By Tiffany Batsakis, O2X On-Site Specialist (D.C. Fire & EMS)
We eat for many different reasons. Of course, our bodies simply need energy, but a variety of other factors come into play. We eat for pleasure (hedonic reasons), to celebrate, and for tradition. There are also social aspects of eating, like the camaraderie we experience around the firehouse table. Furthermore, many people eat in response to stress to seek comfort. Sometimes we may be lonely or bored, and of course, we eat when hungry!
At O2X, we encourage you to ”fuel for performance.” Still, for many, that notion falls by the wayside when tired, hungry, in the presence of a food-rich environment, or experiencing emotional distress. In those states, it’s difficult to think of how food can serve us, hedonic eating takes over, and reward pathways in the brain are activated. Unfortunately, these states are common amongst tactical athletes, but we can develop strategies to reduce the rewarding effects of food and better fuel and nourish our bodies.
Hedonic hunger is consuming food “just for pleasure and not to maintain energy homeostasis” (Montelone et. al, 2012, E917). It is important to eat enough (quality) food to keep up with energy needs, but often, the rewarding aspect of food, especially highly palatable foods, takes over. Highly palatable foods are energy-dense, processed foods that are “rich in sugars and/or fats” (Iemolo et al., 2012, 2), low in fiber, and found everywhere in our food system. It is not uncommon to see cookies, cakes, donuts, pies, chips, and more on the firehouse kitchen table or counter. Access to these foods simply increases the drive for hedonic eating, and due to their rewarding properties, many people over consume them.
In a food-rich environment with stressors inherent on the job paired with poor sleep habits, it can be difficult to focus on choosing healthy eating patterns. We can, however, implement some strategies to optimize our intake. Individuals commonly overeat when they have missed or skipped meals, whether intentionally or unintentionally. Sometimes, to lose weight, people will avoid eating or, if they get busy at work, responding to multiple calls, meals are missed. When we are very hungry, we tend to overeat. The reward value of food is increased, so it’s easier to overeat that food (mainly if it is highly processed food). The authors of an article entitled “The need to feed: homeostatic and hedonic control of eating” said it best, “Few experiences in life are more satisfying than consuming a well-prepared meal, and the complex flavors and textures of food are best appreciated when one starts in a hungry (rather than satiated) state” (Saper et al., 2002, 199). Yes, it’s great to enjoy food, but over-enjoying food too often leads to negative health outcomes over time, so keeping within our individual caloric needs is important.
What can we do? Optimize sleep whenever possible. Adequate sleep decreases the drive for energy-dense foods. If you know you will be sleep deprived, keep some “better for you” snacks available: fruit, nuts, seeds, or plain popcorn, for example, but we still don’t want to overeat of this stuff, so consider portion sizes.
Fuel yourself with a variety of nutrient-dense foods regularly. We have receptors all over the body that can sense approximately what and how much we have eaten. When nutrients are lacking, the brain continues to send signals to seek food. Nourish your body so it can function properly.
Aim for consistency whenever possible with food volume and timing. If we aim for breakfast, lunch, dinner, and supplement with some quality snacks in between, we can avoid the phenomena of overeating whenever we do sit down to eat. I encourage people to think about the idea of “never starved, never stuffed.” This means keeping snacks with you at all times if you get pulled away from work or home for too long. Choose some individually packaged items that include protein, fat, and/or carbs in your pocket, such as nuts and dried fruit, protein bars, or nut and seed bars that you can eat in a pinch.
Set up your environment to be conducive to healthier eating. Remove the highly palatable foods and offer more whole foods that contain fiber, vitamins, minerals, and other bioactive compounds that are beneficial for the body. The more you eat these foods, the more acceptable they will become for you.
Choose the lesser rewarding, lesser processed option. I know this may sound boring, but it can be beneficial in the long run. For example, choose a baked potato at mealtime instead of a bag of chips or French fries. If you like peanut butter, buy peanut butter without added sugar. Similarly, if you want chocolate, choose chocolate with a lower sugar content. Foods lower in added sugars can often dampen or lessen the rewarding properties.
If you are an emotional or stress eater, try to determine the underlying problem. We cannot change some things in life, but we can change our response to them. I’m not a licensed therapist, so I can’t help people fix their personal problems, but I highly encourage you to seek help if you turn to food or drinking as a coping mechanism. This doesn’t actually fix problems and will likely lead to long-term poor health outcomes.
Pay attention to how you feel when you overeat. Most people report they don’t feel or perform well when overindulged on high-calorie foods. 100% of my clients report they “feel better” when they eat better, so let this be a motivator to choose “mostly healthy food, most of the time,” one of my main eating ideas!
Lastly, it is important to enjoy food, but not too much of it. Enjoy your time around the dinner table, but eat slowly and ask yourself if you need to go back for more food once you’ve finished your first plate.
Remember, food will always be available, so when you sit down to eat, you don’t have to eat all of it! Prioritize nourishing your body and fueling for performance. The benefits can last a lifetime!
- Palmiero Monteleone, Fabiana Piscitelli, Pasquale Scognamiglio, Alessio Maria Monteleone, Benedetta Canestrelli, Vincenzo Di Marzo, Mario Maj, Hedonic Eating Is Associated with Increased Peripheral Levels of Ghrelin and the Endocannabinoid 2-Arachidonoyl-Glycerol in Healthy Humans: A Pilot Study, The Journal of Clinical Endocrinology & Metabolism, Volume 97, Issue 6, 1 June 2012, Pages E917–E924, https://doi.org/10.1210/jc.2011-3018.2.
- Iemolo A, Valenza M, Tozier L, Knapp CM, Kornetsky C, Steardo L, Sabino V, Cottone P. Withdrawal from chronic, intermittent access to a highly palatable food induces depressive-like behavior in compulsive eating rats. Behav Pharmacol. 2012 Sep;23(5-6):593-602. doi: 10.1097/FBP.0b013e328357697f. PMID: 22854309; PMCID: PMC3934429.
- Clifford B. Saper, Thomas C. Chou, Joel K. Elmquist, The Need to Feed: Homeostatic and Hedonic Control of Eating, Neuron, Volume 36, Issue 2, 2002, Pages 199-211,ISSN 0896-6273, https://doi.org/10.1016/S0896-6273(02)00969-8.