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View Eating as a Habit

Improving nutritional intake has little to do with providing client lots of nutritional information - learn how to really help clients by understanding nutritional habits and the influencers of those habits.

When we view eating, like exercise, as a habit we are able to better understand the context that leads a person to behave in a certain way, as well as know the person’s intent to move away from that situation.

personal%2520training%2520carrot%2520vs%2520chocolateFor example I may have a client who has categorically stated that they are desperate to lose weight and that they won’t eat desserts or drink alcohol ever again.  Yet, on their first week with me as their personal trainer they are desperately depressed when they confess they’ve had chocolate most days, dessert three times and know they’ll over indulge in alcohol at the Christmas party tomorrow night. 

What’s happening here is you are seeing a difference between what the client really wants to do, and what their habits help them to do (and keep doing) so easily. 

Firstly, in each of these situations there are cues for your client to act differently to the way they want to (and say they will) act when they are not surrounded by all those external cues.  We are not islands!  If you put a person who is thinking about chocolate (because they are trying to avoid it) in a smoko room where another staff member’s kids have one of those fund raising chocolate boxes, and are offering chocolate for sale to help fund the kids sports trip, then your client is on a hiding to nothing (i.e. its extremely hard for them to refuse). 

Then picture the same client at home having an apple for desert while their husband and kids tuck into ice cream with chocolate topping and apple pies...  Then picture them out for the Christmas doo after a record year, the need for dancing, confidence and social acceptance, and they’re trying to stick to orange juice or water…  Yes, it’s possible your client could resist the chocolate, the ice-cream and the alcohol, but it’s not likely because your client has been enjoying these foods and linking them to joy for – well years and years.

It’s imperative that we view eating as a habit because thats what it is.  Eating is a deep seated early learned behaviour that is developed and refined to be as pleasurable as possible over time.  If you look at kids being rewarded with sweets, chocolate, lollies, dessert and so on – you are seeing the tip of the iceberg. 

personal%20training%20kids%20partyThen think of the activities at three year old birthday parties; goody bags, cakes, chips, soft drinks, games that involve food (treasure hunt, cutting chocolate with gloves on while the music plays, lolly scrambles etc). 

Adults are walking lumps of their eating history.  Add to that that humans in general have been programmed to have a very active appetite (satiety) due to our scarce pasts, (hunter gatherers had to work extremely hard for a calorie or two) and the modifications we’ve made to our foods which make them calorie dense, sensationally tasty and outstandingly memorable – and you must acknowledge that the only way to ever create sustainable change is by understanding eating for this client as a behaviour and then looking for very easy changes that can be consistently achieved.


Understanding  the major influences of our eating habits


Now we do have national nutrition guidelines (to counter the masses of nutritional misinformation in the public domain) which we certainly believe are accurate, reliable and pretty simple to follow.   If we (as personal trainers) just pass these guidelines onto our clients they should be simple enough for them to follow on their own and that will free us up to focus exclusively on their training – right?

Wrong! Unfortunately it’s nowhere near that simple, as you should realise by now. A number of environmental factors have been identified as having a significant influence on the food we eat.  The eating behaviours and habits of your personal training clients (and you, your friends and your family) will be influenced and shaped by some or all of the following factors which regularly interfere with healthy eating.


These influencers include;

Peer  pressure


What the people around you eat affects what you eat.  Try eating differently than your family, refuse to have a beer or wine (or heaps of beer and wine!) with a mate on his or her birthday, or turn down all the meat at a barbeque with your friends – personal%20training%20peer%20pressurethe response you get is one of peer pressure usually and just as we dress to fit in, we can also find ourselves eating to fit in.

A lot of fast food, alcohol, confectionary and fizzy drink advertising by the fast food, alcohol and confectionary giants ‘normalises’ consuming their products and is oriented around encouraging (often young) people and families to ‘fit in’ by consuming their products with each other.  This approach works extremely well – these giants are expanding globally like a plague!!


Cultural use of food


The way foods are presented, the meaning of them within an occasion, the rituals that they are part of, all of these factors affect how we eat.  In some cultures ample food is always personal%20training%20cultural%20foodprovided as it’s rude to under-prepare or under-feed. 

Similarly if you attend a work or social function, in that setting it’s rude to not eat heartily. And often the foods presented are high fat and high sugar ‘treats’.  Our uses of food to celebrate, commiserate, show respect and love all influence our eating.




Consumption of food should be based on our caloric needs right?  Well ideally yes, but in our increasingly sedentary world with calorie packed foods (lots of fat and added sugar) it’s very easy to over-eat.  Over-eating is common due to our environment, for example, look at how the size of the soft drinks containers you get at fast food outlets has increased decade on decade – I think there is now a ‘1 gallon option’ in some places – seriously!  This is just one example of how habitual over-consumption is now the norm within our society (supersize me please).


Availability of food


We tend to eat locally – whatever is easy, most convenient, affordable and close.  So in rural areas this will mean less fast food and more cooking.  In urban areas the reverse is true – and across the western world populations are increasingly urbanised.  personal%20training%20fast%20foodIn the urban environments of the western world what is increasingly most easy, convenient and ‘affordable’ is fast food.

There is also a socio-economic influence here – with those working more hours for less pay having less time and energy to prepare and cook healthily.  You have far less control over what goes into the food you eat when you don’t cook or prepare it yourself.


Repeated dieting


Six out of ten people will go on a diet in any given year!  Look at the thousands of diet books and diets within magazines and you’ll understand that there is enormous pressure and opportunity to ‘diet’ – and worse it’s become as acceptable as apple pie!  Repeated dieting is common and there is no evidence to suggest dieting works in the long-term. There is significant evidence to suggest that dieting causes both physical and psychological distress over time, and an unhealthy obsession with food.


Food selection


Often foods high in fat and sugar are the most desirable for our taste buds – so we tend to select foods like this.  Researchers cottoned on to this in the 1970’s and since then we’ve had an explosion in the use of sugar, fat, and salt in foods.  Unfortunately our brains still tell us that sugary or salty / fatty foods are necessary to get us through the tough times (periods of food shortage) – it’s just the tough times don’t arrive – famine is not an issue in the modern western world so while we don’t need to prepare for it – our eating habits suggest we actually are!


Time pressures


If you’ve ever been in a rush you’ll know you tend to eat differently or at the very least eat something that you can consume on the run.  As society has become more and more time pressured we’ve found ways to personal%20training%20juggling%20time%20package up the tastes we like and rush them down our throats at a moments notice.  Gone are the days of the cooking and sitting together to eat and chat, and as a result we eat differently.

Lots of ‘rushed’ people will miss breakfast and lunch and get through the early parts of the day on nothing but well sugared coffee and pastries from the nearest café.  By the time the end of the day arrives they are starving and craving calories.  This typically results in people consuming large quantities of high calorie foods (often takeaways) very quickly late in the day.  As it takes time (approximately 15minutes) for our stomach to tell our brain that it is full when we eat high calorie foods very quickly to satisfy our hunger we over consume very easily.




It’s now more affordable to buy a calorie than ever before.  It is in fact getting more expensive to eat well than eat poorly.  You can buy thousands of calories in a scoop of chips, or alternatively buy one head of lettuce with very few calories.  The effect is that our poorer people are eating worse than our wealthier people – they have less choice due to their budgets.  Low fat mince is more expensive than high fat mince, fruit and vegetables are more expensive than white bread, muesli is more expensive than sugary cereals, and ice cream is cheaper per calorie than fruit. 

Unfortunately we have developed a value system where we think the quantity of calories is more important than the quality of calories.  Eating less food that is more nutritious would certainly be better for health than eating more food that is less nutritious.  But in many cases that requires a significant shift in our values.


Poor management of vegetarianism


One of the influencers of what we eat can be personal nutritional choices such as vegetarianism, being vegan or being gluten free.  Each choice carries with it some management requirements where the person will need to manage their intake of foods carefully to get a full and balanced diet.  Problems can arise when people don’t understand what they are missing out on when they limit their food selection.


Food preparation and storage


Food storage and preparation greatly affects the micronutrient content of food.  It also affects how quickly macronutrients can be absorbed.  The more processed a food typically is the less micronutrients remain and usually the more easily digested the food is.  The challenge here is we like the convenience of food anytime, anyway we like it.  However, with that the nutritional value of our food is generally lowered.

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