What we tell ourselves matters more than most of us probably realize. Although it’s easy to assume we’ve got the whole world figured out, there’s still lots of stuff out there we simply don’t know much about. Take mental illness, for instance. Doctors and researchers know that some medicines work well to combat bipolar disorder or severe depression, but they also know those drugs only work on some people. For others, the drugs not only don’t work, they worsen the patient’s symptoms.
Why the difference? That’s the thing—we don’t really know why. How’s that even possible? We don’t know how the drugs themselves work once they’re inside our bodies. The human brain remains a mystery we’ve yet to solve. Even though researchers can and do study brain activity in relation to emotion, sleep patterns or behavior, the code explaining the intricacies of our brains remains a mystery.
I bring this up to remind us that sometimes the simplest tricks we play on our minds can make a big difference in our health, even if we don’t know how or why. Sometimes, we do better accepting what we can’t control or understand, anyway. That’s a heavy burden to carry around all the time, isn’t it?
Here are some examples of what I’m talking about.
Labeling food as “meals”
A new study published in the journal Appetite looked at the impact of labeling foods as “snacks” versus labeling them as “meals” to determine if this had any impact on people’s eating habits. They took 80 participants and presented them a serving of pasta either labeled as a “meal” or a “snack.” After the subjects ate their food, they were invited to eat additional food afterward (animal crackers, M&M’s, etc.).
What the researchers found was the group whose pasta was labeled as a “snack” ate twice as many M&M’s and 50 percent more food overall than the group who ate pasta labeled as a “meal.” The study also noted that the group who ate their food standing up consumed more snacks afterward than those who ate sitting down.
Why did the results come out this way? It’s a difficult question to answer definitively, but the researchers brought up some interesting possibilities. They think these results may be tied to the mind’s subconscious understanding of the food we eat. We often eat snacks when we’re on the go and in a hurry, so we’re more likely to be distracted while eating. Meals are normally sit-down events where our primary focus is the food we’re eating.
Making sense of this idea
I’ll admit, I hadn’t given this idea too much thought before, but when I think about it, snacks have usually been something I eat quickly. As a kid, I might have had a snack in between races at a swim meet or as something to tide me over when we took a break at soccer practice. At that age, I played several sports and was always busy with something, so of course, I didn’t spend any time worrying about how many calories I had at any particular meal, much less when I ate a snack. It was about maintaining my energy levels and making it through the day, not about how much I was eating.
So it makes sense that old habits die hard when it comes to snacking. Most of us are likely to have a snack when we’re on the computer or watching TV. I try to pay attention to how much I’m eating on any given day, but it’s easier than ever to lose focus for five minutes here or five minutes there, isn’t it?
There’s research showing that distracted eating can cause weight gain. Simply put, in this study, people who were distracted or not paying attention while they were eating ate more per meal. Those who paid attention while eating consistently ate less. This effect isn’t a one-off, either. People who continue to pay attention during meals gradually eat less per meal. Those who continue being distracted while eating incrementally eat more. We don’t have to know exactly how all this works to know there’s evidence behind these claims. If we tell ourselves to focus while we’re eating, our bodies find a way to self-regulate. What matters is that we recognize this and follow through, even if it seems a bit silly to some of us.
Some other examples
I’ve written about these examples before, but I think it’s worth going over the evidence again. Some recent research shows that people who talk to themselves in the third person handle stress and psychological problems better than those of us who speak in the first person.
When we talk to ourselves in the third person, our bodies find a better way to deal with the problem we’re facing. Is it weird? Yep, but it works.
Another example has to do with the way we look at the exercise we do. People who enjoy exercise are more likely to continue exercising, but they’re also less likely to overeat after exercise. The difference? It can be as simple as telling yourself you’re taking a walk for fun versus forcing yourself to take a walk even though you hate it.
When we feel forced into doing things, we tend to lash out at ourselves or others. In the case of forcing ourselves to exercise, we generally feel entitled to a reward afterward, and the reward is most often some unhealthy food. So, yes, what we tell ourselves and how we label each event in our lives does have consequences. It’s up to us to make the little changes that put us in the best-possible position to succeed.
Jay McKenzie loves soccer, history and feeling great. He’s on a quest to eat better and exercise more, and he wants to share his experiences along the way. You can email him at [email protected] with comments or questions. The opinions expressed in this column belong solely to the author, not Nooga.com or its employees.