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How to change your eating habits – an interview with psychologist Evelyn Obermaier

July 20th, 2021  

We are probably all familiar with it: we make a firm resolution to do something, like our New Year’s resolution in January to eat healthily, lose weight, or exercise. For a few days, we start our plans motivated, but then we let up again and go back to our old, often unhealthy habits. That’s why we asked an expert for advice on why we fail so often and what is really necessary to change our habits in the long term, especially our eating habits.

Evelyn Obermaier, thank you for taking the time to answer a few questions about eating habits. Perhaps you could introduce yourself briefly at the beginning so that our readers know who you are?

Sure! Among other things, I work as a clinical and health psychologist in my own practice and accompany many people in individual counseling sessions, but also in the framework of the Lower Austrian “tut gut” initiative “Vorsorge aktiv” in groups on their way to a healthier lifestyle. Nutrition was already a very exciting topic for me during my studies, so I also studied nutritional sciences for a few semesters. As I had more and more to do with dieticians, nutritionists, physiotherapists, sports scientists, and, of course, doctors, I felt it was no longer necessary to specialise equally intensively in both fields of knowledge and preferred to work with these professions. 

Now it is almost the end of January. Many people have been thinking about resolutions, often involving weight loss and new healthy habits. What are habits anyway and what do we need them for? 

Habits are our practical companions in everyday life. They simplify our lives by not having to reinvent ourselves every day. For example, we may develop a kind of routine so that we can get on more quickly in the morning and sleep in longer. The familiar process goes easily and quickly, conveys security, stability, confidence and we need less energy.  

New processes, on the other hand, require more attention, energy and time. The morning question alone, “What am I going to wear today?” is supposed to have taken up many a precious minute and may even have caused some stress. Since the range of options is reduced under stress, it usually turns out to be a combination that has often proved successful 😉 

It’s the same with the question of breakfast. New variations require attention and planning. On a day with high-stress potential and few time resources, those patterns of action that have been tried and tested many times before will tend to win out.  

New Year’s resolutions: Most people want to change their diet and exercise more, but it happens too often that the good intentions are already thrown overboard in mid-January. Why do so many people fail to achieve their goals? 

I think that many people are sometimes too unprepared for such an undertaking. To “change” or “break” a habit means to implement a new blueprint in our brain. And any new construction requires preparation, planning and the provision of resources.   

If you want to get into the habit of something new, then you are, so to speak, setting yourself the task of learning something new. Put simply, your brain needs to assemble a kind of team of brain cells to carry out the desired new behaviour.  

If, for example, you want to learn how to start a car with a clutch, then a reaction chain is activated in the brain by one brain cell informing all the other brain cells necessary for this action. In other words, the entire network responsible for this action is activated. 

The first time this happens, it is probably a bit slow and bumpy – as we know it from everyday teambuilding processes. But little by little, the team members learn to coordinate and react to each other more and more. The connection between them becomes stronger and stronger. 

This can be illustrated figuratively by comparing it to the first steps through a cornfield. At first it is tedious to have to make your way through such a field. But if you walk this path again the next day, you may recognise your route from the previous day by means of clues, such as a few bent stalks. If you walk this path every day from now on, by the time the harvest comes, a well-trodden path will have emerged in this field, which you tread effortlessly, without thinking much. 

And that’s also how habits develop. Through many, many repetitions, something like a “highway in the brain” is formed. Leaving this well-trodden path again and reorienting oneself requires strength, energy, concentration and is time-consuming. Everyone who has got into a car with automatic transmission for the first time in years has experienced this. Depending on your background experience, it can take different amounts of time to stop stepping with your left foot into the void. 

For us at myBioma, health begins in the gut and the basis for this lies in nutrition and a healthy lifestyle. How do we really manage to integrate healthy eating and lifestyle habits into our everyday life and stay on the ball? 

There are certainly a lot of components that need to be taken into account and it also depends very much on the individual personality. But a very important point is certainly to consciously deal with why and for what purpose we want to change our habits. We need a really good reason to invest our time, effort and energy in such a life change. A strong driver! An important goal! Preferably a need of the heart that can be satisfied along the way! It simply has to make personal sense to embark on this journey.  

Joy – better still enthusiasm – motivation and reward are important companions to maintain the behaviour over a longer period of time or even to integrate it completely into our everyday life.  

Steps towards this can be, for example, consciously dealing with one’s own personal values. By this I mean, among other things, consciously questioning one’s personal shopping behaviour. According to which values and ideas do I make my food choices? Do offers determine my choice? Do I pay attention to regionality? Do I value organic quality? etc.  If a value collides with my intention, it will not be sustainable for long.  

In my view, such awareness processes are an essential factor for successful integration into everyday life. Taking time for yourself and questioning why I do something and how high I prioritise it.  

How long does it usually take until we make new habits a routine and are firmly integrated into our everyday life? 

After 3 months, a good basis is usually created for integrating a new behaviour into everyday life or, in other words, a well-walked path is paved through the cornfield. It is important not to make too many changes at once. Only when a new habit has been well received or a path well taken is it advisable to take the next step.  

It is not only important to integrate new healthy habits, but to get rid of old unhealthy habits. Do you have any tips? 

This is certainly an important point, but sometimes requires some patience and creativity in implementation. Especially if it is an unhealthy but very dear habit that may satisfy many emotional needs.  

The challenge is to find something equally fulfilling and at the same time healthy as a substitute. Eliminating something with a reward function without replacement will rarely be successful in the long term. 

We probably all know it: when we are stressed, we reach more often for unhealthy foods such as chocolate or ice cream. What do we want to achieve with this? 

Food is very strongly linked to our reward centres in the brain. In addition, sweets in particular are still frequently used as a reward. A good report card is rewarded with a trip to the nearby ice cream shop, we traditionally celebrate birthdays with cake, after a busy day we have earned … (whatever we personally believe), when we are sad we comfort ourselves with e.g. chocolate … and so on. 

So food is much more than just a physiological satiator. It is important to realise that food also fulfils many psychological functions.  

For example, as an emotional stabiliser and soul comforter in crises, a real supporter to keep anger bottled up, a silent representative of praise and recognition “Well done! Now you have earned a reward for your efforts!”, as an “occupation” when one is filled with inner emptiness, it offers the possibility to give societies (family dinners), partnerships (business dinners), friendships (coffee and cake) and other social gatherings an appropriate framework, and much more.  

We should be aware that many of our eating habits are learned. 

On the other hand, research indicates that our taste receptors are not only stimulated by delicious food, but also react to so-called endogenous messenger substances, including stress hormones. According to observations, stress seems to increase our craving for sweetness in particular.  

According to the “selfish brain theory”, our brain is selfishly concerned with maintaining its energy supply. In the event of major stress (whether physical or psychological), it activates the body’s own stress system to demand energy from the body – in the form of glucose, among other things.

From this point of view, avoiding stress and practising relaxation techniques are sensible companions on the way to a healthy and sugar-reduced diet. 

On the other hand, it is also scientifically proven that our food influences our mood. This is because we have certain bacteria in our gut that are able to break down fibre and produce short-chain fatty acids (SCFAs) such as butyrate and propionate, which in turn stimulate our gut cells to produce serotonin. Serotonin, also known as our happy hormone is considered a natural mood stabiliser – helping us to feel happier, calmer, less stressed and anxious. Almost 90% of serotonin is produced in our gut. Do you have any experience yourself of how diet can affect mood? 

Yes, experts like to use the term “mood food” in this context. This refers to foods that promote the release of our body’s own happiness hormones and can thus help to lift our mood. In general, these include dark chocolate, vanilla, fish, berries, chestnuts,… and many more. Here I like to refer to colleagues from the field of nutritional science with whom I work.  

And then of course there is our individual reaction or even hypersensitivity to certain foods and our personal biorhythms and how we deal with our daily lows and highs. 

Personally, for example, I have noticed in myself that I tend to get tired, unfocused and somewhat listless in the afternoon. Unconsciously, I used to counteract this with coffee or chocolate. Strictly speaking, I abused these foods ;-). Today I know that if I allow myself a power nap of no more than 30 minutes – and it really never takes longer than that – I achieve a much better effect. I try to take this into account in my daily planning whenever possible. 

Another observation is that there is a certain cereal mix that is eaten at home, especially by our kids, that is not good for me personally at all. Afterwards I feel, well, I can’t think of a better description, as if “the oats stung me”. I feel absolutely out of sorts, unfocused and irritable. It is simply impossible to work efficiently afterwards. After making this observation more than once, I simply don’t eat this mixture any more. 

I also try to avoid heavy, fatty foods, as experience has shown that they make me feel sluggish, lazy and listless. I fall into the couch and even really cool, exciting projects can’t get me out of this state. I think that’s a shame and my life time is now too precious for that. 

Everything in our brain is so ingeniously interconnected, and smells and tastes in particular can very quickly bring all archived feelings (both good and bad) to life. For example, when my grandmother-in-law makes a vegetable soup, it tastes very much like my grandmother’s (unfortunately already deceased). I immediately think of her and remember sitting in her kitchen as a child and spooning up the warm soup in her presence.  

Intuitive eating is in trend. When it comes to eating, does it really make sense to rely on your intuition or does it make more sense to follow a diet plan? 

Personally, I’m a big proponent of mindful and conscious eating. The change from a rather cerebral approach to one’s own feeling is certainly not easy, but I find this path very rewarding – especially in the long term. Otherwise, for example, I might still resort to the muesli flake mixture that is unfavourable for me. 

In my view, however, nutrition plans are not generally bad or cannot be integrated into an intuitive eating style. It depends on how detailed and comprehensive they are. There is room for manoeuvre – depending on your personality. And a certain amount of shopping planning – depending on the surrounding infrastructure – may not be completely avoidable anyway.  

In my experience, there are people who tend to have a hard time with “plans”. I count myself among those who tend to spontaneously change a plan based on a “flash of inspiration”. But there are also people who feel more comfortable in everyday life if they can work off a kind of to-do list. 

When I was able to resume work with my groups after the first lockdown and we talked about the time and how we had fared during it, one participant surprised us with her realisation that she had not fared as well as she had during the lockdown for a long time when it came to shopping, cooking and eating. Her children had moved to the countryside with her for the duration of the lockdown. One of her daughters took over the menu planning and drew up the corresponding shopping list. She just had to take the list and did the shopping and cooked the menu accordingly.  

Of course, the “what” cannot be determined by gut feeling, but the “how much” and “what of” can, and also the “when”. 

In a world where time is becoming the most precious resource, creative approaches often emerge to simplify everyday life. Meal planning seems to be an essential point.  

One client told me that they have a 10-day plan in the family that is constantly repeated. If this ensures a balanced diet even in challenging times and the family can avoid additional stress in this way – why not? Especially since numerous studies now point to the negative effects of stress on body weight and intestinal health, among other things. 

Personally, however, I would miss the variety and the pleasure would definitely come up short. But we people are certainly very, very different 😉 .  

When should you ask for help to change your lifestyle habits? 

People usually seek help when their personal suffering has exceeded a certain level. Often, unfortunately, the unfavourable lifestyle has already left its mark. Earlier would therefore be better – but then there is often still a lack of recognition of a sense for a change in behaviour. After all, everything is still good. This reminds me of an article I read today. A pilot who currently has to earn money elsewhere because of Corona. He would so much like to fly again and remembers – almost ashamedly – times when he complained about his flying times. The current time in particular is an invitation to rethink, to become aware of what really counts in life.  

Thank you Evelyn Obermaier for your valuable input. If you would like to learn more about her and her work, you should visit her homepage where you will also find all further contact options and information. Such an exciting and important topic! We hope you enjoyed this article and that you will learn a few tips from it.


Über den Autor

Listen to your gut!

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