I Eat Because... It's My Routine
Eating as part of a routine is fine when you're in control of your diet. If you're not, regular habits can trip you up.
'Breakfast is the most important meal of the day.'
'You should never eat carbs after 8pm.'
'Eat meals little and often – unless it's the weekend!'
For some, daily routines are structured around rigid mealtimes and a strict food plan. For others, there's no such thing as breakfast, lunch, or dinner, and our eating habits depend on where we are and what we're doing.
So, which approach is the best way?
With input from nutritionist Charlotte Stirling-Reed, we've pinpointed common mistakes Brits make when it comes to their eating habits and untangled some common dieting myths and hearsay. Find out the truth behind mealtimes and learn how to find a routine that's both healthy and suitable for your lifestyle.
When do Brits Eat
We asked Brits about their eating habits to find out when they typically tuck into a meal:
43% say their eating habits are usually determined by the time of day and being in a routine of eating at specific times.
24% say they usually eat regardless of the time, whenever the fancy takes them.
24% sase their eating patterns primarily around when they actually feel physically hungry.
5% eat whenever they have the chance.
Mistakes and mealtime myth-busting
Search 'healthy eating' and you'll find an all-you-can eat buffet of contradictory advice. With Charlotte's help, we've tucked into some common mealtime tips to find out whether they hold any truth:
'Breakfast like a king, lunch like a queen, dinner like a pauper': Should we eat less and less throughout the day?'
"If you don't have much time for breakfast, this popular saying isn't going to work for you. Routine is fairly important when it comes to mealtimes, but it's essential to also be practical and fit mealtimes around your day-to-day lifestyle."
'Eat every 3 hours': Should we be reaching for a snack at regular intervals?
"Snacks are a good idea to help top up on energy and nutrients between meals, but it's not ideal to mindlessly graze on foods or snacks all day, as we can easily lose track of what has been eaten."
'Eat the same foods every day, to avoid binging on bad snacks': Does restricting ourselves help us stay on the straight and narrow?
"Absolutely not! I'd recommend the opposite: try to eat a wide variety of foods to make sure you enjoy what you eat and get plenty of nutrients in your diet."
'Have a protein shake before (or during or after) you work out': When should we eat in relation to exercise?
"This depends on an individual's goal. Having a protein supplement post- workout can be a convenient way of getting the protein needed to help repair and grow muscles. You can easily get enough protein from food, though, so if protein shakes aren't your thing then any protein-rich snack or meal is just as good."
'Don't ever eat after 7pm': Is there a cut-off point after which we should stop eating?
"It's important to create a routine that works for every individual. There is some research that suggests meal timing can impact weight. However, this varies from person to person and as long as it doesn't affect sleeping patterns, there is no problem eating after 7pm."
When should we eat?
Nutritionist Charlotte Stirling-Reed says that having routine mealtimes can be helpful, as it can allow you to regulate your eating habits and ensure you're fuelling your body with the right foods. But that routine doesn't always look the same for everyone...
"Having a routine for mealtimes allows us to top up with energy and nutrients throughout the day. It also helps us to have a pattern of hunger and fullness that our bodies tend to become familiar with. For example, if you normally have breakfast each day and then skip it, your body will raise hunger signals to try and encourage you to eat."
"Eating in a routine also helps us to ensure we are getting plenty of variety – rather than eating all in one large meal at the end of the day – and makes it more likely for us to meet the government's healthy eating guidelines."
"However, it's important to realise that everyone is individual and a good routine is about what works for you. I've had clients who simply can't eat breakfast, and others who aren't able to have regular meals each day. For these situations, it's about trying to fit in calories, nutrients, fibre, and fluids when possible, all the while keeping your diet balanced and avoiding going hungry."
Sticking to regular eating habits is one way to help you maintain a healthy diet. When it comes to developing a routine, it's all about finding a balance that suits you. However, the following advice might help you find a routine that works for your lifestyle.
- Breakfast 7am - 10am
- Morning snack 9am - 11am
- Lunch 12pm - 2pm
- Afternoon snack 3pm - 4pm
- Dinner 5pm - 7pm
- Evening snack before 8:30pm
Eat a healthy breakfast before you start your work to provide you with energy and to get your brain in gear for the morning's activities.
Try not to skip it – missing breakfast means you're more likely to feel hungry later in the day, which could result in overeating. It also means you may be missing out on a large chunk of your daily nutrients such as vitamin C, protein, and fibre. However, some people may not have the option of eating breakfast, and so should try to fit in these nutrients as part of another meal or snack.
If you eat breakfast particularly early and find yourself hungry in the late morning, top up your energy with a small, healthy snack between lunch and dinner. For some, having a snack two hours after breakfast and two hours before lunch is the ideal time.
Try to avoid eating simply out of habit or boredom and think about how hungry you are when eating snacks during the day.
Most people eat lunch typically between 12 noon and 2pm, and this is an ideal time if you have a standard breakfast, lunch, and dinner routine. For many this means having lunch around four to five hours after breakfast.
Having a lunch that contains a balance of wholegrain carbohydrates, protein, and fat as well as some fruit and vegetables should help to keep you fuelled throughout the afternoon and will help to tick off some of those important food groups.
It's best to snack in the afternoon if you're genuinely hungry or you really want to, but there's no need to force yourself to eat if you aren't feeling it. Many people seem to get a mid-afternoon dip around 3-4pm or two hours after lunch, which can be an ideal time to top up on energy.
Depending on your work schedule, it can be difficult to plan an early dinner, but try not to eat less than an hour or so before going to bed. Any later, and you might have trouble sleeping.
Try to avoid regularly eating anything too heavy that may be difficult for your body to digest, as it may affect your sleep. Otherwise, make sure your evening meal is helping to fill any gaps from the day, for example, if you haven't had enough dairy, protein, or vegetables. The evening meal is a great place to top up on vegetables to help you meet your five a day.
If you're still hungry after dinner and are used to having something to eat before bed, try to choose healthier options such as yogurt, fruit, cheese and crackers if you want to improve your eating choices. It's great to get out of the habit of having something sweet after dinner if you want to eat less or reduce sugar. Remember not to overly restrict yourself though, so if you're pining for some chocolate, do let yourself indulge without guilt.
Feeling guilty about food: Relationship status – "It's complicated"
Just like eating a delicious meal can make us feel great, food can also impact our mood negatively. At least once per week, 38% of Brits feel guilty or disappointed in themselves for eating something they 'shouldn't have' eaten. 22% say they associate food with feeling 'guilt' at least once per day.
Our survey revealed that Brits approach their diet in a range of ways – all of which affect the way they feel about themselves:
16% eat whatever they want and don't limit themselves.
29% eat healthily, but don't feel disappointed if they do eat unhealthy foods.
28% eat everything in moderation.
19% try to eat healthily most of the time but feel disappointed when they do eat unhealthy foods.
3% stick to a strict diet and deprive themselves of certain food groups.
"It's really sad that people feel guilt over eating certain foods. Being healthy is about having a healthy mind and a positive relationship with food, as well as a balanced diet. No food should be 'off limits', but instead there should be a focus on moderation and balance when it comes to extra snacks or sugary foods.
Having a routine around mealtimes can be helpful for many to make sure they aren't over hungry or grazing on excess foods throughout the day."
How to turn healthy habits into a routine
Knowing when and what you should eat is one thing, but actually carrying out a healthy mealtime routine as an everyday practice is a whole different kettle of fish.
University College London (UCL) professor Phillippa Lally's famous 2009 study, conducted in collaboration with colleagues from the Cancer Research UK Health Behaviour Research Centre, studied the way we form habits and behavioural patterns. The key findings were:
- It takes an average of 66 days to turn something into a habit (a behaviour that's performed automatically) – so keep pushing through the tough weeks, and in around two months your healthy eating plan will feel routine.
- It's easier to form habits in a consistent setting so there's something specific to cue the behaviour. For example, eating porridge out of the same bowl at the kitchen table an hour after you wake up.
- To break a habit, we need to avoid the cues that trigger that habit in the first place. For example, if you always find yourself reaching in your desk drawer for a chocolate bar at 3pm, replace the chocolate with a healthier alternative to break the taste association.
So, which behaviours do we need to trade for healthier ones? We asked Charlotte what some common eating-related habits are, and how to overcome them:
Indulging in goodies colleagues bring into work
"This is always a tricky one! Try to set limits on how much you eat when people bring in cakes and biscuits. Remember to stick to your current routine, and have your planned snacks before going for colleagues' foods, too; that way, you may find yourself less likely to over consume. You could also try having a conversation with colleagues about how regularly this happens. Other people may be feeling the same or trying to make healthier choices too. Lastly, you could try to set the tone by bringing in a basket of fruit, some trail mix, or low-sugar banana bread."
Snacking out of boredom
"Try to stick to a routine of eating and a rough time of the day when you have your meals and snacks. If you're reaching for extra snacks, try and think about why this is. If boredom is the answer, see if there is something else you can do to interest you. Stretch your legs, make some tea, read a magazine. Or something else that might spark your interest."
Binging on sugary treats at night
"Try to opt for more naturally sweet options, so that you're getting a dose of nutrients too and they aren't damaging your teeth during the night. Fruit salads, plain popcorn, and natural yogurt are all options we enjoy in my house."
Drinking fizzy drinks each day
"Try swapping your fizzy drinks for a less sugary option, even if it's just for a couple of days per week. You can gradually build on this as you get used to having a little less. Try having fizzy water with lemon, fruits diffused in water, or even some fruit tea instead."
Going back for seconds (and thirds!)
"Take time to eat your meals and try to appreciate the food you're putting in your mouth. So often we eat without really thinking about what we are doing – perhaps in front of the TV, which research shows encourages us to eat more. Avoid distractions and sit down to really enjoy and appreciate your meals.
Also, try to fill your plate with plenty of vegetables as well as wholegrains as these contain fibre which helps you to feel full. Remember to still take your time with eating, to give your stomach a chance to catch up with your eyes!
Importantly, however, do remember to pay attention to what your body is saying and your hunger cues as well – if you're still really hungry, don't deprive yourself, as it may lead to you overeating later, or to an unhealthy relationship with food."
Dishing up too-big portions
"Many people benefit from using a smaller plate when dishing up meals. This can help you to eat less and trick your mind into thinking you're eating more. Often the plates we are eating from are huge, and so we need big portions to fill them. Try buying a slightly smaller plate and make sure you've also got plenty of veggies on your plate too!"