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The Psychology of Eating

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What we eat affects how we feel. Food should make us feel good. It tastes great and nourishes our bodies. If you eat too little or eat too much, however, your health and quality of life could be affected. This can result in negative feelings toward food.

By learning how to make healthier and more mindful choices, you may be able to control compulsive eating, binging, and weight gain. By taking charge of your appetite, you may also gain a feeling of calm, high energy levels, and alertness from the foods you eat.

Overall, there are many benefits to changing deep-seated, unhealthy eating habits, such as:

  • An increase in energy level and alertness
  • A more positive relationship with food
  • Improved health
  • Easier movement, and
  • Improved body image.

While we often have the best intentions to eat healthier, this is often a challenging task.

What factors influence our eating behaviors?

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

  • Cultural
  • Evolutionary
  • Social
  • Family
  • Individual
  • Economic status
  • Psychological

Many people use food as a coping mechanism to deal with such feelings as stress, boredom, or anxiety, or even to prolong feelings of joy. While this may help in the short term, eating to soothe and ease your feelings often leads to regret and guilt, and can even increase the negative feelings. You aren't actually coping with the problem causing the stress. Further, your self-image may suffer as you gain weight.

What role does psychology play in weight management?

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

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

What treatments are used for weight management?

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

  • Determining the person's "readiness for change" — This involves 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 in the moment, and 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 unhealthy food choices in your home. Cognitive behavioral treatment also teaches distraction--replacing eating with healthier alternatives--as a skill for coping with stress. Positive reinforcement, rehearsal/problem-solving, finding social support, and changing 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 eating healthier and managing your weight/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."

What strategies will help me manage my weight?

To lose weight, it’s helpful to 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 be successful, be aware of the role that eating plays in your life, and 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:

Things to “do” for healthy eating

  • Don't skip meals.
  • Do keep track of your eating habits. (See "food diary" below.)
  • Do limit night eating.
  • Do drink plenty of water.
  • Do delay/distract yourself.
  • Do exercise instead of eating when you are bored.
  • Do be attentive when you eat. Don’t eat while watching TV, working, driving.
  • Do only eat in certain settings (kitchen table).
  • Do watch your portion sizes.
  • Do allow yourself to eat a range of food without forbidding yourself a particular food.
  • Do give yourself encouragement.
  • Do be gentle with yourself! Try not to beat yourself up when you lapse.
  • Do think of eating as a lifestyle change.
  • Do use the scale mindfully. Weigh yourself no more than once a 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.


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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: 4/18/2016...#10681