Easter is the ideal excuse to indulge your sweet tooth – combined with staying at home it could also be the perfect recipe to overindulge.
So how do you resist the call of too many chocolate eggs?
Professor Peter Rogers, a biological psychologist at the University of Bristol, knows that setting eating habits on a healthier, happier path is easier said than done, not least because our bodies encourage us to gain weight. But by training the mind to pay less attention to the gut and rationalising cravings, it’s possible to keep temptation in check.
His advice identifies the warning signs to watch out for and offers sustainable steps to help maintain healthy habits for good.
1. Be wary of hunger
Following your gut feeling is not necessarily a good idea when it comes to eating.
“Hunger and fullness are not helpful guides because research shows feeling ‘hungry’ comes from our body telling our brain that our belly is ready to eat again, not that we need to eat,” said Rogers, Professor of Biological Psychology in the School of Psychological Science.
“Our bodies have substantial energy reserves and because we’re not very good at limiting those reserves, we can easily eat many more calories on top. There’s even evidence to show our appetite increases amidst uncertainty about food supplies, with extra calories being stored as insurance in case of future scarcity. That’s another reason why panic buying doesn’t help, so beware of hunger pangs telling you to eat when it’s not actually necessary.”
Like hunger, ‘cravings’ are another sign you’re ready to eat again.
“Rather than signalling a genuine need for a particular nutrient, research indicates that we experience cravings when we’re thinking about eating certain ‘naughty’ foods, like chocolate.”
2. Portion size matters
It’s easy to experience calorie overload if meal, or snack, sizes go unchecked. Reducing portions and cutting down on snacks can be beneficial.
“Having a smaller dinner or avoiding snacks before or after can make a big difference, as calorie intake is generally higher at this time. It also brings the added advantage of avoiding the sense of lethargy and discomfort after a large meal,” Professor Rogers said.
“A helpful way to visualise this is to eat to a level of no more than three on a zero to five-point scale of fullness, where zero represents ‘empty’, three ‘just full’ and five ‘uncomfortably full’.”
3. Substitutes can satisfy
Naughty foods are often nicest, but there are plenty of nice enough alternatives.
“Eating is a source of pleasure and research shows that higher calorie foods are generally more delicious to eat. But it’s worth noting twice the concentration of calories doesn’t double the amount of pleasure derived,” Rogers said.
“That means you can lower the calorie intake without losing out on the enjoyment, known as maximising the pleasure per calorie principle. For example, swapping cheddar cheese for feta cheese or a slice of strawberry cheesecake for a strawberry yoghurt can be very satisfying while almost halving your calorie intake. Personal tastes will of course vary, but with experimentation it’s usually possible to find something else pleasurable in place of higher calorie favourites. This is particularly important during stressful times, when you may be more prone to cravings and eating for comfort.”
4. Savour the flavour
Snacking on the go or having a TV dinner can easily lead to eating too much.
“Doing something else whilst eating dilutes the pleasure it brings. That helps explain why eating when distracted increases our consumption, as research shows,” Rogers said. “By adopting an attentive eating mindset, which involves focusing on and consciously appreciating each and every mouthful of the meal, and by pausing a little longer between mouthfuls, it’s possible to feel equally or possibly even more satisfied despite eating less. Research also shows that the same food tastes better at the beginning than at the end of a meal, so by having a smaller portion you’re really not missing out.”
5. Keep food under wraps
Having eyes bigger than our stomachs is no myth and the more visible food is, the greater the temptation.
“Since we’re almost always ready to eat, the sight of food whets our appetite. So it makes sense between meals to keep food stored away, especially treats like biscuits or chocolate,” Rogers said. “In addition, you can limit eating to just a few places and situations, reducing the risk of it becoming something you do anytime anywhere. For example, make a rule not to eat in front of the TV and establish set eating times. Forming these routines will reduce the number of daily triggers reminding us about food and prompting hunger pangs.”
6. Stay active and calorie-aware
Regular physical activity helps to maintain fitness and a healthy weight. However, it pays to pause when rushing to raid the snack cupboard after your workout.
“Controlled studies show increased physical activity causes only small increases in appetite. Beware, though, of adopting the dangerous mindset that ‘I’ve earned a treat for doing all that exercise,’ as it’s easy to overestimate the calories you’ve burned off. For example, a person weighing 70 kilograms expends roughly 210 kilocalories in running at nine kilometres an hour for 20 minutes,” Rogers said.
“Although this isn’t far off 10 times as many calories burned if that person did nothing, on the flipside a small 45 gram bar of chocolate contains 240 kilocalories. Opportunities for physical activity may be more limited during lockdown, so don’t forget our weight is determined by the calories we consume and the energy we use, including in physical activity. Put simply, eating more – or even just the same – while moving less will lead to weight gain.”
7. Scale up your efforts
Although tighter clothing might be an indication of an expanding waistline, investing in a set of scales is a more accurate way to keep track of your weight.
“Imbalances between energy intake and energy expenditure will soon show in changes to your body weight. That’s why weighing ourselves, weekly for example, provides useful feedback on whether we’re currently striking the right balance,” Rogers said.
“To improve accuracy, weighing is best done in the morning before eating or drinking anything, and on the same day each week. Maintaining a healthy weight can be very challenging and changes won’t happen overnight. Try to set yourself realistic goals and remember to monitor progress.”
If you are significantly overweight or significantly underweight, consider speaking to your GP.
Professor Peter Rogers is part of the Nutrition and Behaviour Unit, which researches appetite and weight control.