You "eat to live," as the saying goes, but how you eat is heavily influenced by environmental, psychological, social and physical factors. Since the type of food you put in your body affects everything from your health to your emotions and appearance, it can be helpful to understand what drives you to eat. The Cleveland Clinic recommends keeping a food journal to look for patterns in your eating habits.
The most obvious influence on a person's eating habits is basic biology. Your stomach growls, and you eat something to prevent the achy abdominal pain known as hunger. The mechanism underlying the sensation of hunger involves complex neurological and endocrine interactions. Note that hunger -- the need for food -- will be satisfied by any form of nutrition. Appetite, on the other hand, is a desire for a specific pleasure and is easily influenced by other factors. Some individuals maintain a detachment from food and eat only to satisfy hunger. Others have a more complex relationship with food.
From an evolutionary perspective, the ability to find food is key to survival. Although most people don't have to worry about hunting down their next meal, the sensory organs remain highly attuned to the availability of food. Your senses of taste, touch, sight, smell and even sound influence the way you eat. The sound of a steak sizzling and the smell of fresh bread in the oven are likely to make you salivate, for instance. You may choose to eat something simply because it looks good or choose a ripe fruit by its feel.
Normally, when you go out to eat, you bring home a doggie bag. When you eat with your best friend, however, you clean your plate and find room for dessert, too. Eating with others is just one example of how environment can influence the quantity and type of food you eat. The size and shape of dishes, atmosphere, your level of distraction, the availability of food and food packaging are other factors that may affect the way you eat -- completely unbeknownst to you. You'll probably eat less if you serve your meal on a salad plate and turn off the television, for instance.
Family and Culture
The word "Thanksgiving" elicits thoughts of turkey and stuffing for most people because a particular meal has become the norm for the yearly celebration. Most families have favorite meals, special dinners for birthdays and anniversaries and even foods with religious significance such as Passover for observant Jews. The way you were raised has a significant influence on the foods you associate with comfort, community and pleasure.
Stress and Emotion
Sometimes the phrase "eat your feelings" can be quite literal. Eating is a common mechanism for dealing with stress, anxiety and other strong emotions. One way to identify if you are an emotional eater is to keep a food journal. Note what you ate, your level of hunger and how you were feeling at each meal or snack. After a week of journaling, look for trends. Do you reach for food when you are sad, bored or worried? Try to deal with stress in more constructive ways such as exercise or a creative hobby.