Halfway through a sleeve of Kashi cookies, I’m frustrated… because I told myself that I could have one, but somehow I keep reaching back for more… all while promising myself that each cookie is the last… yet still finishing the entire sleeve… This is hedonic eating.
Hedonic eating involves compulsively reaching for high-reward foods like cookies and breads, coupled with feeling out of control and unable to stop. It’s that moment when you keep promising yourself, “this is the last [insert your favorite food here]” and you somehow finishing the entire thing.
Hedonic hunger (aka, cravings for those high-reward foods) and hedonic eating were the norm during my Dieting Days. I would obsessively count calories all day — only to find myself in the kitchen at midnight compulsively shoveling food into my face. Can you relate?
Luckily, there’s a way to end this type of compulsive eating, and I’ll show you how. Get ready to dig into three specific areas to learn how to stop hedonic eating.
Extra bonus: You can dive even deeper into eating psychology in my free 13-page ebook, The Spiritual Seeker’s Guide to Stop Binge Eating. Grab it at the end of this post, or click here to get it right now.
What Is Hedonic Eating?
The term hedonic eating comes from the root word hedonism, which involves the pursuit of pleasure and sensual self-indulgence. Just picture a person lounging on a velvet sofa being fed grapes off the stem… that is hedonism.
When hedonism is applied to eating, it brings us to hedonic eating, which involves eating for pleasure and sensual self-indulgence. It’s classified as eating high-reward foods — which are usually high in fat, carbs, or sugar — that provide a “feel good” dopamine hit. (Think of craving sweets after dinner after you finally made it through a really tough day!)
Here’s an example of what hedonic eating is NOT: Eating an entire bag of chips even though you never really wanted something crunchy to begin with. This is not hedonic eating because there is no high-degree of pleasure and satisfaction.
Hedonic eating requires these specific elements:
- High-reward food — cookies, cakes, anything high in fat, carbs, or sugar
- High satisfaction — something that really hits the spot
- High pleasure — even if you don’t like the way you feel after hedonic eating, it involves pleasure during the eating itself
From my experience as an eating psychology coach, hedonic eating involves food that we tend to obsess over. For example, if you LOVE cereal (a high-sugar, high-reward food), hedonic eating involves looking forward to that bowl of cereal and enjoying every bite (even if you don’t enjoy the way you feel after).
Quick summary: Hedonic eating involves seeking pleasure from high-reward foods, like cookies and cakes. It does not involve food we feel “meh” about.
Hedonic Eating vs Other Types of Compulsive Eating
Most reasons why we want to eat past fullness are emotional and involve the desire to numb negative emotions through food. Hedonic eating, however, is both emotional and driven by the desire to gain pleasure.
The motivation determines the type of overeating. For example, binge eating a pint of ice cream could be either emotional eating or hedonic eating (or both!) depending on what motivated it.
If you down the ice cream after a break up, that’s emotional eating because you’re buffering negative emotion in order to cope with it. But if you scarf the ice cream after you come home from work, that could be hedonic eating if it’s an attempt to gain pleasure after a long day void of any joy.
It’s important to know that hedonic eating is a type of overeating. If you crave ice cream and you’re actually hungry, that’s not hedonic eating. That’s just straight-up, regular eating — and it can even be healthy.
Studies show that dietary restriction is actually one of the greatest predictors of weight gain. Not weight loss, but actually gaining more weight. Therefore, eating exactly what appeals to you when you’re hungry — even if it’s ice cream — is a great way to stop overeating over the long-run.
Getting back to the topic of hedonic eating — it’s a fine line, so let’s throw in some more bullet points for clarity.
You might be a hedonic eater if you…
- Obsess over eating your favorite foods — the really good foods, not just the foods we feel “meh” about
- Can’t seem to stop once you get started — hedonic eating is compulsive overeating
- Find yourself thinking about these foods all throughout the day
If you find yourself inhaling a low-quality meal (“stress eating” anything in front of you), it’s probably emotional eating, not hedonic eating.
Quick summary: While emotional eating attempts to avoid something bad, hedonic eating attempts to gain something good: pleasure and sensual satisfaction.
How to Stop Hedonic Eating: The Joy-Part
Now that you know the definition of hedonic eating, let’s discuss how to stop hedonic eating. The best method involves looking at it from a life-perspective.
Hedonic eating is perpetuated by the basic human desire for joy. Therefore, whenever we crave pleasure and sensual satisfaction from food, it’s probably because we’re lacking that pleasure elsewhere in our lives.
Therefore, if you want to stop hedonic eating, you need to focus on developing and maintaining joy outside of food.
Take some time to identify your biggest sources of joy, such as nurturing friendships, being out in nature, or even watching Netflix. It depends on who you are and what you value.
For some people, watching Netflix is not enjoyable — it’s just a way to plug in and numb out. But for others, Netflix can be an amazing source of joy. (I’m personally raising my hand right now!)
Things that are joyful change from one person to the next; so whatever your joy turns out to be — make it a priority.
Quick summary: Hedonic eating is an attempt to gain joy, so we cure hedonic eating by getting joy from our lives instead of food.
How to Stop Hedonic Eating: The Permission-Part
Adding more joy to your life is one of the best ways to stop hedonic eating. But sometimes we aren’t clear on our joy, or we simply don’t have time for things that bring us joy.
(And I encourage you to really look at your priorities if you don’t have time for joy, and consider strengthening your ability to say no to obligations. Maybe you truly are stretched for time, or maybe it’s people pleasing syndrome kicking in.)
Fortunately, while you chip away at your blocks around joy, you can also troubleshoot hedonic eating using food itself! Particularly, by giving yourself Permission to Eat. If this sparks the fear of gaining weight or the fear of being unhealthy, bear with me…
If I could go back to that moment standing in front of the pantry binge eating Kashi cookies… I bet I would have been able to stop if I had just given myself permission to eat them to begin with.
The more we resist a certain food, the more we feel compulsively drawn to it. In fact, it makes us want it even more!
That’s why Permission to Eat is a cornerstone of Psycho-Spiritual Wellness (aka, my method for stopping compulsive eating).
After all, scientific journal articles have officially determined that dietary restriction is one of the greatest predictors of weight gain. Not weight loss, like every diet promises, but weight gain.
Geneen Roth put it into words perfectly: “It is only when we give ourselves permission to eat that we can give ourselves permission not to eat.”
Quick summary: Restricting your favorite foods only makes hedonic eating worse. Surprisingly, giving yourself permission to eat can actually help reduce compulsive eating.
The Hedonic Eating Cure: This Is Just Once Piece of the Pie!
Super important: while it can be satisfying to put a finger on hedonic eating, this is not the full answer for stopping compulsive eating. Instead, it’s just one piece of the pie.
It’s tempting to stop with hedonic eating because it’s fun and feel-good. We get to focus on joy and that’s it. But from my experience, hardly anyone struggles with just hedonic eating. Emotional eating is bound to pop up, especially when life gets tough and we subconsciously reach for food to cope.
This is where we get to dig even deeper into eating psychology. When we reach to food to numb a negative feeling, I believe that we actually need to lean into the negative feeling and make peace with discomfort. This reduces the compulsion to run from our pain.
I call it emotional tolerance: a willingness to be uncomfortable.
Along with developing emotional tolerance, it’s also important to identify the limiting beliefs that trigger self-sabotage around food.
Many of us are carrying around limiting beliefs and we don’t even know it.That’s what my workbook Why We Do the Things We Do is all about. It helps you dig at the subconscious reasons why we turn to food for reasons other than hunger.
It’s a harpoon for the limiting beliefs that trigger self-sabotage around food.
Quick summary: Hedonic eating is just one piece of the puzzle. Don’t forget about the rest of Psycho-Spiritual Wellness, like emotional tolerance and limiting beliefs.
Getting Back to Feeling Normal Around Food
Feeling normal around food — doesn’t that just sound nice?
That’s my goal here on this blog and in my coaching practice. I hope these tips help you wiggle yourself free of the struggle with food.
If you want to dig even deeper, my paid products like Why We Do the Things We Do will absolutely rock your world, promise!
I also recommend grabbing my free ebook below, which includes a free 5-day course in Psycho-Spiritual Wellness to catch you up to speed.
Originally published January 8, 2019 // Last updated May 2, 2022
Hello! I’m a binge eater. Overweight, diets not working. I k ow what to do to loose but wont do it. Call it menopause, divorce, depression – what ever – I’m still sick and tired of this weight. I do fine at home it’s when I visit my daughter, mother or at work! I can’t say no to mom, and I stress eat at work.
Thank you for your articles, I’m hoping to change my mind set.
Hi Sandra! Thanks for sharing your story. I think a lot of people can relate to you!! I’d like to hone in on one thing you said here, in case it helps others. Not being able to say no to mom seems like a boundary issue, or an emotional tolerance issue. If you have a loving relationship with your mother, then she should be OK if you say, “No thanks, I’m full. But I love you. Thanks for offering.” If you can’t say that, get curious about why. Is it guilt? Is it shame? Then, can you make space for that feeling? Can you hold space for the discomfort? Also, try having an open conversation with her about how you feel about food. I hope this helps!! xoxo
This does not work at all! Letting yourself have the food leads to binging, plain and simple. Just because it may have worked for you doesn’t mean it works for others. I gained over a hundred pounds by letting myself have unrestricted access.
Thanks for sharing Hayley. I’m sorry things are rough right now. I hope you’re familiar with the eating guidelines and the Stop, Drop, and Feel. Psycho-Spiritual Wellness is a system. Hopefully you’re not cherry picking the permission part and leaving the rest behind. I don’t encourage unrestricted access and that’s all. There’s a lot more that goes into it. Sending you best wishes.
This is so helpful! I’ve been searching for years for something that makes sense and when I read the part about hedonistic eating it made totally sense! I’ve struggled for over 10 years to understand why I eat the way I do and why i pick specific food. I can definetely relate to the need to create joy and I’ve applied for the ebook. Thank you for writing this you have no idea the impact and I’m so grateful x
Thank you so much Kelly! I am sooo glad it helps!
me right now finishing my box of cake while reading this…
The journey starts with self-understanding 😉
I’m finding your insights extremely helpful right now! I’ve tried to be more aware of the feelings, tried not to numb them, and have NOT had to go to stretch pants during this pandemic. Thanks you!
Thanks so much Gale! I’m soooo happy to hear about your progress!! Keep it up 🙂
Hi Kari. I’m loving your content and would love to follow you on IG. However, I don’t get to find your account. Do you have one? How can I find you over there? 🙂
Hi Macarena! Thanks so much for the love! Sadly, I don’t have an IG account for Psycho-Spiritual Wellness. You can catch me on YouTube or, for the best stuff, my Tuesday Newsletters. <3
My dear Kari,
Thank you for changing my life!
After all these years of binge and emotional eating, your articles and the way you justify every subject under discussion, sweetened my sadness and frustration. Your way of thinking is a gift for me.
Stop ,Drop and Feel then !
I wish you all the best.
Hello Maria! Thank you for this beautiful comment. I am glad you’re here! And I hope the SDF continues to help. Keep me posted on your progress ????
Kari, thanks for this great article. I had never considered that I might need to find more sources of joy in my life in order to stop overeating. That’s a really fresh take that makes a lot of sense.
Thanks for the comment Shoshana! I hope you’re able to find your joy and get lots of it 🙂
Hi, I’ve been trying to think of what brings me joy, and it’s love. I love my children, and watching them enjoy life brings me joy. I took my daughter to Boston, and took plenty of pictures of her having a good time exploring. Unfortunately, the entire time, I was thinking about food. I wanted to get ice cream. I didn’t do it, but I gazed longingly at every ice cream shop. We ended up stopping for milk tea and I had a frozen avocado milk tea that was pretty much a milk shake. I wanted to stop at every restaurant. I want to put food in my mouth ALL THE TIME even when I’m not hungry. I try to drink a lot of water, and I chew gum, and I get hot beverages like tea, that I can sip on for awhile. I would really like to not have this urge though. It’s eating just because I want the taste of food in my mouth. And it persists even when doing the things that bring me joy.
Hi Angela! I’m sorry to hear about the incessant food noise going on in your head. I’ve been there, and it’s not fun. My recommendation (unsolicited, since you didn’t pose a question, but I can’t help myself) is to focus on the Stop, Drop, and Feel. Since you know what your joy is, then the next step is to look at the feelings that drive the compulsive thoughts around food. I hope this helps!
Hi Kari, Finally! I love your program, wisdom, and approach. I’m 67 and I have been crazy around food for my entire life. Not feeling/eating and hedonic eating have been my MO. Now I’m asking myself what am I trying not to feel right now when I want food and I’m not hungry. It works! I find honoring my body and listening to what it wants, I’m drinking less coffee and wine and more water, I’m taking better care of myself and I’m learning about me every day. Thank you from the depths of my soul.
Thank you Thia 🙂 I really appreciate your kind words, and I am sooo glad you’re gaining all this wonderful insight into yourself. What a gift!! I hope it continues to go well for you. xo
I am really getting so much out of your content. I’ve tried “mindful eating” before and it didn’t work for me. Your approach makes so much more sense. It’s the emotional component that was missing for me. Also, the hedonistic eating concept really resonates with me. I can see how food is filling that “hole” in my busy life. I totally feel like I’ve been getting skunked out of the good things in life. Wow. I may have mentioned in a comment somewhere else before, but I’m in my late 50’s and have never heard such a simple, direct, and thoroughly explained way that makes total sense. I know, easier said than done. However, I got rid of all my diet stuff and I am all in. Thanks so much!!
Hi again Dolores! Thank you sooo much for your kind words. I’m so glad you’re getting good use from the content 🙂 Hurray for being all in! I hope you’ll reply to one of my emails sometimes so that we can connect even more. xo
I find this very intriguing and I hope I can make it successful.
I want to know how one knows when they’re full? When it’s enough? I can eat non stop.
Thank you for the food for thought.
Hi Brenda! Great question. Can you tell when you’re physically full? Even if you can keep eating, is there a point when you know you’ve physically had enough? If not, don’t worry. For many of us, it takes time to get back in touch with hunger/fullness. Don’t give up and keep trying to lean into your intuition <3
What happens when you are unable to identify what drives the urge to eat? Or, worse yet, name something that brings joy?
Such a deep comment! Sometimes there are other emotions underneath the joy, like fear. When many of us experience joy we may also experience fearful thoughts like ‘it’s only a matter of time before the other shoe drops.’ I’d love to know if this resonates with you or not <3