Are you eating to feel good or to feel better?

“Thoughts drive dieting plans, but feelings drive dieting behaviour”. We plan rationally what to eat, but we gorge on things which make us feel good.That’s what health psychologists are telling us. No doubt, garlic scallops with broccoli makes us feel good. But after a morning of fighting fires and an string of tedious afternoon meetings involving front line hand-to-hand combat with tiring individuals, we’ll be wanting something that makes us feel better. We’d probably be somewhat receptive to truffle fries and mud pie. We’ll be looking forward to that last slice of chocolate cake waiting patiently for us in the fridge at home.

It’s the same reason why we’re able to sustain a relatively narrow diet of something healthy but quite plain (e.g., a mono-food diet of cabbage soup or a daily regimen of raw veggies and steamed salmon) for only so long. We crave foods which draw out a warm and fuzzy feeling from us in our moments of weakness. I mean, moments of stress, when life throws us challenges. And it’s not something we’ve cooked up. There’s data to show that we’re prone to emotional eating when we experience job burnout and fatigue.

But we need not be slaves to our cravings. Here are seven questions to ask yourself:

1. Are you feeling stressed?
We may not realise it but our emotions are in the driver’s seat when it comes to eating. We reach for comfort foods when we’re stressed. We treat ourselves to something nice after we’ve had to deal with something challenging. This is not just anecdotal evidence. A recent study shows that we’re much more likely to choose tasty but unhealthy food over a healthy but less tasty one after we’ve experienced a stressful event. The reason for this has a neurobiological basis: Our cortisol levels, which are elevated by stress, disrupt the self-control mechanism in our brains, which means that stress can derail our well-intentioned plans to eat healthy. That means that managing your stress levels is one of the key components of eating healthy.

2. Which foods are you emotionally attached to?
Stress is not the only thing we should be concerned about. Anxiety and depression also affect how we eat. At least half of the people who responded to a recent US survey agreed that weight loss was caused by not exercising enough and by the foods they ate. Only 10% considered mental well-being to be a main factor for being successful at losing weight. To cope with emotional eating, it can be helpful to understand why you eat what you eat. Keeping a daily journal can help you track the (unhealthy) foods which you eat to make yourself feel better. Use technology to your advantage: Apps like Calorie Counter and Diet Tracker not only track the nutritional value of your meal, but give you the option to label your foods with say, your emotions.

3. What emotions are you experiencing?
How often have we had lunch but not remembered what we ate? Multi-tasking at lunch or dinner time means that we often inhale our meals without considering whether we should continue eating because we’re still hungry. A 2014 study has shown that those who received training to recognise basic emotions in themselves and others were more likely to choose a healthy snack than the control group. The trained group also achieved weight loss after 3 months, whereas the control group gained weight in the same interval. According to other researchmindful eating — which includes being aware of one’s emotions when eating — means that you’ll be less likely to eat for emotional reasons. To reap the other benefits of being more motivated to exercise and having better blood glucose regulation, ask yourself what emotions you’re experiencing when you’re reaching for your 3rd pineapple tart.

4. Are you in a good mood?
Knowing how you feel when you’re about to eat is one thing. Stopping yourself from finishing all the pineapple tarts and the last of the kueh lapis is another thing. That’s where the findings of a 2014 study come in. Researchers found that people in a good mood more often chose healthy foods than those in a neutral mood. Of course, those in a bad mood more often chose comfort (and unhealthy) foods than those in a neutral mood. But the researchers also managed to get those in a bad mood to make better food choices: Getting them to focus on the future rather than the present made more who were in a bad mood switch to healthy foods. So, distract yourself with music or friends when you’re in a bad mood to avoid indulgent emotional eating.

5. Did you have breakfast this morning?
Breakfast has been linked to various positive health outcomes. Here’s one more! A 2014 study explains the reason why breakfast leads to less overeating during the rest of the day. It turns out that eating at the start of the day regulates your feel-good hormone, dopamine, reducing your food cravings during the rest of the day.

6. Do you really need to eat everything at the buffet?
Given a choice between a cheap all-we-can-eat buffet and a pricier one, which would we choose? The cheap one might be good for our wallet in the short run, but a 2015 study finds that we’re much more likely to overeat and feel guilty for our indulgence at the cheap than pricier buffet. So, practice mindful eating and go for the not-so-cheap option…if nothing less than a buffet will suffice.

7. Are you still feeling hungry?
Proteins, grains and pulses are the secret to curbing our appetite. And not all foods are equal: almonds, saffron, and pine nut oil also help us feel full for longer, according to an 2014 report in Food Technology.

Better ways to call it quits

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You likely know the reasons why you should quit smoking.

If you didn’t, here’s a fact sheet from the World Health Organization. You’re probably aware that stopping smoking reduces your risk of lung cancer, heart disease, and chronic obstructive pulmonary disease more commonly referred to as COPD (more facts here). A recent study has further shown that long-term smoking causes your brain’s cortex to thin. The good news is that stopping smoking will restore part of your cortex.

You probably also know that you can receive support from the Health Promotion Board on the Quit Smoking Helpline (1800 438 2000) and the I Quit mobile app. But you may not be aware that some ways to quit are better than others. Here’s what the experts say:

1. Cut back on nicotine slowly
A 2015 study shows that brain oxygen uptake and blood flow decreases up to 17% just 12 hours after people stop smoking. This nauseatingly unpleasant sensation is a likely obstacle for many aiming to stop smoking entirely. So actually, it seems that quitting gradually may be better in the long run than going cold turkey.

2. E-cigarettes are one way to quit smoking
recent study found that as many as a fifth of participants had quit smoking and were smoke-free 8 months after a 2-month study, during which they could use e-cigarettes. In another recent study involving randomized trials, more participants were smoke-free by the end of the year with e-cigarettes (9% quit smoking) than a placebo (4% quit smoking). It also turns out that the kind of e-cigarette you use and how often you use them may be more important than you thought. Recent reports suggest that e-cigarettes are effective if used regularly and if you use the refillable tank versions. The jury’s still out though, according to a 2015 meta-analysis of research: This analysis says that on the whole, e-cigarettes helped people stay smoke-free for a month but not 3 or 6 months after quitting.

3. Use concrete rewards
Give yourself an incentive to stop smoking. Don’t laugh. It works. Participants who earned a $20 gift card on their quit date and additional $5 each week for the following 12 weeks after the quit date, were much more likely to stay smoke-free than those who didn’t have a financial incentive to do so. In this 2014 study, about half were smoke-free a month after their quit date, and a third remained smoke-free 2 months after they stopped receiving any financial incentive.

A 2015 study found that adding a financial disincentive further improved quit rates. More people stayed smoke-free for 6 months if they received US$800 than if they had counselling or nicotine-replacement therapy (gum, medication, patches). But even more people stayed smoke-free if they not only received US$650 but also had to forfeit a US$150 deposit for not staying smoke-free 6 months after the quit date. So here’s a way for your supporters to do something concrete to up your chance of success. It’s better, of course, if your friends and family have deep pockets.

4. Consider coaching and counselling options
Getting help and support from an stop smoking specialist advisor has been shown to be one of the most effective strategies for helping smokers stay smoke-free. But not everyone wants or has time for one-to-one sessions. A 2014 study found that providing smokers with support through a virtual stop-smoking advisor via the interactive “StopAdvisor” website doubled quit rates among those from lower income groups. Unfortunately, that’s not an option here.

You can however receive support from smoking cessation programmes at the polyclinics — both the National Healthcare Group and SingHealth polyclinics offer them. Smoking cessation advisors can also help at the Department of Pharmacy at Changi General Hospital, Khoo Teck Puat Hospital, and National University Hospital, as well as at Singapore General Hospital (Department of Respiratory & Critical Care Medicine), Tan Tock Seng Hospital (Clinic 4A), and the National Skin Centre.

And everyone can get involved. Family and friends can getting involved too. Anyone can learn the basics of smoking cessation counselling — HPB provides Level 1 and Level 2 training, and continuing education Level 3 workshops.

There may also be a smoking cessation programme at your workplace: Check with your HR to find out more. And if there isn’t, consider seeking support from a professional counsellor — the Employee Assistance Programme or EAP at your workplace may be a good place to start.

5. Watch out for your cravings
A 2015 study found that brain areas associated with smoking cravings were much less activated for women during the ovulation period than a later part of the menstrual cycle. Even if you’re not planning to time your exit from nicotine, you could be mentally more prepared to do battle with your cravings before you get to that time of the month.

You can have all resources about how to best quit, but it’s the emotional support that’s most crucial to staying smoke-free. Just remember, there’s no one-size-fits-all solution to quitting. Have a happy smoke-free No Tobacco Day!