhD, spend about a week writing down everything in your life that's connected to food.
"This is not just about keeping a 'food diary' – it's really a lifestyle diary, one in which you record everything that has to do with eating," says Aronowitz, author of Your Final Diet.
This includes not only writing down what you ate, but how much you ate, where you were when you ate it, the time of day it was, why you ate it, if you were alone or with someone else, and, most importantly, what else you were doing while you were eating, she says.
Aronowitz says it may also be helpful to note how many of your foods were fresh, frozen, processed, fried, steamed, baked, broiled, take-out, or eaten at a restaurant, and how many you ate "out of the box."
"Eating anything out of a box, without a predetermined portion, can be especially dangerous – before you know it, it's gone, and you haven't even tasted the last few hundred calories!" says Aronowitz.
After one to two weeks of journaling your food habits, you should begin to see a pattern emerge.
"You can not only identify your eating 'triggers,' but also the driving force behind why you may be eating more than you need, and even more than you realize," says Aronowitz.
Your Eating Style
Once you know what your eating style is, Yerardi says, you can take steps to compensate.
"If you know, for example, that an all-you-can-eat buffet means you are going to go eat all that 10 people could eat, go in prepared: Put a time limit on how long you will stay, or on how many dishes you will try, " says Yerardi.
If noshing and nibbling is the only way you can deal with stress, Taylor says, then nosh and nibble on healthy, low-calorie foods.
"Just because you feel the need to eat when you are nervous, doesn't mean you have to eat Boston cream pie," she says. "You can eat a tasty and wholesome snack."
Moreover, all the experts who spoke with WebMD say that if you try to make eating a conscious experience that touches all your senses, you're less likely to overeat. And even if you do, you'll be less likely to punish yourself for it afterward.
"When you are aware of what you eat, and you eat it consciously, at least you have enjoyed it – as compared to eating it unconsciously and not even remembering what it tasted like,' says Taylor.
The motto she suggests to all her weight loss clients: "Confess your food sins – forgive yourself – and move on!"