Why did I eat that? How to get to the root of the problem.

By Darren Stehle

Why diid I eat that?

Have you ever finished eating something and thought, “Why did I eat that?”

It’s a classic case of being triggered to want to eat something as opposed to being in control and choosing what you want to eat instead.

This week one of my clients discovered an important insight for why she craves and then eats certain foods. She was completing the “notice and name” exercise as part of my nutrition and wellness coaching program.

“Walking by Starbucks in the morning on my way to work always triggers me to get a latte and a breakfast sandwich, because it’s become my ritual. Latte always needs to be paired with a breakfast sandwich in my mind. The smell of fries almost always makes me want to eat a poutine.”

Listen or Download this Post

Most of us are so busy that we often eat without awareness. Or we eat out of routine. We might overeat because we ate too fast, not giving our body time to signal that we were getting full. We might eat too fast while stressed out and not chew our food enough. Not only do you not taste your food, you might get indigestion.

In both examples your awareness is on something else other than simply eating. Perhaps work, reading Facebook, or thinking about some stressful situation in your day.

You can use the notice and name exercise in any area of your life, but here’s how it works for eating. Essentially you make time to be mindful of the food you eat and how you eat it.

Notice and Name = Control and Change

Perhaps you’ll notice how fast you eat, or that you only chew your food five times before you swallow. When you notice that you can name it: “I eat too fast and I don’t chew my food enough.”

With this new awareness you can make changes. What you notice you can assess (name) and then choose what to do about it.

This allows you to prevent bad decisions you’ve made, consciously or unconsciously, without feeling guilty afterwards.

Guilt is a common emotion for many of my clients who have been binge food eaters, or who have felt controlled by food. This happens to the best of us, even me. Take me to a buffet and no matter how hard I try to, I still over eat. I feel bloated, uncomfortable, and think to myself, “Why did I do that, again?”

How to Do the Notice and Name Exercise

Give yourself the time and space to commit to this process. In other words don’t do this when your day is completely off the hook.

Make a note to remind yourself to start first thing in the morning before breakfast. See how often you can practice during the day.

Notice the signals, both internal and external, that make you feel hungry or make you want to eat.

This part is important. You are making the distinction between the physical need to eat and the emotional response to food or situations.

How to Notice to Gain Control of your Eating

Notice if the signal is something physical.

  • Do you feel light-headed?
  • Do you have a “hunger headache”?
  • Do you feel “hangry”?
  • Does your stomach give you signals via gurgling?

When you see food how do you respond?

  • Does a particular food trigger your hunger?
  • Is it food in general or one kind of food in particular or a favourite meal?
  • When you see someone else eating how does that make you feel?

What about food smells?

  • What food smells trigger hunger?
  • Do any foods trigger a feeling of disgust?
  • Are there any food smells that trigger emotions or memories?

For example, when I see a strawberry rhubarb pie I think of my Grandmother. It’s a lovely memory. I also love the smell of espresso. It’s a ritual for me to grind the beans in the morning first thing. The aroma gives me pleasure. It’s a routine that’s part of how I get started first thing.

If I find myself at a coffee shop with an aroma that stimulates that pleasure sensation within me, I’m going to order an espresso.

But when I see a rhubarb pie my response is different. I remember exactly how it tastes; the crunch of the granulated sugar in the filling, the flakiness of the pie crust, and the loving feeling of being at my Grandmother’s house. I have no desire to buy a slice because I know it won’t taste like my memory.

Why Did I Eat That?

Often we eat without thinking. Afterwards we feel guilty or ashamed, unable to remember what we ate, or why we ate without thinking in the first place.

When you learn to differentiate between true physical hunger cues vs. triggers that make you want to eat, you can take back control of your eating.

Once you have named your internal and external cues, you can make better choices about whether to eat or not. In the case of noticing a trigger you might instead chose to eat a healthier alternative.

Go Deep to Understand and Take Control

Let’s come back to my client’s new awareness. In one of the daily coaching lessons she responded to the question, “What signals tell you that you WANT to eat today?”

“Walking by Starbucks in the morning on my way to work always triggers me to get a latte and a breakfast sandwich because it’s become my ritual. Latte always needs to be paired with a breakfast sandwich in my mind. The smell of fries almost always makes me want to eat a poutine.”

Triggers are an essential element in habit formation and maintenance. They are neither good or bad. It’s how we respond to triggers that either help or hinder us.

A healthy trigger might be placing your gym clothes on a chair at night so that when you wake up, you see them, put them on and go to the gym.

In this example, my client knows that Starbuck’s is the trigger. She also knows that one food (a latte) triggers desire for another (breakfast sandwich).

To gain deeper insight on how to change your bad habits (and create great one), read the article, “How Habits Work” by Charles Duhigg.

In response to my client, I suggested the following:

“You can reply on “discipline” but that doesn’t always work. You like those foods. Identify the reward that you get from the late and the sandwich. And not as good or bad, just what is the reward.

“Next, what could you do to change your routine so that you’re not tempted by your old routine? You can’t eliminate not passing by a Starbucks, they’re everywhere!

“You could make one of your lovely coffees at home and put it in a quality thermos cup to bring with you. Maybe make a healthier version of the breakfast sandwich to eat at home, on the GO train or at work. The Starbucks sandwich is not that bad in the sense that it has a whole egg, but the English muffin could be improved upon for better nutrition.

“Could you come up with a couple of healthier breakfast sandwich versions?”

What SHOULD you eat?

Now that my client has noticed and named her emotional and physiological responses that make her WANT to eat, she answered the next question: “What signals tell you that SHOULD eat today?”

“Knowing that I have a long stretch of meetings ahead, I know I should grab a water and something to eat ahead so I don’t push myself into extreme hunger at the end.”

My feedback was,

“Excellent! So you also see here that food is nourishment for your mind. Not just for your body, but if you have a long day of meetings your brain needs glucose to make it work.

“Options include what you suggested. Grab something (healthy) to eat ahead. Food you can eat during meetings. You might have to discuss eating options with your team. Suggest that food is important on days with long meetings to keep everyone alert and sharp.

“You can prepare in bulk at home a green protein smoothie. Store them in mason jars or similar. That’s a healthy, balanced meal you can bring into a meeting. Drinking makes very little noise!”

Awareness Leads to Change with the Right Tools

I’ve seen a tremendous improvement in my client’s self awareness about her habits and routines as part my coaching program.

Not once have we “removed” or “eliminated” or “restricted” a food.

Instead, she is learning how to think differently in the flowing ways:

  • Her food choices and how often she eats;
  • How balanced her meals are;
  • Her body’s need and signals for food and quality nutrition;
  • Her old routines and habits have served her in the past but they are no longer appropriate for her goals, now. And;
  • How external cues and triggers have (often unconsciously) affected her food choices.

Her results are powerful because she has committed to the process. I love hearing how happy and satisfied she is with the progress she’s making. She’s feeling better and she feels much less guilt and uncertainly about her eating choices.

In her own words,

“I have to say I am on such a great high as for the first time in a while I really don’t feel like food controls me! It’s such a great feeling. I’m loving the food I eat so much more by simply being aware. I also feel this sense of togetherness with my husband about our food intake and enjoyment because he is aware of the same things. We talk about food all the time, but in a good way!

Really happy! Thank you!” ~ T

What does good health look like to you?

How would it feel for you if,

  • You learned how to eat to improve your health;
  • You lost weight without a restrictive diet, and;
  • You felt better about yourself, your body, and your food choices?

Want to find out how you can start feeling better and improving your health like my client?

Click this link to book a free, 90-minute consultation with me. We’ll have a conversation about your biggest nutrition and fitness challenges and how you can make immediate changes.

Notice what you want and notice what you need to be well.

Darren