Food Psychology: The Thoughts, Feelings, & Beliefs that Guide Our Eating Habits

food psychology: unpacking the "why" behind our eating habits

Food psychology dives beyond the surface level of food and explores the motivations behind our eating choices and behavior. By understanding why we do the things we do, food psychology aims to improve your relationship with food through the paths of self-awareness and self-understanding.

As an eating psychology coach, food psychology is my specialty. I have witnessed first-hand how psychology helped improve my overeating and binge eating habits far more effectively than any diet or food-focused program. By digging beneath the surface and exploring the psychology behind our eating habits, I hope you’ll discover the power of food psychology too.

In this guide, you’ll learn about the factors that influence food psychology, how it plays into emotional eating and weight management, and which tools can help improve your relationship with food. At the end, I’ll debunk some common myths about food psychology that are equally important.

What Is Food Psychology?

Food psychology is a fascinating field that explores the intricate relationship between our minds and eating habits. It delves into how our thoughts, emotions, and behaviors influence our food choices and how, in turn, these choices impact our mental and physical well-being. This branch of psychology doesn’t just focus on what we eat, but also why we eat, when we eat, and how we feel about food.

Primary Motivations Behind Food Psychology

Whether you experience emotional eating, want to make more mindful food choices, or simply feel curious about the psychological aspects of weight loss and nutrition, food psychology offers valuable insights into the complex interplay between our minds and our meals.

Here are several factors that influence the psychology of food choices:

  • Cultural Factors: In many cultures food is central to social gatherings, motivating people to eat in the company of others. Communal eating facilitates social bonding, a universal human need, reinforcing the psychological connection between food and social well-being.[1]
  • Social Factors: Food choices and habits are also influenced by social cues outside of cultural norms. For instance, people are likely to eat more when they are alone that when they are with others.[2] Research also shows that people tend to choose high-calorie foods if it means inducing positive feelings in others.[3]
  • Emotional Factors: Emotions play a strong role in food psychology as both positive and negative feelings can trigger overeating.[4] While negative emotions like stress or sadness are often linked to comfort eating, positive emotions like happiness can also lead to indulgence as a form of celebration.
  • Cognitive Factors: Neuroscience is a central topic to food psychology. For instance, studies have found that when hyperpalatable foods (those high in fat, carbs, sugar, and/or salt) are consumed regularly, the brain adapts to seek more of these rewarding foods, which can influence your eating habits.[5] It is also widely known that stress induces cravings for hyperpalatable foods as well.[6]
  • Biological Factors: Food psychology does not ignore the powerful role of biology, as it can have a profound effect on food cravings and choices. For example, when calorie intake is restricted, such as through dieting, it causes biological adaptations that increase food appeal to motivate eating.[7]

When someone embarks on a new diet, it’s crucial to consider the implications of food psychology, as restricting calories not only increases cravings for hyperpalatable foods but also causes decreased psychological health as one battles against their biology — a battle that no amount of willpower can override.

For example, one study found that dieting is significantly associated with greater anxiety, and the pleasure normally associated with eating plays a moderating role in this relationship.[8] This highlights the importance of food psychology, as enjoyment of food helps protect psychological health and is even associated with better eating habits.[9]

Food, Psychology, and Emotional Eating

Also central to the realm of food psychology is emotional eating: the connection between emotional states and our eating behaviors. Not only can positive and negative emotion trigger overeating, but negative emotions in particular — such as sadness, stress, or loneliness — have a strong association with binge eating.[4], [10]

To understand the psychology behind emotional eating and food choices, we can look at distress tolerance, or the ability to cope with uncomfortable emotions. Studies show that low distress tolerance is associated with overeating.[11]

Surprisingly, low distress tolerance is also a precursor to food addiction, challenging the common perception that food addiction is purely neurological.[11] Food psychology truly encapsulates how both biological adaptations in the brain and psychological elements interact to influence eating behaviors.

If you struggle with emotional eating, developing better emotion regulation skills can be a powerful tool. Even further, if you struggle with feeling out of control when you eat, studies have found that improving distress tolerance can help.[12] One effective strategy is my Stop, Drop, & Feel®️ method, which applies urge surfing to emotional eating.

Urge surfing involves riding out the wave of a craving without resisting it (which would only make it stronger) much like a surfer navigating a wave. By acknowledging and making space for the uncomfortable emotions that arise, you can improve your tolerance for distress and build the emotional resilience necessary to curb emotional eating.

The Role of Psychology in Weight Management

For those interested in using food psychology for weight management, it can often be more effective and accessible than restrictive dieting (which otherwise triggers the restrict-binge cycle). Psychological blocks, such as self-sabotage, often stem from deeper emotional and cognitive barriers rather than a lack of knowledge about healthy eating and physical activity.

Here are some psychological factors that may affect your weight:

  • The “Forbidden Fruit” Effect: Making certain foods off-limits increases your desire for the “forbidden fruit,” often leading to overeating.[13] This psychological phenomenon underscores the counterproductive nature of restrictive dieting in weight management.
  • Stress and Weight Gain: Stress primes the body for weight gain by increasing the production of the hormone cortisol, which is linked to fat storage.[14] Relaxation techniques, such as progressive muscle relaxation, have been shown to reduce stress-induced eating behaviors, such as night eating.[15]
  • People Pleasing: The tendency to people-please can lead to overeating, as individuals may find it difficult to say ‘no’ to food offered by others, even when they’re not hungry.

Social eating to please others can contribute to weight gain, highlighting the importance of setting boundaries and prioritizing one’s own hunger cues in weight management. Of course, this is easier said than done. Learning how to say no involves tolerating the discomfort of potentially disappointing someone. Therefore, compulsive people pleasing may naturally decrease over time as you improve emotional tolerance.

How to Improve Your Eating Habits

Now that you understand some of the barriers standing in the way of better eating habits, let’s explore two more useful tools for healing your relationship with food. In the field of food psychology, intuitive eating and mindful eating are two standout approaches.

Intuitive eating is a non-diet approach that encourages you to listen to your body (eat when you’re hungry, stop when you’re full) and enjoy the pleasures of eating without guilt. Intuitive eating is correlated with better dietary habits, not because it explicitly encourages more fruits and vegetables, but because that’s what naturally happens when you give yourself permission to eat the foods that you enjoy.[16] When you drop the food rules, it reduced the allure and excessive desire for forbidden foods.

One clinical review found poor evidence for improved dietary habits with intuitive eating and mindful eating.[17] However, there is an abundance of evidence that restrictive dieting leads to long-term weight regain.[18], [19], [20] One study even found that one-third of dieters end up overshooting their baseline weight in the long run.[21]

Weight cycling, the repeated loss and regain of weight, is linked to negative health effects like changes in heart health indicators, including blood pressure, heart rate, and levels of blood sugar, fats, and insulin.[22] Weight cycling is also associated with depression.[23] In contrast, other studies have found that intuitive eating is associated with more stable weight than dieters, highlighting the benefits of this approach in food psychology and weight management.[24]

Mindful eating focuses on being present and fully engaged during the eating experience, paying attention to the flavors, textures, and sensations of the food. One study found that mindful eating helped reduce uncontrolled and emotional eating, resulting in weight loss in overweight individuals.[25]

Both intuitive eating and mindful eating are valuable approaches in the realm of food psychology. By focusing on internal cues and the experience of eating, these approaches can help you break free from the cycle of dieting and weight regain and develop healthier eating habits based on self-awareness and self-care.

Common Food Psychology Myths Debunked

Other online resources for food psychology offer misguided advice that may actually set back your progress as you work towards healing your relationship with food. Below, I provide clinical evidence refuting some common yet misguided advice.

Here are some food psychology tips that are well-intended but ultimately ill-informed:

  • Track Your Eating Habits: While tracking eating habits may seem beneficial, studies indicate that monitoring calorie intake can increase perceived stress and cortisol levels.[26] Elevated cortisol is linked to weight gain and cravings for hyperpalatable foods, making food tracking counterproductive.
  • Limit Night Eating: Simply telling someone to stop night eating is akin to telling a smoker to quit smoking; it doesn’t address the underlying compulsion. Food addiction, as previously mentioned, is influenced by how the brain is wired, how emotions are regulated, and many other factors.[11] Effective strategies need to tackle the root causes of the behavior rather than just its surface manifestations.
  • Distract Yourself: Using distraction as a way to avoid overeating fails to address deeper underlying factors like low distress tolerance and may even exacerbate it. Studies show that using distraction as a strategy to avoid negative emotion may actually increase the negative emotions.[27] For an emotional eater with low distress tolerance, distraction may only intensify the problem.
  • Keep Unhealthy Food Out of the House: On one hand, it’s true that keeping food out of sight helps reduce mindless eating.[28] However, removing unhealthy food from the home entirely might trigger the forbidden fruit effect, where it increases the desire instead of decreasing it.[13]

Typically, advice that focuses on the surface layer of food are simply that: surface level. In order to truly heal your relationship with food, you need to learn how to stop counting calories, listen to your body instead, and move away from ineffective tips like distraction and “just do it” attitudes.

Harnessing the Power of Food Psychology

By prioritizing emotional tolerance and giving up restrictive dieting, we can move away from ineffective tips and develop a healthier, more mindful approach to eating. Just like an iceberg, the bulk of what drives our eating behavior lies hidden beneath the surface, and by understanding and addressing these underlying factors, we can achieve lasting change and a more positive relationship with food and ourselves.

If you want to continue learning about food psychology, I have even more resources. After all, eating psychology is my specialty. My free ebook below would be a great next step to continue delving into the inner work to heal your relationship with food:

Keep It Going: Get The Spiritual Seeker's Guide to Stop Binge Eating (Free Ebook)

want this epic 13-page ebook on eating psychology?
plus a free 5 day email course in Psycho-Spiritual Wellness?

Free 13-page ebook: Keep your momentum going by downloading my free ebook, The Spiritual Seeker’s Guide to Stop Binge Eating. It’s not just junk to get into your inbox, I promise. Sign up and see for yourself. You can unsubscribe anytime.

5 day email course — also free: You’ll also receive a 5-day email course in Psycho-Spiritual Wellness, my unique approach to stopping compulsive eating, enriching your journey with more practical tips.

Sign up below: Enter your email below to dive deep into this wiggy world where eating psychology and spirituality collide:

You're On a Roll: Take the Eating Psychology QUIZ!

Even if you struggle with overeating, I bet I can guess your strength around food.

You're Really on a Roll: Let's Put an End to Self-Sabotage

Ready to dive even deeper into your journey of self-discovery? I proudly present my most celebrated workbook, Why We Do the Things We Do. This 75-page digital workbook reveals your unique psychological blocks to compulsive eating. By actually putting pen to paper, you’ll be surprised by what comes up.

Some say ‘feel it to heal it’ but this workbook takes it a step deeper and helps you ‘see it to heal it.’ If you’re the kind of person who logically knows how to live a healthy lifestyle but you compulsively do the opposite, this workbook will illuminate what’s standing in the way. Then, you know exactly where to focus your energy.

You scrolled a looong while to get here. I'd love if you could leave a comment!

I read and reply to every single one! Just like I do with my emails. Since I don’t use much social media (outside of Pinterest and YouTube), I very much enjoy this opportunity to hear your thoughts and connect ✨

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *