This little figure on the left is simply called "Appetite". (You will learn much more about her/him in my latest book, The Appetite Connection.)
Most of us eat “robotically” at times. Sometimes we eat and don’t even realize we are eating – the biting, chewing and swallowing have become automatic. When we perform any behavior for a period of time, it becomes automatic. It is performed without conscious thought. Remember the first time you drove? You’d studied the traffic laws and watched the films in class. The first time you got behind the wheel and the instructor told you to start the car, you had to think of each detail. You had to pay close attention. You thought about putting the key into the ignition, placing your left foot on the clutch and your right one on the brake or gas, shifting into the appropriate gear, and then turning the key to the right. It felt strange and unfamiliar. It did not take long, however, for these behaviors to become automatic. Today, you most likely hop into your car and go without giving any of these details a conscious thought. You know how to drive. The motions have become automatic. Your subconscious is fully aware, however, to ensure you succeed at starting the car. And of course you must still be extremely conscious of being on the road and of other vehicles.
The same phenomenon takes place with our eating behavior and at a much younger age. As infants we cry for many reasons – perhaps we have an uncomfortable, wet diaper or a pain somewhere in our little body. We can’t speak to tell our caretakers what is wrong and they often respond to our cries by putting a bottle or breast into our mouths. So we learn through this that crying brings us oral gratification. We quickly learn to associate food with comfort. We don’t even have to think about it. It is automatic. We feel “bad,” we reach for food. We experience discomfort of any kind, we eat.
As adults, if we feel “better” eating chocolate when we are upset about something, it doesn’t take long for eating chocolate to become an automatic response when we want to feel better – and who doesn’t frequently have times when they want to feel better? If we begin to eat snacks at night in front of our television sets, again, it can quickly become a thoughtless habit. Many women eat automatically when preparing meals for their families. They “taste” as they prepare supper and when the actual meal is ready, have already eaten more than enough. They then sit down with their family members and eat the full supper they have prepared for everybody else. The “before dinner food” was eaten automatically and barely noticed. They don’t realize they have eaten the equivalent of two or three dinners and are truly surprised when the scale reflects their actions.
Another common situation in which people eat without consciousness is while driving. People who spend a lot of time on the road often find, if and when they notice, that they have been eating and eating and eating as they have been driving along. The snacking has become so automatic that it is virtually unnoticed. For most of us, food is readily accessible and easy to grab, especially fast foods and junk foods. Unhealthy food behaviors are easy to develop and impossible to change unless we are aware of them. How often do you “automatically” stop by the candy machine at work? How often do you eat and later feel surprised to notice you had eaten so much? How often do you engage in conversation with a dinner partner and finish your meal without having been aware of your food or the experience of eating? What are some of your patterns of automatic eating? Possibly you have been eating a great deal of food in this “robotic” way, barely noticing that you have been putting it into your mouth. Be assured, however, that although you may not be noticing what you are doing, your body is noticing, the calories are adding up, and the numbers on the scale are continuing to rise.
Sit down and think about times you may be engaging in robotic behavior. and write down any automatic eating that you have become aware of. Next, make a plan to change one behavior. For example, if you realize that you have been munching while preparing dinner, make a choice to sip a large glass of lemon and water as you cook instead. In this way, you eliminate a behavior that is hazardous while substituting a healthy one. If you discover that you snack frequently while driving, choose not to bring food into your car anymore. Try this exercise often to see how many changes you can think of to make over time. Then make a plan to change them one at a time – gradually and slowly.
Another way to bring robotic eating into conscious awareness is to write down everything you eat during a one week period. Keeping a diary like this for a brief period can help you bring unconscious eating behavior into your conscious mind. A word of caution is necessary here. Do not keep a food diary longer than a few weeks. If you do, you may become more rigid and focused on food. You may find yourself more obsessed with your diet than ever. This is counterproductive, so use your diary briefly and once you become aware of ways you have been using food automatically, you can make different choices. Then you will understand your Appetite and you will be in control.