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By Caroline Fleck

The Psychology of Nutrition

Uploaded: Feb 8, 2015

I've got to lay my cards on the table and admit that I've become pretty fascinated with one of psychology's hottest topics right now: the psychology of nutrition.

I was first turned onto this topic back in 2009 when Michael Pollan's book In Defense of Food became a New York Times best seller. Pollan highlights the work of Paul Rozin, a psychology professor at the University of Pennsylvania. Rozin's research provided data in support of a phenomenon I'd observed in many of my clients: our perceptions about nutrition appear to be consistently and systematically skewed.

Rozin's work revealed the following:

- We tend to categorize food as "good" or "bad." The issue is that, while some foods are unhealthy when consumed in high doses, they are essential in low doses.

- About half of people mistakenly believe that high calorie foods in small amounts contain more calories than low calorie foods in high amounts.

- We often confuse "healthfulness" with "completeness." In other words, although you could consume 2,000 calories from bananas each day, your diet would be dangerously low in fat, protein, and essential amino acids. Although healthy, bananas, unlike, say, hot dogs, do not provide sufficient amounts of other essential nutrients.

So how does all of this relate to how you can build a more happy and fulfilling life? The answer is balance. The aforementioned findings all reflect errors in thinking in extremes - we are categorizing foods as "all good" or "all bad," under-emphasizing the effects of low calorie foods in high doses while overestimating the effects of high calorie foods in low doses, and confusing healthy with complete. Sadly, I have seen this type of thinking result in devastating psychological problems. At the extreme these polarized perceptions can manifest in eating disorders, like anorexia and bulimia, in which thoughts about food and nutrition become increasingly distorted, resulting in diets that can be life-threateningly imbalanced.

Sometimes, rather than resulting in food restriction, an imbalanced perception of food contributes to overeating. In recent years I have seen a significant upsurge in the number of people with problems related to binge eating. For these folks, a cycle of over-consumption and self-loathing emerges in which food becomes a way of managing negative emotions and distress in the short-term, while ultimately exacerbating these experiences in the long-term. Binge eaters often oscillate between extreme attempts at food deprivation and excessive binges.

So how does the absence of a healthy, balanced diet affect those of us who don't suffer from eating disorders? In my experience, what, when, and how we eat often affects how we manage distress. Yet we are often quick to disregard or minimize the effect food has on our mood and functioning.

There are three questions I consistently ask my clients when they describe situations in which they reacted poorly: had you eaten, what had you eaten, had you slept? Interestingly, I ask these same questions of my daughter when she's having a tantrum (well, I answer them on her behalf because she is only 1).

My daughter is much more likely to throw a tantrum if she is tired, hungry, or hopped up on sugar. Not terribly surprising, I know. But the same holds true for my adult and adolescent clients - when they are tired, hungry, and/or hopped up on caffeine or sugar, they are more likely to respond poorly to stress.

As a parent, I can control what and when my daughter eats. If we follow a routine and I make concerted efforts to provide a balanced diet, she is generally better behaved. As adults, we often fail to eat until we are starving, at which point we are more likely to eat poorly. We often depend on caffeine to get through the day and stave off hunger, which ultimately contributes to dysregulations in mood and sleep.

The takeaway is this: at the end of the day, we are all big babies. As much as we'd like to believe otherwise, what and when we eat contributes to how well we will react to any given situation. Rather than pursuing extreme weight loss approaches that eliminate essential parts of our diet, or cutting out meals all together, we should strive for regular (3 bigger meals, and 2 snacks/day), balanced eating. A diet that consists solely of carrots (the infamous Steve Jobs diet), isn't balanced. Although you might start to experience some of Jobs' notorious irritability, you are unlikely to achieve the happiness you seek.