For some people who are striving to improve their health with positive eating changes, self-control may be a personal quality in short supply. Self-control is what gives a person the capacity to say ‘no’ to an immediate gratifying activity such as a lazy afternoon on the couch eating chips instead of getting out and active and making a healthy meal.
A new research field is looking at how rituals may help boost self-control. A ritual is a series of steps or activities that have some type of symbolic meaning attached. Think of a football player doing the same self-checks before every free kick he takes. Some rituals can even border on the superstitious, but they can be powerful psychological influences.
To see how rituals can help people manage the common self-control problem of eating too much, researchers recruited university students who wanted to lose weight. Half of the students were told to be mindful about what they ate for the next five days. The other half of the students took part in a three-step ritual before they ate each meal.
The ritual involved cutting the food into pieces, rearranging the pieces so they were symmetrical on the plate, and finally to press their eating utensil three times against the top of the food before eating it.
The ritual had no meaning in itself as it was made up by the researchers. What they were interested in is if a ritual before eating could change eating behaviour. And the answer appeared to be ‘yes’.
Those following the ritual before eating meals ate significantly less food on average over the 5 days – almost 1,000 kilojoules per day in fact compared to those who were told to just be mindful about eating. The same group of people performing the ritual also ate less fat and less sugar.
How pre-meal ritual helped people eat less is unclear at this stage. It could be that they were less likely to eat out in public places for being too self-conscious. The ritual could also have made the food less appetising. Or it could be that it made them think more mindfully about the food they ate as it gave them more time to feel full because of the slower pace of the meal.
In follow up work by the research team, they found that people who performed an eating ritual involving carrots were more likely to make healthier food choices compared to people who ate carrots without any ritual. So there seems to something to the act of performing a ritual that focuses the mind on the goal at hand.
Rituals can be powerful psychological habits that have the power to shape eating behaviours. While the research into eating rituals looks interesting, a lot more work is needed to ensure that forcing a ritual on a person doesn’t lead to a disordered and distorted view of food.