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Evaluate Your Current Eating Pattern

To identify your eating pattern, you must be willing to evaluate your relationship with food and eating. Humans have all sorts of reasons for eating—celebration, stress, boredom, comfort, loneliness, pleasure, social situations, cultural traditions, control, anxiety, habit, and countless others that have little or nothing to do with a physiological need for nourishment. The beauty of natural eating lies in its ability to both fulfill your body's need for energy and respect your unique mind, heart, and soul. Does this mean that you should never eat for purely social, cultural, or emotional reasons? Absolutely not. By becoming a natural eater, you'll begin to understand how your body adjusts for these situations and provides you with reliable hunger and fullness signals to reestablish your connection with eating's original purposes.

Sound like a bunch of feel-good jargon? I will identify several eating patterns so that you can relate to these concepts on a more personal level. I've included examples of life situations that illustrate each pattern, but you may exhibit characteristics of the pattern without matching any of the examples. You'll also find that you probably fall into more than one category depending on the situation at hand. The label isn't as important as your willingness to examine all the ways in which you might use food.

Restrained Eating

The restrained eater often appears to be the picture of health. He may work out religiously, scrutinize his food choices, and keep close tabs on his body weight. Below the surface, however, the restrained eater agonizes over food choices and may miss out on social events due to erratic eating and exercise patterns. He spends an inordinate amount of time thinking about food, planning what to eat or avoid, and/or exercising to "make up" for indulgences. The restrained eater may look like the textbook definition of health, but he is far from achieving a balanced lifestyle or peace of mind. Many dieters fall into this category when they religiously count calories, points, or grams of carbohydrate, fat, or protein. For some restrained eaters, food is the one thing over which they exert full control, so eating becomes their method of coping with an otherwise unpredictable life.

Chaotic Eating

The chaotic eater runs at full throttle day in and day out. She may juggle a full-time job with family and community responsibilities and often works long hours, stealing time from exercise and/or sleep to please as many people as possible. The chaotic eater frequently uses convenience foods and rarely sits down at a table to eat. She might eat in the car, on the bus, at her desk, during meetings, or while talking on the phone or answering emails. Her life is fast, and so is her food. She knows she should feed herself more nutritiously, but life is simply too hectic to make it a top priority.

Chaotic eaters spend a lot of time at the extremes of hunger and fullness. They may go many hours or most of the day with nothing more than coffee and a vending machine snack, and then gorge themselves at night when they finally have the opportunity. Other chaotic eaters simply don't want to be bothered with planning nutritious meals and snacks. They believe that tedious task is reserved for health nuts and nutrition professionals. Dieting veterans can be chaotic eaters when they are "off" their diets; they reason that they'll get back on the bandwagon when life slows down a bit and they can muster a little more willpower.

Emotional Eating

The emotional eater turns to food to lessen the intensity of negative emotions and enhance the enjoyment of positive emotions. He is usually sensitive to others' needs, opinions, and attitudes. Criticism can send him in search of a candy bar, potato chips, and soda. Common emotional triggers for eating in the absence of physiological hunger are anxiety, depression, boredom, loneliness, fear, stress, excitement, joy, happiness, and many others. Food is the emotional eater's drug of choice, and instead of turning to less acceptable methods (such as drinking, gambling, or smoking) of dealing with life's curveballs, he heads for the freezer. All people, dieters at the top of the list, can fall quickly into emotional eating patterns, especially if they are overworked, deprived of quality sleep, or faced with more than they feel capable of handling.

NOTE

Willpower is not the most reliable ally when it comes to changing your lifestyle. It's the first thing to go when you're tired, hungry, stressed, or bored. Instead of trying to change your reaction to the environment (willpower), figure out how to change the environment itself.

Natural Eating

Natural eaters are the embodiment of the age-old nutrition tenets of variety, balance, and moderation. Natural eaters come in all shapes and sizes. Some are tall, lean, and lanky; others are round and soft; still others are muscular and solidly built. The common thread among natural eaters is that food is simply not an issue. They rarely think about food apart from designated meal and snack times and are able to eat a wide variety of foods—including so-called "junk foods"—without experiencing a moral dilemma. This often prompts their dieting acquaintances to remark "How can you finish that whole slice of cheesecake?! I'd feel so guilty!" or "How can you eat whatever you want and never gain an ounce?" or "What do you mean, 'you don't want a brownie right now'?"

Do you know people who seem to be natural eaters? Spend time with them, observe their behavior, and listen to their conversations. You won't hear them talking about the latest, greatest fad diet or discussing the calorie, fat, or carbohydrate content of the foods being served as if that were the most fascinating topic of the day. Natural eaters have a knack for listening to their bodies, honoring what they know about nutrition, and respecting their own and others' food preferences. Sound appealing? There's a natural eater inside each and every person waiting to be discovered. Resolve here and now never to tread the dieting path again; life has so much more to offer!

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