Health // 10/25/2023

Good appetite? How we decide what is put on the table

Image credit: Mason Dahl/unsplash
Julia "Jules" Topp

Proper nutrition plays an important role, not only in sports. But why do we often reach for unhealthy snacks even though we know better? Our psyche influences our eating behaviour, but there are tricks to making conscious choices.

Don't think about a bar of chocolate! So, are you already hungry for plain or whole nuts? Food starts in the mind: Just thinking about our favourite food makes our mouths water. The taste, the texture, the smell - all these sensory aspects ensure that most of us have a deep affection for good food. But if we have a closer look, we realize that the decision about what goes on our plate is often influenced by far more than simple hunger or a spontaneous appetite.

Insatiable hunger of the spirit

Hidden deep within the convolutions of our consciousness are complex psychological patterns and ingrained habits that determine what we eat and for what reasons we do so. That which Sigmund Freud hypothesized more than a century ago is confirmed by contemporary neuroscience: we are not in full control of our own selves, often "remotely controlled" like puppets.

So our food choices are not just pragmatic decisions, they are a complex mix of biological, psychological, social and cultural factors. It's important that we become aware of these multi-layered influences to better understand why we eat what we eat - and perhaps to make more purposeful choices for healthier and more fulfilling diets. In our daily lives and for the sports we play.

Some of these factors are:

Emotional eating: Many people tend to eat when they are stressed, bored, sad or in other emotional states. This behaviour can lead to overeating and preferring unhealthy foods.

Reward system: Our brains are wired so that we often associate food with reward and pleasure. The desire for rewards can lead us to prefer foods high in calories and sugar.

"One of our oldest brain regions, the limbic system, unconditionally demands reward. And food is a wonderfully uncomplicated reward because it's usually always available." - Prof. Dr. habil. Johann Christoph Klotter, former professor of nutritional psychology and health promotion at Fulda University of Applied Sciences (now deceased, in a BDSI report).

Habitual eating: Eating habits and rituals can greatly influence our eating behaviour. For example, eating lunch at the same time every day can become a habit, regardless of hunger or appetite.

Body image and self-esteem: Self-esteem and body image play an important role in eating behaviour. People who are dissatisfied with their body image are sometimes prone to restrictive eating or eating disorders.

Social influence: People are social creatures, and eating behaviour can be strongly influenced by social pressures and norms. For example, people often eat more in company and may be influenced by other eating habits.

"Through the nature of his diet, a person shapes or defines his cultural and social connection. This is often of far greater importance to him than his physical health." - Prof. Dr. habil. Johann Christoph Klotter

Evolutionary factors: Our ancestors had to scavenge for food sources and store calories to survive. This has led to a natural tendency for humans to prefer foods that are nutritious and high in calories.

Advertising and Marketing: The food industry uses psychology and marketing techniques to entice us to buy and consume certain foods.

Biological factors: Hormone balance, blood sugar levels, and feelings of fullness are important biological factors that influence our eating behaviour. Hormones such as leptin and ghrelin play a role in regulating hunger and satiety.

Taste preferences: Our individual preferences for certain tastes, such as sweet, sour, salty, bitter and umami*, influence our eating habits. People tend to eat foods that taste good to them.

*=Umami is one of the five basic tastes that the human sense of taste can perceive. The term originates from Japanese and means something like "savoury" or "spicy". Umami is primarily evoked by glutamic acid, which is found particularly in protein-rich foods such as meat, fish, cheese, and in some vegetables such as tomatoes and mushrooms.

Cultural and ethical considerations: Culture and ethics, as well as religious and personal beliefs, can also influence eating behaviours and habits.

Brain sits at the nutritional helm

Every athlete, from amateur to professional, instinctively understands that a balanced diet is the key to peak performance. But not all sports nutrition is the same. Strength athletes and endurance athletes have different goals, which require a specially tailored diet.

The focus of strength athletes is primarily on protein intake. Their main goal is usually hypertrophy, i.e. maximum muscle growth. Carbohydrates play a subordinate role. Endurance athletes are different. They require an increased energy supply over a longer period of time. To ensure the best possible energy supply, it is therefore crucial to completely fill the carbohydrate stores in advance. A diet rich in carbohydrates is recommended in this case. In addition, the protein requirement for endurance athletes is somewhat higher due to the increased total consumption and is around 1.2 to 1.4 grams per kilogram of body weight. The intake of fluids also plays a crucial role, especially during long-duration sports activities.

The foods we eat have a profound impact that goes beyond our physical health and goes right to the heart of our mental and emotional makeup. Despite the deluge of information coming at us through social media and other outlets, and studies on healthy eating, we often face a troubling disconnect: the difference between what we know about healthy eating and sports nutrition and how we actually eat.

"Without the right fuel, the best workouts are of no use. People often underestimate nutrition not only during the workout itself, but also after the performance has been achieved. Only with the right nutrition before, during and after exercise can you attack best performances." - Nora Havlinova, MSc, nutritionist and athlete

Stress and food: a tricky relationship

Stress, whether caused by work or sports challenges, personal conflicts or other life circumstances, has an additional impact on our eating behaviour. For some people, stress leads to a reduced appetite, so they tend to skip meals or eat very little during hectic times. Others, however, feel just the opposite in stressful situations and experience increased cravings for food.

In times of increased stress levels, such people may change their eating habits and increasingly reach for high-calorie, often unhealthy foods. This is often referred to as "frustration eating" or "comfort eating." Studies have shown that the stress hormone cortisol increases appetite, especially for sugary and high-fat foods.

Chronic stress can lead to long-term changes in eating habits, as it can make people more likely to choose convenient but unhealthy foods. Too much saturated fat, sugar and empty carbohydrates tend to make people tired rather than provide energy. In addition, there is an increased risk that the diet will no longer meet needs and deficiencies will develop. This can lead to an increased risk of obesity and related health problems.

Stress and increased appetite often go hand in hand. Cravings for unhealthy foods increase.

Boost your Game: Nutritional discipline boosts performance and well-being

Overcoming your inner badass and building discipline takes time and patience. Any progress, even if small, is a step in the right direction. By making conscious, healthy nutrition choices, we support not only our athletic performance, but also our overall well-being.

Proper nutritional discipline ensures that the body receives adequate energy in the form of carbohydrates, proteins and fats. This is especially important for athletes, as proper energy provision can increase performance and endurance. Sources recommend consuming carbohydrates well before exercise to replenish glycogen stores. After exercise, proteins help with muscle recovery.

5 Tips to Trick Eating Behaviour

  • Plan ahead: if we know what we're going to eat and when, we're less likely to impulsively make unhealthy choices.
  • Healthy snacks: keep nuts, seeds, fruits or vegetables handy, so we have a healthy option on hand when hunger strikes.
  • Drink: Sometimes we confuse thirst with hunger. Adequate hydration is essential, and not just for athletes*.
  • Positive self-talk: Self-criticism can lead to a vicious cycle of emotional eating. We should be kind to ourselves, because a piece of cake doesn't cost the best time.
  • Digital helpers: use food diary apps. Through the daily routine of writing things down, we eat more consciously and have a better overview of healthy food and small sins.

"If you eat a balanced diet that covers your energy needs, you're allowed to have a piece of cake once in a while." - Nora Havlinova, MSc, nutritionist and athlete

In summary, nutritional discipline plays a critical role in how athletes perform and feel. A balanced diet contributes to energy provision, recovery, mental health, weight control, and long-term health. Our eating habits are 80 percent determined by the unconscious and emotions. Our brain, shaped by experience, emotion and environment, influences every decision we make about what we eat. Awareness of this is the first step to a healthier lifestyle and a healthy diet that tastes good and is fun to eat. Then better athletic performance is possible, whether as an amateur or an athlete.

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Julia "Jules" Topp
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