Interview with Healthy and Psyched: Eating Behaviour and Social Media

For this weeks post I spoke to Rachel Evans from Healthy and Psyched  to hear what she has to say about modern day eating behaviour and how social media is affecting this. 

Rachel is a psychology PhD student, health blogger and founder of re:Wellbeing. She shamelessly enjoys taking photos of her breakfast and shouting about how much she loves fruit and vegetables on her blog and instagram account. After several years of disordered eating Rachel now has a balanced relationship with food and is using her personal experience and knowledge of the psychology of eating to help clients of re:Wellbeing to change their mindset, habits and lifestyle. Rachel has also released a FREE guide to her top tips to stop binge eating.

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What made you decide you wanted to study eating behaviour?

I think that food has a massive impact on our lives – it contributes to how we develop physically, our energy levels and even how we think and feel! During my MSc in Health Psychology I became more aware of how what we eat can influence us and I started to try and eat healthier. I love fruit and vegetables and have developed great habits to include them at every meal. I know, however, that it isn’t as simple for everyone to get their 5-a-day, especially if they have grown up eating convenience food or are going through a stressful period. I also know how easy it can be to overdo it with sweets and treats. There is a growing problem with obesity and the environment in which we live promotes the consumption of highly processed foods, which it can be hard to resist. I wanted to study eating behaviour to give us a better understanding of why some people are better than others at following a healthy diet and to develop interventions to help people to stick to their goals to eat well.

I am currently studying a PhD in the psychology eating behaviour focusing on factors such as motivation, self-control and habits, and how these determine what we eat.

How do you think social media has impacted eating behaviour?

Social media could have a positive or negative impact on eating behaviour and I think it depends on the individual who is viewing the content- what are they viewing? Why? And what is their past relationship with food and their self-esteem? People could use social media to search out inspiration for their next meal or on the other hand, use it to engage with groups who have disordered eating behaviour. Plus, the same photo and/or caption could have a very different impact on two people with different backgrounds/histories.

I am an advocate for media literacy- which involves being critical and even sceptical about what is seen on social media – don’t just start to follow a certain diet just because you’ve seen that’s what someone with 100k followers on instagram is doing. Likewise, be aware that people post the best bits of their lives (and diet) online, and it isn’t necessarily what they look like, how they live or what they eat for most of the time. It’s important not to compare ourselves to others that we see online. I think that it is these negative comparisons, as well as seeking out information on restrictive diets that can lead people to develop issues with self-esteem, body image and a disordered relationship with food. That said, it is by no means a certainty that someone would be negatively affected and as I mentioned at the beginning, social media could have a positive impact on eating behaviour.

People are free to share whatever they like online, so I think it is down to us as users to improve our media literacy and be conscious consumers of information rather than just believing everything that we read or see. If you think that viewing certain types of social media or certain accounts is having a negative impact on you then it’s up to you to stop viewing that content and seek out help from a qualified professional if that’s what you need. I know that I had a big clean up of my social media and unfollowed the accounts that make me feel bad about myself or make me feel like I am eating the ‘wrong’ things.

Also, if you are a content creator, it’s important to realise that your social media accounts will be seen by other people, and to consider the effect that it might have on them.

I know you personally try to eat more plant-based/ vegetarian foods, have you always eaten this way and if not what made you adopt this way of eating?

I have eaten predominantly plant-based meals for around three and a half years. When I first decided to cut down on my consumption of animal products it was because of reading blog or newspaper articles, which suggested consuming dairy products and meat could be harmful to our health. To be honest, I don’t know what to think about that now because there seem to be conflicting studies published all the time- but you (Jenna) would know far more about that than me. Now I eat a mainly plant-based diet because I enjoy the food and am increasingly concerned about animal welfare and sustainability.

I fully appreciate that emotional eating is a very complex issue however, if you had three top tips for emotional eaters what would they be?

I have had a lot of personal experience with emotional eating and it is something that my clients through re:Wellbeing mention frequently. I know that when I got the urge to eat it felt like I couldn’t possibly do anything to resist eating what I was craving. But the food never satisfied me so I would eat more and more and I would end up feeling incredibly guilty along with whatever emotion I was trying to escape from- usually for me it was feeling lonely or like I wasn’t good enough. After what felt like forever struggling with emotional eating and telling myself a million times that I would start my diet again tomorrow I finally approached the situation from a different angle and things started to get better.

My first tip would be don’t focus your energy on trying to stop eating! Sounds weird I know, but as I’m sure you’re aware, it can be easy to fall into a battle between your willpower and cravings – and the cravings usually win. Instead focus on trying to establish what emotion you are feeling, when it started and why. Understanding your emotions is the first step to addressing them and overcoming your emotional eating. To the surprise of many of my clients, once they take this approach their cravings begin to disappear.

Tip number two would be to think of ways in which you can avoid getting into the situation that triggers your (often) negative emotions and feelings that you need to eat. For example, a situation that I have heard more than a few times from clients is coming home after a long or stressful day and immediately raiding the fridge and snack cupboard. In that case, developing a new routine that allows them to relax and decompress from the day, even for 5 minutes, before they enter the kitchen is very effective to stop emotional eating. For example, to go for a walk around the block (if you have driven home), listen to a few of your favourite songs or call your best friend. Anything to help you avoid getting into the emotional eating state of mind.

Lastly, if you have followed the second tip and still experience negative emotions can cravings then you should try to change your behaviour from eating to one that gives you the same or a better reward. Food is rewarding because it tastes good, gives us a sugar rush and we often eat food that is associated with positive memories to make us feel better. But food doesn’t address our emotional needs or the situation that is causing them. For example, you might be seeking comfort and craving creamy foods like icecream to provide that. However, you’re unlikely to be able to stop at just one scoop because the feelings will still be there once you have stopped eating. A better solution would be to have a hug with a friend or loved one and talk about why you are upset. If that isn’t possibly, showing yourself some love by having a nice bath with the intention of comforting yourself might do the trick. It is really important that you pursue the other activity with the intention of meeting your emotional needs rather than just going through the motions. It’s also really important to try and work out what you think will work for you in each situation. I wish there was a magic answer but everyone is so unique.

What is your opinion on intuitive eating, do you think it’s another Instagram trend?

I think it’s an instagram trend in the sense that people will probably stop talking about it soon. However, I do think that intuitive eating is helpful for many people – some of my clients have been on and off diets for so long, and these diets are actually doing nothing to help them lose weight and are damaging their relationship with food. In these cases I think that learning to tune into our natural hunger signals and rediscover how to eat without rules can be a good thing.

Thank you so much to Rachel for agreeing to do this interview. Don't forget to follow her Instagram @healthyandpsyced  and her blog