External eating - why do we use the outside world to guide our eating?

17 May 2019

Subtle triggers

We use all our senses (there are some schools of thought that think we have 10-20 different senses) whether consciously or not to guide our eating behaviours. Our senses tell us so much about what’s going on in our bodies and about how our body interacts with the outside world. You might not always be aware that they are influencing how you eat, but let’s look at some that do just that:

Smell – we can probably all think about a time that we’ve been walking past a bakery and as the aroma of fresh baked pastries and bread wafts towards us suddenly started to salivate, whether we just ate or not.

Sound – have you ever been having a conversation with a friend or colleague or whoever and when the talk has turned to food all of a sudden your stomach starts to niggle? Just talking about food and conjuring up delicious images can cause us to want to eat.

Sight – this is a powerful one as I guarantee you’ve been tempted to eat too much by the sight of a hot, cheesy pizza or shining, gooey chocolate cake.

Touch – the touch of warm, crusty bread as you make lunch or the feel of the soft fuzz on a kiwi can stimulate our hunger.

As well as these there are subtle influencers such as misdirected comments from loved ones like “are you sure you need that extra slice?” We also use these to tell us what to eat, instead of listening to our bodies that might be telling us we do need that extra slice.

The not-so subtle triggers

Then we have the not-so subtle external influencers that surround us day to day, often that we choose to put in place to tell us what, when and how much to eat. This can be for a host of reasons but commonly because people feel ‘out of control’ with eating or like they have to change their bodies so need help achieving this. Examples of such influencers are meal plans, calorie trackers, articles and videos, clever marketing of food products and many more.

Online tools (e.g. meal planners, weight loss tools) are some of the worst, creating ridiculous plans for people with nonsensical weight targets. For an example of just how bad these can be head to the full version of this post on my blog Skin & Shit where I  name and shame one of these terrible tools.


Basically my point is that there are a heap of variables in our day to day lives that try to tempt us to eat when we’re not hungry, convince us that we need to eat less to be ‘worthy’ or mislead us into unnecessary diets that don’t fit with our lifestyles. Although external eating has its place and can still lead to satisfying enjoyable eating, it’s important to be aware of the pulls for our attention when it comes to food and to say no or yes when it’s right.

“Enjoy eating food. Not too much, not too little. Mostly what satisfies you” – Michael Pollan, In Defense of Food: An Eating Manifesto, adapted by Tribole and Resch.