The Psychology of Food Cravings and Emotional Eating
Written by Dr Peta Stapleton
Why Do We Have Food Cravings?
One important factor which may influence appetite control is the notion of food cravings (Blundell & Finlayson, 2004; Strachan, Ewing, Frier, Harper, & Daery, 2004). This overwhelming urge to consume a particular food appears strong in overweight dieters, and many theories has posited why this is so. The nutritional and homeostatic role of food cravings is described by physiological theories and explains why cravings might be more present in people who are deprived of food (Wardle, 1987).
The psychoactive abilities of certain foods to trigger cravings are likened to a self-medication behaviour and thought to relieve a central serotonin deficit (Wurtman & Wurtman, 1986). Psychological theories stress the role of negatives emotions (e.g. anger) as triggers for cravings (Rogers et al., 1994) and learning theories claim that cravings are a positive learnt response to cues (sensory, situational) and giving into a craving results in a pleasurable consequence (Rozin, Levine, & Stoess, 1991). What is evident here is that food cravings are a multi-dimensional and complex occurrence, one which possibly involves aspects of all of the proposed theories.
Whatever the reason, it is suggested that food cravings frequently lead to consumption of the craved food (Hill & Heaton-Brown, 1994) and elevated Body Mass Index (BMI) is associated with food intake and preference for high fat foods (Drewnowski et al., 1985). Even in non-clinical samples, food craving has been found to be related to body weight, suggesting the significant role of craving in food consumption (Franken & Muris, 2005).
Early identification of elevated body mass indexes (BMI), medical risks, and unhealthy eating and physical activity habits may be essential to the future prevention of obesity. One crucial question is the role food cravings may play in maintaining excessive eating patterns observed in other problems with eating behaviours: binge eating, bulimia, and obesity (Weingarten & Elston, 1990).
Food Cravings and Weight Gain: The Missing Link
There is thorough and outstanding evidence regarding the increase in worldwide rates of obesity and the projected outcomes if this is not addressed. Children in particular are noted as being especially at risk of future long term health problems.
While dietary restraint, more nutritious eating habits and physical exercise have always been purported to be the answer to the obesity crisis in adults, adolescents and children, long term meta analysis and follow-up studies indicate that weight loss is not maintained (and indeed the more time that elapses between the end of a diet and the follow-up, the more weight is regained, Mann et al., 2007). Unfortunately, several other studies indicate that dieting is actually a consistent predictor of future weight gain.
A recent study conducted by Patricia Goodspeed Grant (2008) involved investigating the psychological, cultural and social contributions to overeating in obese people. She found that eating for comfort for the morbidly obese is rooted in using food to manage experiences of emotional pain and difficult family and social relationships. Her participants reported that what had been missing from all treatment programs they had tried was the “opportunity to work on the psychological issues concurrently with weight loss”.
It appears that a missing link in the treatment of overweight and obesity is this concept and issue of addressing the psychological contributors or emotional drivers that are leading people to overeat. Relying on willpower and education is clearly not enough.
Humans are only motivated by feelings (i.e. sensations). There are basically three types of feelings; pleasant, neutral and unpleasant. The motivation we get from the unpleasant feeling is to move towards a feeling we do not have, but do want. We move away from the unpleasant feeling by replacing it with a different pleasant (or neutral) feeling.
Hunger, is an unpleasant sensation (for most people) and is relieved by the pleasant sensation (for most people) of eating and the taste of food. Like other basic functions, this is so that we can survive, individually and as a species. Most of us prefer pleasant sensations over unpleasant sensations. But pleasant sensations are not always matched with the outcome that they were designed for.
Many people eat, not because they need nutrition, but because they feel an unpleasant emotion, like rejection, loneliness, distress, depression, fear, betrayal, worthlessness, defeat, helplessness or hopelessness. This emotional over-consumption of food often leads to fat-gain and other health problems. This can then create a vicious cycle of more emotional eating to manage the emotional consequences of becoming overweight and unhealthy.
For children, excessive eating and binging are often a consequence of boredom and habit behaviours. Food or drinks are used to relieve the monotony. They can also be used as a coping strategy to deal with problems arising from anxiety, depression, stress and conflicts. Although they may feel comforted after consuming an amount of food, the person has not dealt with the underlying cause of these problems. This sets up a reward cycle of using food to get a better feeling. Consequently, there is no reason why they will not reoccur in the future. This can become a vicious cycle.
If a parent deals with their own emotional issues by eating and or over eating it is highly probable that the child will also do so. This pattern for coping is being modelled. Parents often find it difficult to tolerate their child’s disappointment or pain and are motivated to take this away. If food is used regularly as a means of doing this, for example, “Never mind not getting invited let’s go get a chocolate sundae,” a parent can be setting up a cycle of soothing uncomfortable feelings with the pleasure of food. This again can set up a pattern of eating to manage feelings. This is particularly a problem when there is no real discussion of the child’s pain or disappointment and instead food is just offered.
Have a think right now: why is it that you want to stop emotionally eating? You might immediately know, or you might have to think for some time. Finish this sentence out loud:
When I stop eating in response to my emotions, I will ………………….
Your answer/s will give you some insight into how you are motivated.
If you are motivated towards pleasurable outcomes, you might have said things like:
– When I stop eating in response to my emotions I will be able to buy clothes ‘off the rack’ in the shops
– When I stop eating in response to my emotions I will be happy
If you are motivated away from negative outcomes your answers may reflect:
– When I stop eating in response to my emotions I will not be uncomfortable in my clothes anymore
– When I stop eating in response to my emotions I will be able to throw away my ‘fat’ clothes
You have probably noticed the patterns here. Moving towards pleasurable outcomes or away from a negative one, affects how we think, feel and behave. You might find that you have a combination of moving towards some outcomes and away from others. This is fine too. More often than not, we are primarily subconsciously motivated in one direction.
Motivation has also been shown to exist either as an internal characteristic or as an external factor in people in general. Internal motivation is linked to neurological circuitry in the left prefrontal lobe; the feelings of accomplishment, passion for work, excitement in our day all link to the left prefrontal cortex (Davidson et al. 2000). It is this area of the brain, which governs motivating behaviour. It discourages pessimistic feelings and encourages action. The reality is that some people naturally possess a high level of this internal motivation; those who focus on the internal feelings of satisfaction they will attain despite any difficulties they face along the way. However others require more than this.
External motivation is any external influence or stimuli to generate positive behaviour. These might include monetary rewards such as bonuses, tangible recognition or honour, prizes, or other incentives. The reality is, despite such rewards motivating behaviour in the short term, it has been shown that no amount of bonuses or acknowledgment will inspire people to use their fullest potential to keep moving towards their goals (Goleman et al. 2002). So what does it take?
You might have already noticed with exercise that no matter how many personal trainers you hire, how many motivational exercise tapes you purchase or classes you attend, eventually you lose interest and go back to your old behaviour. This is because all of those things are forms of external motivation. There is nothing wrong with them – some people thrive on external motivation and do very well with it. However, sometimes your behaviour does drop off when you cease getting the drive from an external source.
Let’s face it, if you had a personal trainer at your door every single day for the rest of your life and a personal chef in the kitchen preparing nutritious balanced meals forever, then yes, you would be motivated to lose weight and become fitter. Such fulltime assistance is not a reality for most of us.
Sometimes people FIND the internal source of motivation they need to lose weight from an external source and this can help them get started. Here’s Mercedes’ story.
Mercedes had tried to lose weight for years. She was a clerk in the local library and thoroughly enjoyed her work and her food. She noticed over years of living a fairly sedentary lifestyle, with little exercise and a whole lot of reading in her spare time that the pounds had crept on. She was an accomplished cook and took pleasure in preparing meals for herself out of gourmet magazines from the library.
She wasn’t really worried about her weight but it was always in the back of her mind that she should do something about it. It wasn’t until she noticed a regular visitor to the library every evening that she paid attention.
Jon was studying for his final exams in accountancy and because he still lived at home with his rowdy younger brothers and sisters, he began taking to the library every evening for the peace and quiet. He found Mercedes to be very knowledgeable and helpful with finding him necessary reference programs and they struck up a friendly rapport.
Mercedes noticed that she started to look forward to her time every evening chatting to Jon and after the first compliment he made about her hair, she proceeded to take more time with her appearance. Jon was really the first man who had ever noticed her as a woman. Unbeknownst to him, Mercedes began watching her meals and even started parking her car further from work to get some exercise each day, in the hope of slimming down.
Mercedes and Jon remained good friends and while nothing particularly romantic ever happened between them, Mercedes felt inspired to continue her grooming routine and eventually met her future husband while power walking on the weekend. He had lived two doors from her for years and they had never noticed each other!
Are you motivated toward a reward? Or away from a painful outcome?
Your subconscious mind is actually equipped to lead you towards something you want, rather than away from something you don’t want.
The same happens when we need to achieve a goal such as weight loss – we need to look where we are going. When focussing on losing weight most people are focussed on wanting to move away from what they don’t want, or the negative situation. Rather than focus on wanting to loose weight to move away from your current position, focus on the positives of becoming slim, healthy or fitter. This is moving towards the positive rather than moving away from the negative.
Here is a simple exercise which will prove to you your subconscious is on the alert 24 hours a day: on the way home today, choose a make, model and colour of vehicle- anything will do. Start to think about it consciously. And then start to look around and see how many you can count on the way home. Really look hard – you will find them everywhere! How was it that on the way to work you didn’t notice any? You were not tuned in, that’s all.
What’s Driving Your Eating?
Many people suffer from food cravings at times when they are having a strong feeling. Others report a history of feeling criticized and judged by important others for their choices or the way they look, eat or feel. Feelings of shame and guilt about eating behaviours, looks or perceived lack of control are also common for people.
Others report anger and annoyance that to be the shape they want, they have to eat differently to others and feel deprived (victimized/ not normal). Many are afraid to change their shape because this has helped them hide or protected them from hurt or intimacy. Many have tried changing their body shape so many times they do not believe they can succeed, or feel undeserving of success because they have a deeper sense of unworthiness.
Emotional eating is the practice of consuming quantities of food — usually “comfort” or junk foods — in response to feelings instead of hunger. Experts estimate that 75% of overeating is caused by emotions. Many of us learn that food can bring comfort, at least in the short-term. As a result, we often turn to food to heal emotional problems or take away discomfort. Eating to self soothe becomes a habit preventing us from learning skills that can effectively resolve our emotional distress.
Depression, boredom, loneliness, chronic anger, anxiety, frustration, stress, problems with interpersonal relationships and poor self-esteem can result in overeating and unwanted weight gain. There are 2 types of emotional eating in which people engage:
1. Deprivation-sensitive binge eating: appears to be the result of weight loss diets or periods of restrictive eating (yoyo dieters)
2. Addictive or dissociative binge eating: process of self-medicating or self-soothing with food unrelated to prior restricting (have you ever eaten a whole packet of something, before you realised it was gone?)
By identifying what triggers our emotional eating, we can substitute more appropriate techniques to manage our emotional problems and take food and weight gain out of the equation. Situations and emotions that trigger us to eat fall into five main categories:
1. Social. Eating when around other people. For example, excessive eating can result from being encouraged by others to eat; eating to fit in; arguing; or feelings of inadequacy around other people.
2. Emotional. Eating in response to boredom, stress, fatigue, tension, depression, anger, anxiety, loneliness as a way to “fill the void” or in response to feelings arising from memories of past negative experiences.
3. Situational. Eating because the opportunity is there. For example, at a restaurant, seeing an advertisement for a particular food, passing by a bakery. Eating may also be associated with certain activities such as watching TV, going to the movies or a sporting event.
4. Thoughts. Eating as a result of negative self-worth or making excuses for eating. For example, scolding oneself for looks or a lack of will power.
5. Physiological. Eating in response to physical cues. For example, increased hunger due to skipping meals or eating to cure headaches or other pain.
Some useful questions to ask yourself that might help you find some of your beliefs or issues include:
– Do you remember any times you were ashamed about your body or had others say things about you that you felt ashamed of yourself?
– When was the last time you were at your goal weight/shape? What was happening at that time?
– What are your attitudes about overweight people? What were the attitudes of important others about overweight people?
– What patterns exist in your family about food? Was it used to show love or as a punishment?
– What statements do you say to yourself that are self defeating, hurtful and holding you back from getting what you want. Some examples include:
– It’s in my genes,
– I’ve never been slim so I can’t be
– I’ll always be fat
– I’m the fat funny one
– If I let anyone get close to me they will hurt me
– My friends/family won’t like me anymore
It is useful to ask yourself:
1. What are the benefits of staying overweight?
2. What do you have to give up to achieve your goal?
3. Do you use food as your main reward either for yourself or your children?
Read these questions out loud then sit quietly and listen to what you say to yourself. Write down your answers. Remember, the more honest you are with your thoughts and feelings, the more profound change you are able to achieve.
Recent Research Tackling Food Cravings!
A recent randomised clinical trial tested whether The Emotional Freedom Technique (EFT) could reduce food cravings in participants under laboratory-controlled conditions. Ninety-six overweight or obese adults who were allocated to the EFT treatment or 4-week waitlist condition. The waitlist condition received treatment after completion of the test period. Degree of food craving, perceived power of food, restraint capabilities and psychological symptoms were assessed pre- and post- a four week EFT treatment program, at 6- and 12-month follow-up.
EFT was associated with a significantly greater improvement in food cravings, the subjective power of food and craving restraint than waitlist from pre- to immediately post-test. At 6-months, an improvement in food cravings and the subjective power of food after treatment was maintained and a delayed effect was seen for restraint. At 12-months an improvement in food cravings and the subjective power of food after treatment was maintained, and a significant reduction in Body Mass Index (BMI) occurred from pre- to 12-months.
EFT as a therapy belongs to a group of therapies termed ‘energy psychology’ (EP) and similar treatments would include Thought Field Therapy (TFT), EMDR, and Tapas Acupressure Technique (TAT). EFT was originally designed as a simplified version of TFT (Callahan, 2000). Based on acupuncture principles, Callahan (2000) suggested that a brief tapping procedure may be successfully used to treat almost any emotional disorder. Specific problems have a tailored procedure (Hooke, 1998) and after diagnosis, the process involves tapping on specific meridian points on one’s body while focusing the mind on the source of the distressing situation. The tapping is suggested to create energy.
It seems EFT can have an immediate effect on reducing food cravings, result in maintaining reduced cravings over time and impact upon BMI in overweight and obese individuals. This addition to weight loss/dietary programs may result in assisting people to achieve and maintain reduced food cravings and lose weight. The program is available for purchase – www.foodcraving.com.au
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Callahan, R. (2000). Tapping the healer within: Using thought field therapy to instantly conquer your fears, anxieties, and emotional distress. New York: McGraw-Hill.
Davidson, Jackson, & Kalin, 2000. Motivation and the left prefrontal cortex. Psychological Bulletin, 126(6), 890-909.
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Franken, I.H.A., & Muris, P. (2005). Individual differences in reward sensitivity are related to food craving and relative body weight in healthy women. Appetite, 45, 198-201.
Goleman, D., Boyatzis, R., & McKee, A.2002. The new leaders: Transforming the art of leadership into the science of results. Time Warner: UK.
Goodspeed Grant, P. (2008), Food for the Soul: Social and Emotional Origins of Comfort Eating in the Morbidly Obese in Psychological Responses to Eating Disorders and Obesity (pgs 121-138) Wiley and Sons, UK.
Hill, A.J., & Heaton-Brown, L. (1994). The experience of food craving: A prospective investigation in healthy women. Journal of Psychosomatic Research, 38(8), 801–814.
Hooke, W. (1998). A review of thought field therapy. Electronic Journal of Traumatology, 3(2).
Mann, T., Tomiyama, A.J., Westling, E., Lew, A-M., Samuels, B., Chatman, J. (2007). Medicare’s Search for Effective Obesity Treatments: Diets Are Not the Answer. American Psychologist, 62(3), 220-233.
Rogers, P., Anderson, A. O., Finch, G. M., Jas, P., & Gatenby, S. J. (1994). Relationships between food craving and anticipatory salivation, eating patterns, mood and body weight in women and men, Appetite, 23, 319.
Rozin, P., Levine, E., & Stoess, C. (1991). Chocolate craving and liking. Appetite, 17(3), 199-212.
Strachan, M.W., Ewing, F.M., Frier, B.M., Harper, A., & Deary, I.J. 2004. Food cravings during acute hypoglycaemia in adults with Type 1 diabetes. Physiology and Behaviour. 80(5), 675-82.
Wardle, J. (1987). Compulsive eating and dietary restraint. British Journal of Clinical Psychology, 26, 47–55.
Weingarten, H.P. & Elston, D. (1990). The phenomenology of food cravings. Appetite, 15, 231–246.
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Dr Peta Stapleton and Terri Sheldon are two well known Australian psychologists with 37 years of combined clinical experience. They have developed the SlimMinds Program that teaches the latest effective psychological techniques to break out of that YoYo failure cycle that so often occurs with traditional weight loss programs. See www.slimminds.com. They have also pioneered the world’s first clinical trial of EFT and food cravings with Brett Porter. See www.foodcraving.com.au