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The Psychology of Eating Behavior: Why We Eat What We Eat

When we are young, we have the ability to fully adjust our food consumption to our needs, meaning we crave food when hunger signals occur and stop eating when satiation signals emerge. In other words, as infants and children, we are able to listen 100% to our internal signals and interpret them intuitively as "hungry" or "full".

order food

But what happens as we get older and more independent? 

We are no longer dependent on our parents to feed us, but we can freely decide when to eat and what to eat.

The older we get, the more "externally controlled" our actions become. 

Due to experiences we had as children or teenagers, certain foods are associated with emotions and their memories. For example, if we always received chocolate as a child when we fell down, and were taught that this would heal the pain, as adults, during disappointments, failures, and bad times, we will reach for chocolate to try to heal our emotional pain.

But even the delicious smell, the appealing appearance, and the constant access to all kinds of food, influence us to act more based on external stimuli. We simply don't have enough discipline to pass by the bakery with delicious treats just because we see the delicacies, and the thought of eating them alone gives us a good feeling. However, this good feeling after consuming unhealthy food often only lasts briefly and then turns into a bad feeling or guilt.

The good news is, we don't have to be a "victim" of these external stimuli. We can recognize and understand our motives and develop strategies based on them to resist temptation. It is possible to train discipline and not let ourselves be controlled by external stimuli.

Not only external stimuli influence our food decisions, but also our consciously made decisions, such as cognitively guided dietary rules we set for ourselves. Perhaps we read in a magazine or journal that certain foods are not good for our health and therefore make the conscious decision not to consume them further. This decision would then be based on rational thinking. Maybe we have also learned through processes of trial and error that our stomach does not tolerate certain things, so we abstain from certain food groups, for example.

In-depth knowledge for your new & fit self.

eating behavior

Development of our eating behavior throughout our lifespan

Our eating behaviors are influenced by a complex interplay of biological, psychological, social, and environmental factors.

Some of the key psychological aspects of why we eat what we eat are:

  1. Biological Factors: Our bodies have innate mechanisms that regulate hunger, satiety, and cravings. Hormones like leptin and ghrelin play an important role in signaling hunger and fullness. If you want to learn more about how satiety works, read this article. Additionally, our genetic makeup and what our mom ate when she was pregnant and breastfeeding, can predispose us to certain food preferences and eating habits.

  2. Learning and Conditioning: From a young age, we learn associations between food and various triggers such as taste, smell, and social cues. These learned associations can influence our food choices and eating behaviors throughout our entire life. For example, if we associate certain foods, like fastfood, for example, with comfort or reward, we may be more likely to seek them out in times of stress.

  3. Emotions and Mood: Our emotions and feelings can greatly impact our eating habits. Stress, anxiety, sadness, and boredom can lead to emotional eating, where we consume food not out of physical hunger but to cope with or suppress negative emotions. On the other hand, positive emotions can also influence food choices, such as celebrating with indulgent meals or treats.

  4. Social and Cultural Influences: Eating is often a social activity, and cultural norms. Or have you ever been to a birthday or wedding, where no food and drinks were served? Traditions also heavily influence our food choices and eating behaviors, depending on which culture we grew up in. We may adopt the eating habits of our family, peers, friends, and social gatherings often revolve around food. Additionally, societal norms regarding body image and dieting can shape our attitudes towards food and eating.

  5. Cognitive Factors: Our thoughts, beliefs, and attitudes about food play a significant role in determining our eating behaviors. For example, people with restrictive eating patterns or disordered eating patterns may have biased perceptions of food and body image. Cognitive biases, such as the availability heuristic (where we base decisions on readily available information), can also influence food choices.

  6. Changes throughout the lifespan: Eating behaviors evolve throughout the lifespan. In infancy and early childhood, caregivers play a central role in shaping feeding practices and food preferences. During adolescence, peer influence and autonomy-seeking behaviors may lead to more experimentation with new foods or eating patterns. In adulthood, responsibilities such as work and family can impact meal planning and dietary choices.

Other potential reasons for why we eat what we eat, besides hunger, are:

  • Taste and texture preferences (Enjoyment is paramount)

  • Economic thinking (Special offers, like buy one get one free)

  • Culture & tradition (Grandma's cookies at Christmas)

  • Availability (Cafeteria at work etc.)

  • Habits (On auto-pilot)

  • Fitness considerations (For muscle building)

  • Diet considerations (Wanting to lose weight)

  • Health considerations (Risk for diseases)

  • Media (What do celebrities or influencers eat?)

  • Beauty ideals (What do role models eat?)

  • Curiosity (Desire to try new things, e.g. when travelling)

  • Health requirements (Avoiding certain foods due to illness)

  • Fear (Of gaining weight or getting sick)

  • Knowledge (From books, magazines, etc.)

  • Trends (Chia seeds, smoothie bowls & Co.)

We all have a individual dietary history. Everyone has grown up with different eating cultures, customs, and rituals.

Understanding the psychology behind our eating behaviors can help us make healthier choices and develop strategies to address unwanted eating patterns.

It's important to recognize the multifaceted nature of eating behavior and consider how various factors interact to influence our relationship with food.

With knowledge of the existence of these motives, it is possible to analyze our own behavior and explore why we eat what we eat.

I recommend taking a few days to ask yourself about your motive behind each meal.

Soon you will recognize whether you are more of an emotional eater, habitual eater, or trigger eater.

eat salad

Changing your eating habits

Controlling biases towards food, social eating, and unhealthy eating behaviors requires a combination of self-awareness, mindful eating practices, and proactive strategies.

Here are some tips to help you gain more control over your food intake and reduce the influence of external stimuli:

  1. Mindful Eating: Practice mindfulness during meals by paying attention to your food choices, sensations, and hunger/fullness cues. Eat slowly, savoring each bite, and tune in to how different foods make you feel physically and emotionally. Take your time to eat and put the fork down every few minutes.

  2. Identify Triggers: Recognize the external cues and emotional triggers that prompt your 'unwanted' eating behaviors. This could include stress, boredom, social situations, or specific environments. Once you identify these triggers, develop alternative coping mechanisms or distractions to avoid turning to food for comfort or distraction. Alternative coping mechanisms can be things like journaling, exercising, reading, writing or doing some creative work you love.

  3. Set Realistic Goals: Instead of restrictive diets or extreme measures, set realistic and achievable goals for your eating habits. Focus on making gradual, sustainable changes rather than changing everything at once and aiming for perfection. Celebrate small victories and be compassionate with yourself if you slip up occasionally.

  4. Create a Supportive Environment: Surround yourself with supportive people who encourage healthy eating habits. Communicate your goals and explain the reasons for them to your spouse, friends and family so they can provide encouragement and accountability. Additionally, create an environment at home and work that promotes nutritious food choices by keeping healthy snacks readily available and minimizing the presence of tempting, unhealthy foods.

  5. Practice Assertiveness: Learn to assertively communicate your food preferences and boundaries in social situations. Don't feel pressured to eat or drink something that doesn't align with your goals or preferences. You can politely decline or suggest alternative options that are more in line with your health objectives. Put your self first and stay confident about your goals!

  6. Find Alternatives: When faced with cravings or temptations, distract yourself with other activities to shift your focus away from food. Engage in hobbies you love, physical activities, 'flow-activities, or relaxation techniques to occupy your mind and reduce the urge to eat impulsively.

  7. Seek Professional Support: If you struggle with controlling your eating behaviors despite your best efforts, consider seeking support from a registered dietitian, therapist, or nutritionist who specializes in disordered eating or behavioral change. They can provide personalized guidance and strategies to help you develop a healthier relationship with food.

Remember that changing ingrained eating behaviors takes time and patience.

Be kind to yourself throughout the process, and celebrate your progress, no matter how small. By taking proactive steps to understand and address your biases towards food and eating, you can empower yourself to make more conscious and balanced choices that support your overall well-being.

Achieve your fitness goals now through personalized guidance from your online nutritional and fitness coach. Book a call now!


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Sources Of Information:

  • Hess JM, Jonnalagadda SS, Slavin JL. What Is a Snack, Why Do We Snack, and How Can We Choose Better Snacks? A Review of the Definitions of Snacking, Motivations to Snack, Contributions to Dietary Intake, and Recommendations for Improvement. Adv Nutr. 2016 May 16;7(3):466-75. doi: 10.3945/an.115.009571. Erratum in: Adv Nutr. 2017 Mar 15;8(2):398. PMID: 27184274; PMCID: PMC4863261.

  • Grzymisławska M, Puch EA, Zawada A, Grzymisławski M. Do nutritional behaviors depend on biological sex and cultural gender? Adv Clin Exp Med. 2020 Jan;29(1):165-172. doi: 10.17219/acem/111817. PMID: 32017478.

  • Grimm ER, Steinle NI. Genetics of eating behavior: established and emerging concepts. Nutr Rev. 2011 Jan;69(1):52-60. doi: 10.1111/j.1753-4887.2010.00361.x. PMID: 21198635; PMCID: PMC3052625.

  • Joseph PV, Davidson HR, Boulineaux CM, Fourie NH, Franks AT, Abey SK, Henderson WA. Eating Behavior, Stress, and Adiposity: Discordance Between Perception and Physiology. Biol Res Nurs. 2018 Oct;20(5):531-540. doi: 10.1177/1099800418779460. Epub 2018 May 31. PMID: 29852756; PMCID: PMC6346320.


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