What type of eater are you? Avoid diets and form lasting good habits

Megan Johnston
Are you an emotional, external or restrained eater?
Are you an emotional, external or restrained eater?  Photo: iStock

After a long morning bound to the desk, that restless urge begins to build and, before long, you find yourself wandering towards the vending machine for a sugar-loaded pick-me-up. 

Sound familiar? If so, it's possible that one too many "choc-o'clocks" mean you now use food as an emotional crutch – a fall-back when you're feeling flat, bored or anxious.

Emotional eating is just one of many ways in which individual personality traits control our eating habits, says nutritionist Leanne Cooper and author of Change the Way You Eat (Exisle Publishing). 

Restraint can be difficult in these times of plenty.
Restraint can be difficult in these times of plenty.  Photo: Paul Jones

For too many of us, our internal cues of hunger and satiety have long been cast off in favour of unhealthy habits. Rather than eating when we need to, we've trotted down a path of yo-yo dieting, poor shopping habits or mindless eating. 

"Innately we have very good ability to control our energy intake over 24 hours up to about the age of two or three," Cooper says. 

"After that, we tend to impose patterns [around set mealtimes] and food's very abundant and so most of us lose that ability to go, 'Well I can't eat all of that' or 'I can eat a third of that because I can tell how full I already am'. We just don't do that."

So in an age of excess can you truly "know thyself" when it comes to nutrition and sustenance?

One way is to take a quiz. The Dutch Eating Behaviour Questionnaire, published in the International Journal of Eating Disorders and reproduced in Cooper's book, breaks down eating styles into three broad categories: emotional eating, restrained eating and external eating. 

By asking questions such as "Do you have a desire to eat when you have nothing to do?", "Do you deliberately eat foods that are slimming?" and "Can you resist eating delicious foods?", the tool helps you narrow down how, when and why you eat. Some people fall into more than one category.

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Emotional eater

Find comfort in eating when stressed? Then this category is for you. "They tend to be people who worry a lot and when they worry they eat a bit more than they probably should," Cooper says. "Hunger strikes really fast – it doesn't tend to be related to when they last ate – so it's not a natural cycle, it's an emotive cycle. It's [often] sparked off by association so ... if they eat say, a roast, it evokes feelings of family and everyone sitting around together. Eating is based on emotional responses that are associated often with events in their life."

Restrained eater

Find it easy to control your food intake? You might be part of the 5 per cent of the population who can go on a strict diet and stick to it. This group of "successful" restrained eaters tends to be conscientious and good at controlling impulses. In fact, "When they're stressed, they actually go the other way and rather than comfort eating, they're put off food", Cooper says. 

Unfortunately, for every individual who can stick to a diet long-term, there are plenty who can't. These "unsuccessful" restrained eaters tend to be chronic dieters. "For most people, restraint actually depletes us of cognitive brain resources that help us stay on track," Cooper says. In other words, food deprivation will only make things worse, meaning going on a diet will ultimately lead to weight gain in the long run.

External eater

Find yourself drooling over the latest fad food on Instagram or hooked on cooking shows? You could be an external eater – that is, someone whose surroundings tend to control their eating, more than their own body. "These are the people, who as soon as they smell something, they've got to eat," Cooper says. "All those external cues – the sights, the smells – tend to invoke their hunger." 

What next?

Some of these habits may be learned over time, others are natural tendencies that are activated by triggers in the environment. Regardless of which type of eater you are, it's important not to feel fatalistic or pessimistic about it, but to understand which healthy strategies will work for you.

For example, rather than reaching for a sweet muffin when stressed, an emotional eater might swap it for a piece of fruit. An "unsuccessful" restrained eater might use a smaller plate rather than count calories. And an external eater might avoid the patisserie on their way home from work.  

"[They're] simple behavioural things," Cooper says. "It's not about restricting yourself, it's about making it work for you."

She suggests making small changes at first, and repeating them until they feel natural. 

It also helps to examine your "locus of control" – that is, the degree to which you feel you have control over your life and eating style. The more ownership you take over your health and food, the more likely you'll be able to make lasting changes, she says.

"The 'non-diet' approach is all about ... not feeling fear or guilt around food," Cooper says. 

"Because the whole sense of being deprived – most of us know that when we say no to something, we really want it even more.

"Everyone is a different body shape and size ... it's about accepting the diversity of body shapes, it's about enjoying foods and not being fearful of them - it's a psychological approach to food, rather than calorie counting."