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Why do we eat foods we know are bad for us?

There is a wealth of information available on the benefits of good nutrition and the poor health effects of “bad” food. We know that in general we eat too much and don’t move enough leading to weight and obesity problems. So why do we eat food high in fat and sugar and why is it so easy to do so?

Despite the fact that we become accustomed to the taste of fat and sugar, our food choices are also strongly connected to our behaviour. Researchers at the University College of London fed chocolate to people (“cravers” and “non-cravers”) twice a day for two weeks either when they were hungry or full. When re-assessed, those who were fed chocolate when hungry increased their craving whether or not they liked chocolate before the study commenced. Chocolate lovers only increased their craving when they were hungry. Those who were fed chocolate when full reduced their craving at any time.

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Results of this study showed that cravings for chocolate or other food types may be a reflection of a learned desire triggered by the sensation of feeling hungry. In other words, eating a “bad” food when we are hungry can result in us associating the feeling of hunger with a need for that food type.

So . . . how do we combat this? Firstly, it would seem, that if we want chocolate we should eat it when we are already full. Secondly it suggests that if we have fallen into bad eating habits we need to break the link between the stimulus (hunger) and the response (eating bad food). This is, of course, easier said than done as learned behaviours have often been ingrained for a long time. At the core of the problem is the confusion between “hunger” and “appetite”. Hunger is the biological need for food whereas appetite is a demand to satisfy a want for food. Here are some suggestions:

  • Try determining if you are really hungry before eating. If you are, then the sensation will not reduce with distraction.
  • Try delaying your hunger by eating more high fibre, low energy dense food such as fruit, vegetables, pasta and cereal or by regular healthy snacking
  • If you are hungry then try and create some new learned behaviours by selecting good food options and delaying intake of poorer choices until you are full (or not at all).

Whatever choices you make, change needs to become part of your everyday lifestyle to be effective long term. Speak to the Training and Corporate Health Team at Injury Treatment if you would like your workforce to learn more strategies for managing their eating habits.