Environmental factors refer to any external influences which may have a negative or positive impact on us, directly or indirectly. Major environmental factors include how we relate to intimate social relationships (close friends, family, and significant others), society at large, the physical state of where we live, the amount of available resources, and the conscious and subconscious cues (ads, suggestions, emotional energy, etc.).
Intimate Social Relationships
The one thing that separates humans from other living beings is our big brains relative to body size. It that the evolution of the brain size is because of how much of our survival depended upon living within larger social groups. Because of our social nature, interpersonal influence especially from loved ones, has a significant impact on our daily decision-making as well as our big decisions. Such things include how we live and what we eat.
For example, if your partner keeps bringing up wanting pizza, you will be tempted to want pizza too as a way to make the other person happy or to feel closer to him or her. This is because wanting salad or something else will create a subtle distance between the two people. Another scenario is when a person goes on a healthy diet, it usually takes other people some time to adjust to the change or there may be outright resistance.
Most of us want to feel connected with others in some capacity. As such, the friction and alienation from making different lifestyle choices from those closest to us creates stress and discomfort, which lowers our motivation and drive to continue with our individual goals. This is why the support of family and friends often plays a significant role in our long-term successes (there are a few exceptions of course!)
Another environment influence is the pressure to eat and drink when we socialize with others (dating , networking, hanging out with friends, etc.). When we are laughing and having a good time with others, we usually aren’t focusing on our exact portion sizes or the amount of calories. However, the symptoms can lead to some inadvertent overeating.
The condition and the location of the place you live in also may have a impact on eating behaviors. Lower income areas may have higher levels of stress due to lack of opportunities, lack of cleanliness, and higher crime rates. This, then, can impact food preferences toward cheaper, convenient, lower quality prepackaged/prepared foods or fast food.
Also, some urban areas may have cramped apartments (small kitchen, outdated appliances, etc.) which makes cooking inconvenient and eating out regularly a quicker solution. The downsides to this are the expense and lack of control over the amount of nutrients.
The Amount of Available Resources
As we mentioned previously, education and financial status greatly impact what kind of food choices we make. Many of us overestimate the calories we consume and underestimate the amount of nutrients that we receive during the day. Additionally, when we feel like we are tight on resources, we often look for the best deals rather than the best quality, which includes groceries and meals.
We eat foods just because they are in front of us or there are suggestions that we receive through commercials and ads about restaurants, candies, and delicious-looking food. That consistent exposure to specific items can make it very tempting to eat certain foods.
Additionally, if we associate positive memories (family time, nostalgia, happiness, traditions) with certain foods, anytime we are hit with a reminder to a particular memory, we will be often hit with a craving for that specific food.
What Are Some Tools Help with Environmental Influences?
To address environmental factors and pressures, we need to become aware of our own needs, assert ourselves when necessary, and become adaptable to the things that we cannot control.
Mindfulness – check in with your mood when you’re eating, because we often eat when we are feeling bored, sad, or overwhelmed. Are you really hungry or are you experiencing an uncomfortable feeling?
Self-care – when we are around other people, sometimes it can be difficult to differentiate our own desires from that of others so it becomes important to take a step back and assess what YOU really want. Are certain things non-negotiables (medically directed diet, value-based decisions)? Are there things that you are okay to compromise with (ex. allowing yourself a treat once a week, going for a lower calorie option, eating half portions, etc.)?
Decluttering – remove the tempting foods and drinks from the pantry and fridge that may hinder your nutritional success. If you are living with other people, you may need to figure out a game plan and some compromises to limit the exposure to the unhealthy foods.