Have you ever had this thought? As physique athletes trying to gain control over our lifestyles, we should give some analysis to WHY we eat what we do. (And how and when we do it.) Although we're no doubt more focused on nutritional value than average folk, there are still other influences that drive us. By gaining awareness of these things, we have a better chance of managing them.

Genetics and Gender

Did you know that men prefer anchovies more than women do? Olives too, according to some research.(7) The truth is, however, gender and genetic influences take a major back seat to learned food preferences. This is good because that which is learned can be unlearned, young Jedi. Good examples are the persons I've worked with (including myself) who have gotten away from their dependence on sickly sweet beverages by slowly titrating-down the amount of artificial sweetener they use, to the point of using black or nearly unsweetened coffee and tea.

Are anchovies a gender-based preference?

Religious and Social

Here's a statement you might have made in the past: "Sorry dude, I'm not allowed to eat that right now." Obviously, Ramadan, Passover, or Kosher restrictions in general exert powerful influences on our eating. These are serious situations and call for some creative thinking. Ramadan is perhaps most extreme. If you can't have food or drink for extended periods, maybe it's a good time to focus on fat loss– even if fasting does crush one's basal metabolic rate (BMR).

At least fat-protective insulin concentrations in the blood are minimized and one's "fuel mix" (RER) shifts toward fat usage. Compensating for that slowed BMR can take the form of extra effort in doing lower intensity non-exercise physical activities (walking, chores, etc.), or for some, even limited resistance training to preserve muscle mass. Caution is called for to prevent worsening any fasting-induced dehydration.

Socially, there are family traditions (e.g. big Sunday meals) and rituals (e.g. birthday cake) as well as ethnic factors (e.g. Mexican vs. Italian vs. Asian vs. Deep Southern American foods) that do affect what we choose to consume. It takes creativity once more to do a little bodybuilding "recipe rehab" for these foods. Here are some examples of "recipe rehab" in order of geographic preferences listed above:

Cost

This one is obvious and limiting but not an insurmountable obstacle. Eating well doesn't have to mean eating expensively. Yes, low-fat and low-carb specialty goodies are pricey, but these shouldn't be staples in your diet anyway!

Canned salmon and tuna are cheap protein (and relatively low risk regarding mercury contamination). Skim milk or even powdered milk is great on multiple levels such as high quality protein, potassium, vitamin D and calcium for fat loss, etc. Frozen fruits and vegetables are very comparable to fresh in quality and can be bought cheaply in one-pound bags. Dried beans are dirt-cheap. Lower-cost 18 packs of eggs are also a great, high-protein post-workout meal with toast (say, one or two whole eggs and six to eight egg whites with four pieces of toast and jam).

Flavor!

According to some authorities, this is the number one reason people eat what they do. That's totally understandable. It's an instant, reinforcing reward for the behavior of choosing the item. Since color, temperature, texture and smell greatly affect our enjoyment of food, too, don't neglect these aspects–particularly when target-date dieting.

Healthy foods can be attractive and delicious. I once had a prof who said, "presentation is everything." Take his advice before you open your next can of grayish green beans and start gnawing on another dry plain chicken breast! The truth is, with attention to these factors and a temporal approach to nutrition (AM carbs, PM fats), the first 12 weeks of my last contest diet were pretty effortless. This is significant considering that 81.5% of competitive bodybuilders are reportedly preoccupied with food "sometimes, often or always".(1)

Food presentation is everything.

Nutritional Value

This one is a no-brainer for T-citizens, as learning-to-improve is our very credo. There is a clear relationship between applied knowledge and success. Just realize that the term, "nutritional value" can also mean phytochemicals (healthful plant substances offered by Mother Nature in inimitable combinations), which are important just like vitamins, minerals and macronutrients (protein, carb and fat).

Emotions, Appetite and Hunger

In my own experiences, men seem to have less trouble with emotional eating than women. Of course this isn't always true but I personally see men tending to struggle more with the biological hunger and the portion size issue. (The entire appetite versus hunger issue is complex and beyond the scope of this article.)

So, how might we handle these triggers? Addressing emotions and hunger with a little psychology may help. A couple of researchers once decided that overweight people's psychological problem wasn't food, so these scientists addressed its absence (hunger anxiety) instead. That is, by getting some counseling to become "more okay" with hunger (partly by doing progressive muscle relaxation while imagining hunger cravings), participants lost more weight (-7.5% body weight over a year) than those control subjects who were put on a very strict 1000 kcal per day diet (+6.5% bodyweight over a year)!(4) The manipulation of psychology here is almost scary.

Self awareness is the key. Catching yourself dwelling on food in a negative way is a start. Instead, one might try paying attention to the hunger and even writing down a description of the sensations. It's a natural phenomenon. Demystifying hunger and disarming it before it snowballs mentally really works for some people. (Of course, if you have serious issues, seek help from a psychologist.)

Resulting anxiety and anger can indeed be decreased. I remember once Dorian Yates was asked if he got in fights with his former wife when contest dieting. He replied something to the effect of: "Why would I complain to her about it? I'm doing this to myself; I can stop dieting and competing whenever I want." There's a lot of truth in this. But remember, by eating moderate-sized frequent meals full of protein and fiber, hunger doesn't have to be an ever-present dieting partner.

One note on comfort foods and discomfort foods... Do you have particular foods that make you feel comfortable? Things like potpie (heck, pie of any variety!), mashed potatoes, ice cream and chocolate are cited by many people. Hot coffee is one of mine, particularly when I'm lecturing.

On the negative side, I have memories of having to finish my salad–particularly cucumbers and tomatoes–at dinnertime before I was allowed to go out to play. (I circumvented parental insistence with everything from tossing "tomato slice frisbees" under the fridge to three-pointing cherry tomatoes across the room into a waiting friend's mouth!) I still won't eat either, despite their obvious nutritional qualities.

Think about it; stop reading right here for a second and dig around in your mind. Self awareness is an ongoing theme of this article. Are there foods that are just plain comforting or that really turn you off? It really is important. A local nutrition prof here in the Midwest once wrote that once food symbolism is in place, nutritional value will remain secondary!(5)

Schedule

Having no time is part and parcel of modern life. Society seems designed to make every last one of us fat. But you already know this. So as a way to fight back, you may want to consider:

You get the idea. With a little planning you can stay in control of what you eat. Having no time is not an excuse when armed with a little knowledge like we've seen here.

Of course, there are different ways to categorize the reasons we eat what we do (as evidenced by my various introductory nutrition texts), but we've at least tackled some good ones here. Again, self-awareness is the key. If you don't know why you're eating what you are eating, then you are apt to be led astray. As a human being, your environment and your psychology influence your food choices, period. Unless you eat perfectly 100 percent of the time, you know what I mean.

Ding ding. There goes that damn dinner bell! Am I salivating?

References and Further Reading

1. Andersen, R., et al. Weight loss, psychological, and nutritional patterns in competitive male body builders. Int J Eat Disord. 1995 Jul;18(1):49-57.

2. Laporte, D. Treatment response in obese binge eaters: preliminary results using a very low calorie diet (VLCD) and behavior therapy. Addict Behav. 1992;17(3):247-57.

3. Legoff DB, Spigelman MN. Salivary response to olfactory food stimuli as a function of dietary restraint and body weight. Appetite. 1987 Feb;8(1):29-35.

4,. Nagler W, Androff A. Investigating the impact of deconditioning anxiety on weight loss. Psychol Rep. 1990 Apr;66(2):595-600.

5. Parraga, I. Determinants of food consumption. J Am Diet Assoc. 1990 May;90(5):661-3.

6. Ramadan, J., et al. Responses to exercise, fluid, and energy balances during Ramadan in sedentary and active males. Nutrition. 1999 Oct;15(10):735-9.

7. Ulrich, N., et al. Food preferences are influenced by gender and genetic taste sensitivity for 6-n-propylthiouracil. Inst Food Tech Ann Mtg, 2000; www.ift.confex.com/ift/2000/techprogram/paper_3781.htm, In: Brown, J. Nutrition Now, Instructors Guide, 3rd Ed. Wadsworth/Thomson Learning: Belmont, CA, 2002.