Diet and nutrition

Thomas Rothwell, Physiologist at AXA Health

A nutritionist's tips to develop healthy eating habits

Diet and Nutrition

20 March 2020

If you’re prone to overindulging ‒ snacking on unhealthy foods, comfort eating, or grazing when you’re not even hungry – it may be time to change your attitude towards food.

When you ask someone why they overeat, or snack, they hardly ever say it’s because they’re hungry.

Thomas Rothwell, Physiologist at AXA Health, explains: “Many people overeat because they’re bored, lonely or upset. There’s often a tendency to eat to make ourselves feel better if we’re stressed or sad, and use the food to satisfy our emotional needs, rather than actual hunger. And some snacking is done unconsciously or simply out of habit. For example, while standing at the fridge, watching television, or at our work desks.”

Sound familiar?

Here are ten few physician-approved strategies to regain control of your unhealthy eating habits.

  1. Keep a food diary: Keeping a log of what you eat every day – meals, snacks and everything else! It will help you acknowledge what you’re eating – but be honest with yourself and don’t leave anything out.

    Thomas says: “Writing down everything you eat is a good reality check. Often people genuinely don’t realise they’re eating too much.” You can review at the end of the week and pick something to improve on for the week ahead.

  2. Find a positive mantra: Try telling yourself: ‘I want to be healthy’ or ‘I don’t need that right now, I’m not even hungry’ when you’re wavering by the biscuit tin.

    Thomas says: “To make it easier to stay away from unhealthy snacks it can be useful to have healthy alternatives at the ready, already portioned out correctly. For example, a small Tupperware box of Greek yoghurt with mixed berries, or having fresh cut carrot sticks and a tablespoon of hummus. With snacks at the ready, you won’t feel as though you’re missing out.”

  3. Set aside time to deal with stress: Sometimes it helps to externalise your worries and sources of stress by writing them down and allowing yourself 15 minutes a day to deal with them - this can help you stop reaching for food.

    Thomas says: “We’re more likely to comfort eat when we’re stressed. Some people find a ‘worry diary’ can help to mind-dump their thoughts. Jotting down all your worries, no matter how big or small they seem, can help you take control and declutter a busy mind.”

  4. Use distraction techniques: If you’re snacking out of habit, do something to distract your brain from food. Try a quick walk round the block, a glass of water, phoning a friend or listening to music.

    Thomas says: “If you’re worried that you’re constantly thinking about food and when you’ll eat next, it’s difficult to suddenly try to stop thinking about it. Rather than dwelling on the thoughts as a bad thing, perhaps turn it into something positive. Food is important – so use your thoughts to plan a healthy meal and enjoy your food rather than feeling guilty or going without.”

  5. Savour the taste and flavour: Try focusing on the taste of food, rather than the quantity, to help reduce portion size. If you’re still hungry or want to add more to your plate, add extra veg.

    Thomas says: “Eating mindfully can be a great way to help you enjoy your food more and take note of the flavours. We often eat in front of the television or at our desks and don’t take note of what and how much we are eating. Take your time, use your senses and enjoy your food!”

  6. Enjoy a surge of positive emotions when you resist temptation or start seeing results: Make short term goals so you can congratulate yourself and celebrate your successes on a regular basis – building up your self-esteem as you achieve each one.

    Thomas says: “Have a day of the week where you enjoy a slice of cake or order your favourite takeaway. This can help you to turn away unhealthy treats on a daily basis. We tend to enjoy a treat more when we have it less!”

  7. Don’t ban any food: If you do, it seems to become more appealing, you obsess about it and it’s not sustainable in the long term. There is no inherently ‘bad’ food, just ‘bad’ diets, so allow yourself those foods you enjoy, enjoy them without regret or feeling like a failure then move on and get back to your good habits!

  8. Be patient: If you’re aiming to lose some weight,  consistency really is cruicial and don’t get de-motivated if your only see small changes, progress is still progress!

    Thomas says: “It can be useful to make sure you review your goals, set a long term goal but also set short term goals to keep yourself motivated and on track.”

  9. Think small changes: It’s all the small changes that add up and don’t try and change too much at once. Make one or two changes to start with and go from there. Try eating smaller portions, using a smaller plate or look for calorie saving swaps.

    Thomas says: “Some easy swaps to try could be switching chocolate to fruit, having wholegrain instead of white bread or even, some evenings, swapping pasta/rice for extra fresh vegetables. These changes really mount up and can help towards boosting your energy levels and weight loss goals”.

In summary, our eating habits are often deeply engrained habits, but with work they can be changed and it’s really worth pursuing for a healthier and happier you!

Further information

You can find lots more expert-led information on diet and nutrition, plus recipes that pack a healthy punch, in our diet and nutrition hub.

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