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The Psychology of Eating

What we eat affects how we feel. Food should make us feel good. It tastes great and nourishes our bodies. When eaten in too little or in excessive quantities, however, our health and appearance can be altered, which can create negative feelings toward food.

By learning how to make better choices, you might be able to control compulsive eating, binging, and gaining weight. In addition to better appetite control, you might also experience feelings of calmness, high energy levels, or alertness from the foods you eat.

What factors influence our eating behaviors?

Experts believe there are many factors that can influence our feelings about food and our eating behaviors. These include:

  • Cultural factors
  • Evolutionary factors
  • Social factors
  • Familial factors
  • Individual factors

There also are positive and negative consequences associated with eating. For example, food might help you to cope with negative feelings in the short-term. In the long term, however, coping with stress by eating can actually increase negative feelings because you aren't actually coping with the problem causing the stress. Further, your self-image might become more negative as you gain weight.

What role does psychology play in weight management?

Psychology is the science of behavior; in essence, the study of how and why people do what they do. For people trying to manage their weight, psychology addresses the following areas:

  • Behavior -- Treatment involves identifying habitual patterns of eating and finding ways to change eating behaviors.
  • Cognition (thinking) -- Therapy focuses on identifying self-defeating thinking patterns that contribute to weight management problems.

What treatment is used for weight management?

Cognitive behavioral treatment is the approach most often used because it addresses both thinking patterns and behavior. Some areas addressed through cognitive behavioral treatment include:

  • Determining the person's "readiness for change" -- This involves both an awareness of what needs to be done to achieve your goals and then making a commitment to do it.
  • Learning how to self-monitor -- Self-monitoring helps you become more aware of what triggers you to eat, and be more mindful of your food choices and portions. It also helps you stay focused on achieving long-term progress.
  • Breaking linkages -- The focus here is on stimulus control, such as not eating in particular settings and not keeping poor food choices in your home. CBT also teaches distraction, replacing eating with healthier alternatives as a coping mechanism. Positive reinforcement, rehearsal/problem-solving, finding social support, and altering eating habits are specific techniques used to break linkages.

What does cognitive behavioral treatment involve?

Cognitive therapy addresses how you think about food. It helps you recognize self-defeating patterns of thinking that can undermine your success at weight loss. It also helps you learn and practice using positive coping self-statements.

Examples of self-defeating thoughts include:

  • "This is too hard. I can't do it."
  • "If I don't make it to my target weight, I've failed."
  • "Now that I've lost weight, I can go back to eating any way I want."

Examples of positive coping self-statements include:

  • "I realize that I am overeating. I need to think about how I can stop this pattern of behavior."
  • "I need to understand what triggered my overeating, so I can create a plan to cope with it if I encounter the trigger again."
  • "Am I really hungry or is this just a craving? I will wait to see if this feeling passes."

Summary

To lose weight, you must change your thinking. Weight management is about making a LIFESTYLE CHANGE. It's not going to happen if you rely on short-term diet after diet to lose weight. To achieve success, you need to become aware of the role eating plays in your life and to learn how to use positive thinking and behavioral coping strategies to manage your eating and your weight.

To help get you started, here are a few tips:

The "dos and don'ts" of healthy eating
  • Don't skip meals.
  • Do keep track of your eating habits. (See "food diary" below.)
  • Don't eat after 7 P.M.
  • Do drink plenty of water.
  • Do delay/distract yourself.
  • Do exercise instead of eat when bored.
  • Don't eat while you watch TV, work, drive.
  • Do only eat in certain settings (kitchen table).
  • Do watch your portion sizes.
  • Don't forbid yourself a particular food.
  • Do give yourself encouragement.
  • Don't beat yourself up when you lapse.
  • Do think of eating as a LIFESTYLE CHANGE.
  • Don't weigh yourself more than once per week.
  • Do make healthy food choices.
The food diary

A food diary is a tool to record--in detail--what food you eat, when you eat, how you feel when you're eating, and what you are doing (if anything) while you are eating. The diary can help you get a better understanding of what you eat and why you eat it. It also can help your doctor, therapist, or dietitian work with you to make the necessary changes for successful weight management.

References

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This information is provided by the Cleveland Clinic and is not intended to replace the medical advice of your doctor or health care provider. Please consult your health care provider for advice about a specific medical condition. This document was last reviewed on: 6/13/2012...#10681