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.

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Getting into a habit and reaching your goals

Forty-seven days into the new year, you may have made a new year resolution and may be finding it hard to stick to it. Your new year goal may have been to get more exercise and eat healthier. Or it may have been to spend less and save more money. But it’s been an uphill task over the Lunar New Year.

It takes less than a minute to eat a pineapple tart, but much more time and effort to burn all that energy off — 50 floors for each tart to be exact. Bak kwa can be savoured for a wee bit longer, but not as long as the time it’ll take to climb 40 floors for each coin devoured over the weekend (calorie counts for all the various goodies here). Meeting up with friends over brunch, mall and warehouse sales, red packets and late-night games played with square tiles are the highlights of the festive occasion. It’s hard to get away with spending very little or nothing at all.

Our ultimate aim may be to lose weight or to have a healthier bank balance to make the downpayment on a property. But it’s only within reach when we articulate a goal that is specific, measurable, attainable, relevant and time-bound. We make it possible for us to keep our new year resolution when we set a SMART goal.

Rather than saying we’ll eat healthy, we’re setting ourselves up for success if our plan is to “eat a serving of leafy vegetables at lunch and dinner” and “a serving of fruit with breakfast and at tea-time” by the end of the year. Rather than saying we’ll exercise more, we’re much more likely to implement an exercise habit if we were to aim to “do a physical activity for an hour twice a week” by the end of the year. Because really, who has time to exercise every day? Even carving time out to exercise every other day can be a challenge. Instead of saying we’ll spend less and save more, it’s be more effective to “set a monthly budget for dining and entertainment” by the end of the year.

But articulating a concrete goal which you can see yourself marking on your monthly calendar is only the first step. We’re more likely to succeed in achieving our goal when we form habits. Instead of saying we’ll sleep more, we’ll get more and better sleep if we were to cultivate a sleep habit each month. The goal of setting a budget for specific expenses would be within reach if we were first to develop a weekly habit of recording our expenses at the same time each week, say Sunday evening. Similarly, getting into the habit of eating fruits and veggies daily and exercising on specific days in the week makes it that much easier to achieve the goal of losing weight (How do fruits and veggies help? Here’s how), particularly when we’re preoccupied with life (I mean, problems, difficulties, challenges, sources of stress…that sort of thing).

Research reveals that doing a behaviour for the first time requires our attention. If our typical lunch and dinner are wonton mee and fish noodle soup, we engage the part of our brain which is responsible for decisions to add a portion of veggies to our meal. We intentionally seek out places which serve a generous portion of green veggies with our char kway teow and select foods which already have veggies built into the dish like yong tau foo. As we repeat this behaviour, our actions are stored in the area of the brain responsible for memory. Eventually, the mere action of getting lunch or dinner will automatically cue us into ordering a portion of veggies with our meal. And acquiring the habit of daily veggies and fruit makes our goal attainable.

But there are a few more tricks that will help jump-start your habit formation…

1. “Eating healthy” 
A 2013 study found that acquiring both exercise and diet habits simultaneously was more effective than acquiring them sequentially. People who tackled both exercise and diet habits were more successful in achieving their goals than those who changed their diet habits first and then acquired exercise habits.

So, it’s a good idea to implement both exercise and diet habits at the same time rather than one after the other.

2. “Getting exercise”
A 2015 study found that habits which prompted people to exercise were more important than the habit of exercising itself. Setting an alarm which cues us to go for gym class after work makes it more likely that we’ll actually go to the gym. Likewise, setting an appointment in the calendar to cue us to go on a nature walk or bike ride on the weekend, be it with friends or on our own, makes it more likely that we’ll realise our exercise goals. The study found that it could take a month or longer to develop the habits which prompt us to exercise.

Cues, such as having dinner with friends after attending a free mall Kpop fitness or Zumba class, can help you achieve your exercise goals.

3. “Spending less and saving more”
Because we may choose to shop and spend in order to make ourselves feel better (so say most the 700 women polled in a 2009 study), having a budget can help keep us in check.

But we’re more likely to stick to our budget if we also keep in mind the why of our goal, and if we focus on one goal. A 2010 study found that compared to people who listed 4 ways to save money, those who wrote down why they wanted to save money, actually spent less money when given the opportunity to do so, while a 2011 study observed that people were more successful at saving money when they focused on one goal (e.g., to gain financial independence) rather than multiple goals (e.g., for children’s education, a rainy day, retirement).

So, the first step in financial planningmaking a list of why you want to save money — is far more important than you think. That together with your newly minted habit of tracking monthly expenditure, you’ll be able to set a budget for all the categories of spending (e.g., mortgage repayments, insurance plans, transport, utilities, groceries, phone and internet subscriptions, dining out, clothes, entertainment), bringing you closer to your goal of “spending less and saving more”. To make it even easier, you can take advantage of this budget calculator which will do all the work for you.