By: Jill Hillhouse, BPHE, CNP
Habits develop when familiar stimuli activate well-established neural pathways that produce repetitive behaviour. Put more simply, the same cues prompt us to react the same way because the specific sequence of actions we take (the script) becomes imprinted in our brain. Habits are convenient and allow us to do some things without the need to pay close attention, like tying our shoes while carrying on a conversation. When it comes to food however, this imprinting allows us to act without awareness so that a lot of the time we’re not thinking about food, we’re following eating scripts.
In their books Mindless Eating and The End of Overeating, authors Brian Wansink and David A. Kessler write that in our day-to-day lives we encounter certain food situations so frequently, we develop automatic patterns or habitual behaviours in order to deal with them. We all have breakfast scripts (a coffee and a bagel from a drive-thru), snacking scripts (something crunchy, sweet or salty), restaurant scripts (bread to the table), stress-busting scripts (comfort foods), eating and driving scripts (drive-thrus, again), and so on.
Our television/Netflix script—what and how we eat when we watch television or our computer screens—may be the worst offender. It is well documented that people who watch more TV are more likely to be overweight than people who watch less. When people watch TV, not only are they not burning calories by not doing something physical, they tend to snack more even if they are not hungry. The TV-script goes something like this: Turn on the TV/computer; sit, lie down or curl up; find a program; and snack before, between and after episodes. In addition to encouraging us to eat with its powerful food advertising, TV prevents us from paying attention to how much we eat, because we are distracted (we forget we already had a snack or meal, and we are triggerering more habitual patterns to eat again even when we are not hungry). A poll of over 1,500 people commissioned by the American Dietetic Association found that 91 per cent of people typically watch TV when eating meals at home.
Rewriting the script means developing new cues to compete with old ones. We can think about this approach as “planned eating,” where structure is key. Instead of a day or night in front of the TV mindlessly eating, developing a strategy to deal with each script will shift behaviour toward a new set of healthier cues that makes eating enjoyable and nourishing rather than a source of frustration, guilt and even regret.
Be aware of your eating scripts—especially the TV one!—and try some of these tips in your own health script.
1. Put food in a bowl—a small one. Too often while watching TV, we eat snacks right out of the package, which inevitably leads to overeating. Put a serving into a small bowl so you can actually see and be aware of your quantities. And put the package away so there is no refilling!
2. Choose consciously and wisely. A glycemically-balanced snack will keep your blood sugar steady and help prevent more cravings. Try apple slices dipped in almond butter, or raw veggies with a homemade yogurt dip.
3. Think hot. Hot drinks make you feel fuller and are therefore more satisfying. That being said, they can also be full of high-glycemic calories. Prepare a mug of hot water, ginger and lemon or choose from hundreds of naturally, caffeine-free herbal teas that line grocery and specialty store shelves.
4. Plan not to eat while watching TV. Seriously. Most people do better with changing their food habits when they stop something altogether, rather than just cutting down. Cold turkey can be tough, but when you set aside some time to simply enjoy your meal, you might be surprised by how good healthy food can taste.
ABOUT JILL HILLHOUSE: Jill is a Certified Nutritional Practitioner, author of The Best Baby Food, a nutrition education expert and a passionate advocate for whole foods eating. In addition to practicing at P3 Health, Jill is a faculty member of the Institute of Holistic Nutrition.
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