Whether you record what you eat every day or not, it’s useful to do an eating self-assessment before deciding what needs to change in your current eating routine. The first step in this process is to apply the five W’s of journalism: What, When, Why, Where and Who. That will help you get a more thorough understanding of your eating patterns so you’ll know where to focus your change goals.

What: When you try to recall your usual eating patterns, it may be easiest to go through your daily routine, and write down (with brutal honesty, if necessary) the types of meals and snacks that you tend to prefer and are most likely to eat throughout the day. What do you have for breakfast, if at anything at all? What choices do you make and what portion sizes do you take? Do you prefer to prepare your own meals, like cooked or raw salads, or do you go for convenience? If it’s the latter, is it usually frozen meals, diet plan trays, or take-out? Another important ‘What’ question is, what are you doing while you eat? Are you reading, watching TV, working at the computer? Or are you simply focused on the experience of eating whether alone or with others?

When: Once you think about what you usually eat and how much, you can think about your daily pattern of when you get the cues to eat and respond to them. Do you eat at scheduled mealtimes, or do you graze throughout the day? When do you usually eat the first meal of the day? At what point do you stop eating at individual meals? When in the day do you stop eating? Are you a late night snacker? Think about whether your total calorie intake is spread throughout the day, or is it more packed into the one part of the day or another. Is your pattern to eat a lot but infrequently or less and more frequently?

Why: Next, take note of what typically prompts you to eat at each of those opportunities. Of course, I have been talking about emotional eating throughout this book and how feeling controlled tends to trigger an episode of emotional eating. So identifying what the experience is that made you respond by eating is one example of how to answer the Why question. When it’s not a response to an emotional trigger, you can track the timing of your eating. Is it mainly the time of day that makes you think about having a meal, or do you respond mostly to hunger cues? Or do you eat simply because food is in your line of vision and available? (My father, a master of lame dad humor, used to call that his see-food diet.) If your eating has no discernible pattern, then that’s your pattern. Make note of the cues that prompt you to eat when you do.

Where: Now think about where you are at each of those occasions. Are you standing or sitting? Are you at a kitchen or dining room table or at a coffee table or TV tray? Do you eat in the company cafeteria, at your office desk, or in a restaurant – fast-food or other? Do you eat in the car? (Here’s a hint: don’t!)

Who: Do you usually eat with others or by yourself? When you eat around other people do you tend to make better choices and limit how much you eat or are you influenced in one way or another by the choices of others?

This self-assessment is the first step in behavior change. Understanding your eating patterns can help you identify obvious problems. In the next few posts, I’ll go over some of the less obvious patterns that research has shown to increase calorie consumption and where making some changes can be especially helpful. But first I’ll start with some of the more irrational mental habits that may not be obvious but really should be. As you’ll see, you don’t need a researcher to tell you that they add calories, just a little common sense.

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I’m very ambivalent about the issue of keeping a food diary. I know that when people do it, the impact it has on their eating can be very impressive. So what’s the down side of recommending it? For one thing, when someone who is just trying to be helpful, tells you that you “really should” keep a daily food diary, that’s one more rock dropped into the pan that hangs on the external control side of the scale.  It’s just as likely to have a negative effect as a positive one.

People differ in how they feel about keeping journals, diaries, or scrapbooks. Personally, if I was told to record everything I ate, I would either give up after about a day, or if I did stick with it, the information wouldn’t be worth the electronic pixels that it’s recorded on. And I know from my patients’ responses to this recommendation that there are many people who have the same attitude toward recording everything they eat as I do.

Even dedicated diarists who are knowledgeable about nutrition can be way off in their estimates of portions and calories that they consume. A study published in 2002 showed that although dietitians who were asked to record their food intake over a seven-day period were more accurate than non-dietitians, they still underestimated the calories they consumed by more than 10 percent. The non-dietitians in the study were off by more than 20 percent!

I believe, however, that the accuracy of the details recorded is not the key factor in explaining the effectiveness of keeping a food journal. The real value of the diary comes back to mindful awareness. Just the process of thinking about what you have eaten forces you to stop and reflect on your eating behavior. That alone can be a very sobering experience for many people who eat so automatically they’re not even aware of having other more appropriate options. If you’re not aware that you have options then literally, you don’t have a choice. From a practical point of view, it’s no better than being forced to eat. More than that, the fact that what you’re about to put in your mouth will be recorded, makes a big difference in whether you eat it or not. Or, put another way, it allows you to make choices.

There’s an old joke about a couple on vacation in the Catskill Mountains in one of those old resorts. They were looking at their menus and pointed out to the waitress that under side dishes it just says “choice of vegetables.” “So?” asked the waitress. The man asked, “Well, what’s the choice?” The jaded server rolled her eyes and said, “The choice is, do you want it or don’t ‘cha?” When you consider any global behavior change on the microscopic, nano-level, it all comes down to individual decisions: Should I have this one or that one? Should I take another portion or not? Do you want this or don’t ‘cha?

How frequently are we confronted with choices about what we eat? A study done by Brian Wansink at Cornell looked at how many food-related decisions we think we make every day and compared it to how many we actually make. The results were pretty astounding. The researchers found that we’re aware of making about 15 daily decisions concerning food. The reality? We make over 200 food-related decisions every day! That difference is where most of your excess calories come from.

So the real low-hanging fruit, where a minor effort can have a major impact, lies in being more aware of even a small percentage of those 185 or so unconscious decisions you make every day. The accuracy and details of your food diary are not the critical factor in its effectiveness. Instead, the value of writing it down is that it encourages you to open your eyes to the many opportunities you have every day to make better decisions.

What does that mean for those of you who, like me, don’t care for keeping track of everything you eat? It means two things: one, you don’t have to obsess over the details. Just making a quick note – even a mental note – in the evening of whatever you can recall eating during the day can make a difference. Second, you don’t have to do it for the rest of your life. You can quit when you start thinking automatically about what you’re eating rather than just eating automatically.

You may have noticed that restaurant portion sizes are inversely proportional to the prices on the menu. High-end restaurants with famous chefs tend to serve small portions with entrees that look like more like appetizers, while casual dining restaurants will often serve entrees on enormous serving platters that could feed a family of four and still have enough left over to fill a doggy bag.

There are good reasons for that. Think about a meal you had at a casual dining restaurant, or even better, an all-you-can-eat buffet. The emphasis there is not on the quality of the food, although it’s usually pretty decent. The real appeal of these places is getting the most value for your money. From a business point of view, that’s also the expectation in that market segment so if they cut back on portions they risk losing market share. They make their profit by standardizing the whole process and through economy of scale. As the overnight TV ads for retail stores that sell at wholesale prices say, “How do we do it? Volume!”

From the consumer’s point of view, the idea of getting a boatload of food for $6.99 challenges you to get your money’s worth. Some places actually dare you to eat a gi-normous serving of something, like a four-pound steak, by offering it for free if you can polish it off. One patient of mine described a memorable – she called it “horrifying” – experience she observed at an all-you-can-eat restaurant when a very obese father and son sat down to consume a mountain of meat loaf, fried chicken and mashed potatoes with gravy over everything. When they finished, they both paused and let out a heavy sigh, the father pulled out a handkerchief to wipe off his forehead, and they went back to the buffet to load up their trays again. Hey, it’s hard work, but think of the savings!

This experience has become increasingly frequent for most consumers because of the low expense and as a result has contributed to significant changes in how we eat. For one thing, the idea of a “normal” portion has expanded considerably over a short period of time. As the Obesity Education Initiative of the National Heart, Lung, and Blood Institute points out on its enlightening yet rather frightening online presentation, called “Portion Distortion,” the portion sizes – and thus the calorie content – of most food items have gone through a period of hyperinflation over the past twenty to thirty years.

For example, a typical restaurant serving of chicken ceasar salad was 1.5 cups or 390 calories in 1980, and more than doubled to 3.5 cups or 790 calories by 2000. In that same period of time, a typical box of movie theater popcorn grew from 5 cups or 270 calories to 11 cups or 630 calories. A chocolate chip cookie that was 1.5 inches in diameter and only 55 calories is now 3.5 inches across and 275 calories. The list goes on. It should come as no surprise that the average weight of American adults has also increased by about 20 pounds over that time span.

What is perhaps even more disconcerting is that the visual image that we have of what a typical portion size looks like in a restaurant has carried over to how we eat at home and has become the new normal. On some level we’re probably thinking, “Hey, these guys are experts; they must know what a serving of mashed potatoes should look like.” Then we replicate that image at home and it becomes the new standard.

Ultimately, though, what counts is not how much you put on your plate, but how much you actually eat. That’s where expanding portion size becomes a real problem, because we don’t rely on knowing what we need or what we want to limit our eating, we rely on what’s in front of us in addition to countless other environmental cues.

As Brian Wansink points out in his book, Mindless Eating, his research has demonstrated that how much people eat is determined to a large degree by the context that the food is in. We eat more from a large bag of chips than a small one and we put more on a 12-inch dinner plate than a 9-inch one. People will eat more if they are using a larger serving spoon to dish the food onto their plates, or if the bowl that the food is served in is larger.

Barbara Rolls, in her book Volumetrics, has similarly demonstrated in her research that people eat as much as 50 percent more when they are with friends than when they are alone or eating with people they don’t know. The solution, of course, is not to eat alone, but to be more aware of what you are eating, how much you are eating, and when it’s time to stop eating.

When I was a clinical intern in the last year of my doctoral program, I worked in a hospital outpatient clinic that specialized in the treatment of eating disorders. Among the patients I had treated in that program were many young women who suffered from bulimia. Each had unique issues and different histories leading up to the problem, but when they described how they experienced their episodes of compulsive bingeing and purging, they did so in almost identical terms. I wasn’t surprised to hear them describe purging as a very negative experience, but if I was asked to guess how they would describe the food binges that preceded them, I would have expected them to say that they were in some way positive or enjoyable. But that was rarely if ever the case.

Instead, they depicted their emotional state during a binge as, at best, emotional numbness. They would turn off the thinking and feeling parts of the experience, and almost mechanically, would proceed to stuff themselves with a large amount of food. They described a sense of disconnection from the behavior, not enjoying it and barely even tasting it. It was as if the outcome was so inevitable they might as well just turn on the autopilot and quickly get it over with. If they were aware of any feelings at all they were negative: self-loathing, guilt, disgust. When I heard this same theme repeated by many of these young women, I recalled something I had learned in one of my undergraduate psychology classes that should have contradicted their accounts, and I couldn’t make sense of it.

In 1905, one of the earliest American psychologists, Edward Thorndike, discovered a principle of behavior that he called the law of effect. We now consider the idea so basic and intuitive that it seems surprising anyone even had to “discover” it. In simple terms, the law of effect states that if a behavior produces a satisfying effect in a particular situation it is more likely to occur again under similar circumstances, and if it produces a negative or uncomfortable effect it is less likely to be repeated.

The problem that bothered me may by now be obvious to you. According to Thorndike, even a puppy can be trained to be housebroken if  some negative experience follows the behavior. So why did my patients with bulimia continue to engage in a behavior that left them feeling physically ill, depressed, guilty, and out of control? Not only were they willing to repeat the behavior in spite of the known consequences, but they felt compelled to do it! This was troubling to me, and I was given a variety of unsatisfying explanations by people more experienced than I. But as a trainee I figured I must be missing something that was obvious to everyone else so I put the question aside.

A few years later, I began a clinical practice treating patients with a wide range of psychological problems. After about ten years in practice, I became interested in the area of health psychology, and narrowed the focus of my practice to work with people who wished to improve their health behaviors and lower their risk of chronic illness. Since obesity is the primary preventable cause of heart disease and diabetes, I began to specialize in helping people who had difficulty managing their weight and eating behavior. Most of these patients struggled with emotional eating.

As I have always done when I meet and evaluate patients with a behavioral problem, I would ask them to describe their thoughts and feelings while they engaged in the unwanted behavior. Almost all of them conveyed their experience in negative terms, or like the bulimic patients I had treated as an intern, as emotional numbness. It wasn’t long before I recalled the puzzle I had set aside years before: Why would anyone repeat a behavior that makes them feel worse? This time, however, I was not going to let go of it. If there was one thing I had learned by then, it was that many experienced people tend to take things for granted and fail to ask the most obvious questions. And often, it is the obvious questions that are most important. The answer to my question took a while longer to find, but I finally solved it with the unintentional help one of my patients.

Lauren was a very successful and driven sales manager. She was able to lose more than 15 pounds over a six month period. Around the time that she lost the weight, she was in the process of changing jobs in a very high pressure industry because she was feeling under utilized. She had started a new job, but with less time flexibility and increased responsibility, she became quite busy and was soon no longer able to continue coming in for therapy. Although she had not yet reached her desired weight, she was happy with her progress and felt she had a good sense of what she needed to do to continue on her own.

After about eight months without hearing from Lauren, I received a call from her asking to set up an appointment. She explained that she had gained back all of the weight she had lost, plus six more pounds. Although she loved her new job, she was very stressed, traveling four days a week. With a husband and two young children, along with many social and volunteer responsibilities, Lauren was pulled in so many directions that she felt she was not fully meeting any of her obligations, especially in her personal and family relationships.

She knew that her overeating was not about enjoying the food itself. As with virtually all of the other patients I was seeing for binge eating, she did not enjoy any part of the eating itself. This behavior was also not directly a result of her frequent travel and lunch meetings in restaurants. In fact, she was always very careful about what she ate when she was with other people because she was self-conscious about what they would think.

She explained that several times a week she would binge when she was alone in her hotel room and needed to take a break from her tightly-packed schedule and responsibilities and just let go. As she described it, “Eating without thinking about it is like taking a mini-vacation or going to a spa whenever I need it. I’m not enjoying what I eat; I just need to let go every once in a while.”

As I listened to her describe her experience, I realized that I had the answer to my question about what triggered her behavior and what maintained it. The reinforcement was powerful; it was just not as obvious a reward as enjoying a snack or giving a treat to a puppy. Call it defiance, rebellion, or self-determination; people have a need to abandon restraint when they feel controlled. Even though the experience was always brief and had a bad outcome, it allowed her to satisfy a much stronger need: to feel free. Thorndike’s law of effect had not, after all, been repealed.

My approach to treating emotional eating had shifted from that point forward. I realized that it was not about food, eating, or even loss of control; it was about gaining autonomy. Instead of viewing it as a passive breakdown of resistance, I see it as an active need to let go by abandoning control and relieving the pressure of restraint.

Why do we have such a strong need to be free of control? Coming up.