Food Psych 101



By Robyn Passante

In the fight against fat, there are those who count calories and those who count carbs. But what really counts, says local wellness counselor Erin Risius, is the what, how and why we eat.

“Often people are so immersed in the dieting that they’ve lost the joy of eating because they’re so stressed out about eating ‘right,’ ” said Risius, who teaches a weekly class at Hilton Head Health centered on the relationship we have with food. “There’s this morality to their food choices. When they eat what they term is a bad food, what happens internally is they think, I’m bad for eating this food.”

Breaking that cycle of self-loathing, rigid self-control and binge eating takes hard work and mindfulness, Risius said. “There has to be a readiness for change. You have to want to explore your life and figure out what’s up.”

When you are ready, Risius has plenty of tips for how to properly nourish your body and your mind.


An involved Stanford University study recently showed virtually no difference in weight loss between those following a low-carb diet and those following a low-calorie diet. Risius has her clients strive for a more visual approach to balancing their meals, where half of a 9-inch plate contains plants, one-quarter has whole grains and one-quarter features lean protein.

“I also like the 80/20 guideline, where 80 percent of the time I’m eating in a healthful, controlled way, and 20 percent of the time I’m not,” she said. “In that 20 percent, I’m factoring in my glass of wine, or my chocolate, so we can be flexible within our structured intent of our eating.”

Helping clients make more healthy, structured choices right off the bat kick-starts the desire to make more long-lasting changes to the way they think about food.

“Their mood improves, their energy improves, and often they have a little weight loss — and from there, that tends to spark the energy to dig a little deeper,” Risius said.


“The ‘how’ has to do with mindful eating. Even if we’re eating healthy foods, we could be overeating them,” Risius said. The trick, she said, is to slow down the pace of your eating, pay attention to what different foods feel like in your body, and try to reconnect with your hunger and satiety cues.

“Often people are disconnected from their appetite cues because they’re immersed in a chaotic eating pattern at home,” she says. They’re skipping meals, and then eating too much at night. And then the next morning, they skip breakfast and the cycle begins again.


Eating when you’re not actually hungry is common.

“People know that they’re not physically hungry, but the urge to eat is so, so strong because of the emotional response it gives,” she said. “Food can be a companion. Often, food is someone’s most intimate relationship — it’s reliable, it doesn’t talk back, and it’s always there when you need it.”

Understanding what the food is in response to — for example, loneliness or boredom — is the first step in creating a redirecting strategy.

“Think about how you can really nourish that deeper need. What do you really need right now? Food is a false fix,” Risius said. “It’s about doing something else first, even for 10 or 15 minutes. At least it’s a step, that we’re interrupting the thought-impulse-action (for food). We’re kind of doing a time out.”

And remember, as with any habit you try to break, it takes time and consistency to make a real lifestyle change. So if after your redirect activity you end up reaching for a cookie, it’s still considered a win — particularly if you used to eat the whole bag of them.

“I want insight to translate to action, but when it comes to eating psychology, that insight in the beginning is not necessarily going to translate to what people feel is the right action,” Risius said. “It’s going to move the needle to what is the right action, but it’s a process.”