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.
At the end of this post, there’s also a free 13-page ebook on eating psychology called “The Spiritual Seeker’s Guide to Stop Binge Eating.” If you want it now, click here to gain instant access.
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. (Those dang Kashi cookies!)
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