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How Habits Can Control Your Eating

This is Part 1 in a 3-part series on Habit Eating.

(1) How Habits Can Control Your Eating
(2) 3 Proven Strategies for Breaking Habits
(3) 2 Key Principles in Creating New Habits


Sometimes you eat because you’re hungry and the food tastes good. But often you eat because it’s noon and you always eat at noon. Or you just got home and you always eat when you first get home. You may not be hungry and the food may not be tasty, but you eat it anyway. Then afterwards you think, "Why did I eat that? Next time I won’t!" But next time, you do it again.

This is habit eating. Habits are overlearned behaviors that are cued by something in your environment (for example, time of day or just arriving home), and performed automatically with little attention or thought. Habits are not goal-directed – you’re not eating to satisfy hunger or experience taste. So why are you eating??

The Science of Habit

I started thinking about habit eating when I came across an article in the New York Times on the science behind shopping habits. There was a brief mention towards the end about habit eating. The article had no references and mentioned only one scientist’s name, but I found the original studies through internet searches. (There are some inaccuracies in this article, so read it with caution. For example, he says that reward is part of an established habit and this is untrue.)

How habits are formed and broken has been studied by both psychologists and neurobiologists. The neurobiologists study the brains of rats and monkeys, while the psychologists study the behavior of people. They approach the problem from opposite directions, and yet their findings converge.

There are many researchers in this field, but a few names appear again and again. Psychologists David Neal and Wendy Wood did many studies on habit when they were at Duke University, and later the University of Southern California. I’ll discuss their illuminating popcorn study in Part 2 of this series. (Many thanks to David Neal for sending me several helpful articles.) Neurobiologist Ann Graybiel at MIT has done pioneering work on how habits are stored in the brain. It turns out to be the same part of the brain where addictions are formed. Are addictions just habits gone awry?

How Habits Are Formed

To understand how habits are formed, it helps to understand why the brain is capable of habit learning in the first place.As Graybiel discovered, there’s a special place in the brain for habit learning. We’re designed to form habits. Habits are a skill, and it’s a skill that we use. Neal and Wood found that 45% of what we do in a day is habit – automatic, with minimal thought and no particular intention. This is not the "mindful living" ideal of the Zen Buddhists, but it’s an efficient use of brain power. It allows us to do one thing automatically while we think about something else. You can drive a familiar route while planning the speech you’ll make when you arrive because habit learning handles navigation. Without habits, you’d get a lot less done in your day. Habits can serve us, but they also can get in our way.

Habits are overlearned behaviors, repeated and rewarded in the same context many times. Only after many rewarded repetitions will activation shift from the part of the brain where regular learning is stored to where habit learning is stored. The context in which the behavior is performed is part of what’s stored in habit memory. Over time, you learn to associate the context with the behavior. When the behavior (the "routine") becomes a habit, the context becomes a cue for the routine.

The reward is needed to create the habit, but not to maintain it. Once the habit is formed, the reward can be reduced, or even removed for periods of time, and the habit will persist. Habits are learned very slowly, and broken very slowly. They are not goal-directed, or affected by shifting goal states. A habit is a way of dealing with the world that is automated and rigid, and may become less rewarding over time. But as long as it’s working at all, it tends to persist because it’s easy and effortless. Often people go to the same places and do the same things each day, not because they like them so much, but because it’s easier than figuring out what else to do.

Once a habit is learned, it’s never completely unlearned. There are ways to break a habit, but it will reassert itself if you don’t stay vigilant. Habit learning appears to stay in your brain forever, just waiting to be cued.

Emotional Eating versus Habit Eating

Some non-hunger eating is emotional eating, and some is habit eating. It can be tricky to tell the difference. Not knowing why you’re eating doesn’t mean it’s habit eating. It could just as easily mean you’re not in touch with your emotions since that’s the nature of emotional eating. Emotional eaters often don’t know why they’re eating – at least not initially.

People think of emotional eating as comfort eating, but this is not actually its main purpose. The primary purpose of emotional eating is to distract from disturbing thoughts or feelings that you don’t want to allow into your conscious mind. Things like guilt, shame, fear, anger, marital problems – things that disturb you so much that you’d rather worry about being fat. And so you do. Eating is the world’s best distraction since it works on multiple levels. First there is the sensory stimulation – it tastes good. Then there is the obsession. You spend so much time thinking about what you’re going to eat (or not eat), that you hardly have time to think about anything else. And then there is the self-flagellation after eating. If you have any mental energy left over, it’s taken up by feeling fat.

The Normal Eating method (described in my book, Normal Eating for Normal Weight), is designed to ferret out the uncomfortable thoughts and feelings that your mind is working so hard to push down with food. Once you’ve been able to work through them, perhaps with the help of one-on-one counseling, they no longer trigger a desire to eat. Going forward, uncomfortable thoughts and feelings may still occasionally trigger an initial desire to eat (habits are habits), but you’ll know what to do. You’ll know how to figure out what’s really bothering you and address it directly.

So how do you know if it’s emotional eating or habit eating?

  • Emotional eating is intentional and random. You are eating in response to a craving. It’s internally motivated and doesn’t depend on context.
  • Habit eating is automatic and repetitive. You are eating in response to context and environment. It’s externally cued and depends on context.

Note that you can respond to an emotional eating urge by engaging in habit eating. You can do both at once! If you have a huge fight with your boyfriend then settle down in front of the TV with a pint of ice cream, you’re probably doing both at once.

Sometimes, it’s just habit eating – something you always do in a particular context. The contexts that most frequently cue a habit are location, time of day, preceeding action, and other people. A location cue could be a movie theatre, in front of the television, or anyplace you always (or almost always) eat regardless of hunger. Time of day can cue a habitual snack. Even meal times can cue habit eating if you’ve been snacking and aren’t hungry. An example of "preceding action" as a cue is coming home. Many people head for the refrigerator when they first come home from work or school. People also can cue habit eating. Did you ever have an eating buddy – someone with whom you enjoyed indulging? A 2010 study at Harvard found that the more obese friends you have, the more likely you are to be obese. Perhaps obese people cue habit eating in others (and each other).

Tip: To identify habit eating, look for patterns and repetition. Do you always eat in the same place, at the same time, after doing the same thing, or with the same people? If so, suspect habit eating. But there may be an emotional component, too!

Many studies have been done on how to break bad habits. It’s not easy. The next post in this series will describe three strategies that have been proven to work.

Thoughts? Comments? I’d love to hear them.

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20 comments to How Habits Can Control Your Eating

  • Sheila Sheila

    I found this to be a very interesting topic! I’ve been classified as an emotional eater, but now I see that there are definitely times it’s more habit than emotion that is driving me. Knowing that both can occur at the same time is also very enlightening!

  • Gwen Gwen

    Sheryl,

    Thank you so much for sharing this information about habit eating. I think a LOT of my overeating is actually habit eating and not really emotional eating. This is the first time I’ve seen anyone giving this twist on overeating a serious look. I am really looking forward to seeing the next articles you write on the subject.

    Gwen

  • Sundara Sundara

    This is fascinating stuff…lots to ponder.

    A really good about habits just came out, called “The Power of Habit.” says a lot of the same things, but in relation to food and eating issues, it completely overlooks the emotional aspect of the thing…needs your input, Sheryl!

    I appreciate your ideas about determining emotional vs. habit eating…they sure can be intertwined.

    looking forward to the next installment!

    Best, Sun

  • Ready4Change Ready4Change

    Thank you for posting this article. Coming home is definitely a habit eating time for me.

  • Elisa Elisa

    I’m new to your blog. It’s funny how things pop into your life just when you’re ready for them. It seems that I’ve been reading the same things that you have that have made me think about eating patterns and was so excited to see that you have been reading them too and synthesizing them in one place!

    I really enjoyed your post on Gary Taubes’ book. It was life-changing for me. After incorporating more fat into my diet, my cravings for certain foods decreased immensely.

    I also read the habit article, which also made me think about how habit is involved in eating patterns. I was planning to read the book to see if he provides any additional insights that could be helpful. I would also love to hear your thoughts about it if / when you read it.

    It seems to me now that normal eating requires a three pronged approach: looking at habit eating, emotional eating, and what we’re eating (especially letting loose of fat-phobia). I wonder if this approach would be successful in helping patients?

    I’m so glad I found your blog and am looking forward to exploring it more!

  • Hi Elisa,

    > I would also love to hear your thoughts about it if / when you read it.

    Not sure what you’re asking… If/when I read what? You said you read my post about Gary Taubes’ book, so you know I read that. The link is here:

    http://normaleating.com/blog/2009/09/taubes-book-and-the-real-cause-of-obesity/

    Have you read my book yet? Normal Eating for Normal Weight? It explains my method in detail. I think you’d find it interesting!

    http://normaleating.com/ne_book.php

    - Sheryl

  • Elisa Elisa

    I meant the book by Charles Duhigg, the Power of Habit. I was planning to read that book to see if it provides any more interesting insights.

    I am very interested in your approach, so I will read your book. Thanks!

  • This is really interesting, I have a lot of trouble determining whether I am eating because of habit or compulsion.

    Thanks!
    thecrazyfat.blogspot.com

  • Hi Elisa,

    > I meant the book by Charles Duhigg, the Power of Habit. I was planning to read that book to see if it provides any more interesting insights.

    Ah. Well, as I said in the blog post, I noticed some disturbing inaccuracies in his New York Times article. Also, I didn’t think it was very well written – I found it sort of meandering and disorganized. So I wasn’t that interested in reading his book, to be honest (which hadn’t been released yet when I wrote the blog post). He’s just a science writer reporting on the original research, so I read the original research and skipped the “middle man”.

    - Sheryl

  • Bobbi Bobbi

    Am trying to break my “coming home from work” habit eating. What you said about the habit no longer requiring a reward really struck a nerve with me. I’m not even enjoying the food that much anymore, yet find it so hard to stop. It’s like a robot takes over and I head straight to the pantry! Looking forward to the rest of this series!

  • Hi Bobbi (and others!),

    I’m glad the series is helpful. The second article will be posted (and sent out in the newsletter) on March 16, and the third one on April 2.

    - Sheryl

  • Sheri P Sheri P

    Love this article- very helpful and interesting. I have some more info to chew on in my own journey and can see some areas where my cravings are habit and some where they are mixed. Definitely have a connection btwn getting in the car and craving soda plus chips! It happens no matter what emotions I have or what else is happening in my day. I will look forward to the next installment and hope to follow the discussion here.

  • Cindy Cindy

    I found this article spot on in terms of using the food habitually to distract myself from discomfort. It is so automatic there is no conscious recognition of the purpose of the reflexive reach for food. I guess that’s why pausing is such an important part of recovery. It breaks that automatic response to discomfort.

  • Layla Layla

    I like this post a lot! I’ve learned a thing or two about habits at my studies and especially the context/cue aspects are very interesting to me.

    I suspected that I had some eating habits but the more I try to focus on NE and try to pause everytime I want to eat, I suspect that it was either EEing or eating out of boredom after all. I can’t detect any habits, like for example eating as soon as I come home.

    I was wondering something else: Can wanting to eat something for dinner for example, because you’re so used to eat it, also be a habit? For example: For as long as I can remember every dinner I’ve had contained either meat or chicken or fish, and now that I live on my own and cook my own meals, I find it almost unnatural not to eat any kind of meat at dinner/ Could this also be a habit?

    Thanks for all your work Sheryl!

  • Sheri P Sheri P

    Having tried to include a few veggie nights in my menu planning I would wonder the same thing Layla. Seems logical that habit would effect what we eat when in some cases. Certainly in ones custom is to have meat at every meal then making a veggie meal can leave one thinking hmmm, it’s not complete somehow.

  • Layla Layla

    Hi Sheri,

    The reason why I suspect it’s a habit is indeed because I feel like my meal is incomplete if there’s not some kind of meat. It’s not impossible for me not to eat meat(it’s not like I’d be extremely unhappy or anything, since a lot of my friends are vegetarians I often eat meals wihtout meat or even meat replacements, but I certainly miss it), but the few attempts of me trying to become a vegetarian failed miserably :P

  • Fiona Fiona

    Hi Thanks so much for this information.
    I think I have habit eating in the evening. I can wait for hunger no problem in the morning, although I think this waiting for hunger is maybe a new habit I have formed since exploring attuned eating. But in the evening is is REALLY hard for me to not eat something even though I may not be hungry. And I almost always want some chocolate. I enjoyed reading part 2 as well, I will try eating with my non dominant hand in the evening and see what happens. Looking forward to part three.

  • Karen Ligocki Karen Ligocki

    Hi Sheryl,
    I liked your article, and I think I’ve read it a thousand times, but it never hit home…”I eat cause it is easier to think about my next diet, than deal w/ more important issues”
    I only read part one…will read the rest later, but thank you
    Karen

  • Shannon Hurd Shannon Hurd

    Habit eating helped me overcome anorexia. It was extremely beneficial to force myself to eat three meals per day at exactly the same times and in exactly the same portions during my earliest days of recovery. I did not trust my body or remember how to recognize its internal cues. Habit eating allowed me to override the doubts that, left unchecked, would have derailed my recovery.

    With time, however, the habit eating that saved mevkhn began to take over my life. I was nothing if not sticking to The Schedule. I was terrified that giving it up would mean a return to anorexia and a crash in self-esteem.

    There is a fine line between habit eating and normal eating. Normal eating has some habits involved, and that is OK. I am still, 20 years later, struggling to find the “perfect” balance.

  • Hi Shannon,

    First – huge congratulations on overcoming the anorexia! It can kill, and it’s very hard to overcome. You rock!

    I agree that eating on a schedule is the way to go when first overcoming anorexia. It’s the only way to break out of it. You have to get past the fear of eating, which is screaming at you, before you can begin to hear more subtle body cues of hunger and satiation. The fear of eating drowns out everything else.

    It’s interesting what you say about an obsession / compulsion about The Schedule replacing the eating disorder. It makes sense to me. What I’ve found in my work with clients is that the core issue with emotional eating (and eating disorders) is the obsession – with food, eating, what you’ll eat next, yelling at your self for what you just ate, etc. This obsession serves to DISTRACT from the life issues underneath the eating disorder. Once we identify and work through these life issues, the need for the obsession goes away.

    Perhaps some of your tendency to distract from life issues with obsession is still there. Also, you may have some post-traumatic reaction to what you went through with the anorexia. I can understand how hard it would be to regain your own trust after that.

    That said, I agree that we all do some amount of habit eating. Sometimes it works; sometimes it doesn’t. It certainly helps with meal planning! But I also think it’s one of the reasons people gain weight as they get older. I was starting to very slowly gain weight after I turned 50. When I started to pay closer attention to my eating, I realized that I’d started eating more from habit than listening closely to what my body needed. I needed less food, but I was eating the same amount.

    - Sheryl

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