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  • Brian Bender, PhD

My Personal Diet: How Your Identity Shapes What You Choose to Eat

We like to think we have total control over what we eat and when we eat it. Yet many of us still struggle with our personal diet. Psychology and eating behavior go hand in hand, and our identities shape our eating habits in more ways than you probably realize.

One key aspect of personalized nutrition is the idea that each of us chooses and enjoys different types of foods. But as you’ll see, the reasons you choose your personal diet don’t simply come down to taste and hunger.

My Personal Diet vs. My Group Diet

Most of us prefer to dine in the company of others. But the structure and dynamics of the group you eat with greatly impacts your eating behavior. How?

People eating with others tend to eat more than people who eat alone. And, the larger the group of people you eat with, you more you tend to eat. Gender (e.g., all female? One female and several males?) of the group impacts your food choices.

We generally tend to eat like our peers. This is best exemplified by culture. Think Mexican food, or Chinese food, or Italian food. If your diet consists of what you and everyone you know grew up eating like, it becomes part of your cultural identity.

But in addition to cultural identification, personal identity goes another step forward.

We tend to copy people we like and aspire to be like. It’s called mimicry. And in the dieting world, that means we tend to copy the eating patterns of those we believe are similar to us.

Without realizing it, we acquire an eat when they eat, drink when they drink mentality alongside those we feel share a similar identity.

Interestingly, this also works in reverse. Groups that clash with our personal identity cause a subtle yet visceral reaction by eating in contrast to those around us.

The Language You Use is a Powerful Tool for Shaping Your Personal Diet

When we contemplate communication, we usually imagine the progression of having a thought, then verbalizing it. Not the other way around.

But just like smiling can inherently produce feelings of happiness, the words you choose to describe your dieting practice can influence your cravings and eating patterns.

One of the most researched topics in this area is a comparison of the phrases, “I can’t,” versus “I don’t.” One study looked at students facing temptations. Some were required to use the phrase “I don’t do X,” while others said “I can’t do X.” The real investigation, unbeknownst to the participants, was the offering of a treat at the end of their time. Offered either an unhealthy candy bar or a healthy granola bar, roughly twice as many students who used the phrase “I don’t” chose the granola bar.

Another study monitored 20 women trying to regularly hit the gym. After a similar study protocol, 8 in 10 women using the phrase “I don’t” to ward off temptation to quit found success and voluntarily continued the assignment; but only 1 in 10 using the phrase “I can’t” had success.

This language works in part because it speaks directly to your personal identity. I can’t is imposed upon you, and external motivation never lasts. But saying I don’t ties the activity to your identity - that is sustainable.

Vegetarians are a great example. It’s not that they can’t eat meat. And typically, no one is forcing them to abstain. They decide that they don’t eat meat for a variety of reasons. But soon, it becomes a part of their identity. They are a vegetarian.

So if you are struggling to meet your dietary goals, whether alone or when dining in groups, try thinking about your personal identity and the language you use.

At the next office birthday party, it’s not that you can’t drink soda. You simply…don’t!


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