One Question That Will Change the Way You Eat
By Nike Training
Taking a moment to rethink what you’re eating, and why, can have an immediate impact on your diet.
Why did you eat today?
We know — it sounds like a strange question. And it probably seems like there’s an obvious answer: Um, because I was hungry?
But is that really true? Think back over your day, even the last couple of days, and each time you reached for a snack or ate a meal. Did you do it because you actually felt hungry? You wouldn’t be alone if your answer was no.
So much of our day-to-day diet is automatic. We eat because it’s lunchtime. We eat because our partner bought snacks. We eat because now is when we have time to eat, or because we had a bad work meeting or a fight with our spouse or because we’re scrolling through emails and social media and we don’t even realize we’re…eating.
This mindless fueling is why asking the simple question of “Why am I eating this?” is at the crux of the healthy-eating strategy for nutrition experts Brian St. Pierre and Krista Scott-Dixon. Both work for Precision Nutrition, a company that trains and advises elite and everyday athletes. Both advocate for this practical, question-based approach to disrupt bad-diet patterns and give people the ability to make the best nutrition choices.
“Looking at the “why” is how you unpack the biggest culprit of a bad diet: emotional eating.”
Looking at the “why” is how you unpack the biggest culprit of a bad diet: emotional eating. You discover whether you’re eating because you’re stressed, bored or using food to cope with shame or guilt, says St. Pierre, who is also a registered dietician. He cites the example of clients who tell him that, on a Friday night, they devour a whole pizza and have four glasses of wine — at home alone. “I’m not judging anybody, but there's a reason why that’s happening,” he says. “If you don't ask ‘why,’ then just knowing what to eat is not going to address the problem.”
When you think about why you’re eating, you will come up with answers: Because I’m stressed. I’m in a hurry. I’m tired. I’m really hungry! Your goal is to make small, positive changes in response to those reasons why. Think of each one as a step forward on a continuum of healthier eating, says Scott-Dixon, Director of Curriculum for Precision Nutrition, and a nutrition educator with more than 20 years experience. The tiny change that’s worked for her: Taking one breath halfway through her meal. “This simple act puts me in a position of control,” she says. “I’m not rushing or mindlessly filling my mouth — I’m making the decision to eat.”
“You can keep eating if you want; food is always available to you. But to find out if you actually want it, pause.”
This is what the Precision Nutrition team dubs “the art of the pause.” A five-second moment that flips the switch in your brain to be present and tuned into your body’s hunger cues, which helps you stop eating when you’re satisfied, not totally stuffed. The “pause” wording is key. “We’re not saying stop,” says Scott-Dixon. “You can keep eating if you want; food is always available to you. But to find out if you actually want it, pause.”
If this sounds overly simplistic, well, give it a try. Sit down to eat at a table with no TV, phone or paper. Take a bite, put down the fork, pause: Think about why you’re eating. “This is really challenging!” Scott-Dixon says. “But it completely changes people’s experience with food.”
Elite athletes use a similar, attentive pattern, says St. Pierre. Watch a baseball player step out of the batter’s box, take a deep breath, gather himself. Watch a soccer player inhale deeply right before her penalty kick. “Athletes do this kind of thing intuitively all the time to slow down, not rush or make an autopilot kind of mistake,” he says. “They’re not meditating for 10 minutes — it's one breath, whoosh, and reset.” This same idea applies when you eat.
You can even pause right in the middle of what you might think is a screw up, too, says Scott-Dixon. Let's say you’re stress-eating a plate of fries, but you remember to pause and breathe. You realize, I’m not even hungry. I don’t even want to be eating this. “Do not catastrophize the moment,” Scott-Dixon says. “Instead, think, ‘Yes! I caught myself.’ Celebrate that moment, and store the realization away so that you’re prepared for the next time you’re stressed and reaching for food.”
“Making these conscious choices works, sometimes especially, when cravings hit.”
Making these conscious choices works, sometimes especially, when cravings hit. Scott-Dixon digs deep, asking herself: “‘What do I think this food is going to do for me? What feelings do I think I'm going to have after eating this?’ Or, how will eating this make me feel any less of the feeling that I’m having? Whether that’s stress, frustration, anger.” These questions are particularly useful, she adds, because people can often access the answers right away: They realize the real reason they’re crushing a pizza on a Friday night is because they need relief, a break, or a distraction.
And this is where the question-method really pays off: When we mentally ask ourselves Why? It interrupts mindless eating patterns and gives us the ability to recognize what we’re actually using food to do. If you still decide you want a second dessert or drink? “At least now you are making a conscious choice,” says St. Pierre. “And, more often than not, just giving conscious thought to what you’re eating and drinking will stop you from overdoing it.”
Make It a Habit: To help avoid mindless eating, take a five-second pause midway through a meal. Anchor this new behavior to a habit you already have, such as taking a sip of water. So, when you sip the water, remember: pause. Be sure to congratulate yourself each time you do the new habit — this will help seal it in.