There are a number of psychologists whose works are relevant to our behaviors with respect to food and eating. I have selected few—Freud, Pavlov, Skinner, Csiksczentmihalyi, as well as the French author, Proust. My intent is to summarize their seminal contributions and discuss how viewing our eating behaviors through the prisms of their perspectives and philosophies can provide us with insight and understanding of not only why we eat for emotional reasons, but also to help us eliminate our inappropriate eating behaviors.
Why bother learning the philosophy of the aforementioned psychologists and authors? Many intelligent people I have spoken with tell me that they don’t really care about the psychological underpinnings of their eating behaviors, only about how they can achieve weight loss and keep it off. So how can this knowledge improve our ability to get to a healthy weight and stay there? The answer is because when we eat for the wrong reasons and emotions drive dysfunctional eating patterns, we must be cognizant of our behaviors and make every effort to understand them in order to change them. Freud’s divisions of the psyche, Pavlov’s classical conditioning, Skinner’s operant conditioning, Csiksczentmihalyi’s concept of flow, and Proust’s “Madeleine” each offer a unique framework to comprehend the basis of human behaviors, including eating. Even more importantly, these formative contributions offer insights into how to manage dysfunctional eating behaviors in order to achieve the endpoint of a healthier relationship with food, healthier eating patterns and a healthier weight.
The model of the human psyche established by Sigmund Freud divides our psyche into the ego, id and super-ego. Our ego acts in accordance with the reality principle. The domain of the ego is conscious awareness, reason and common sense. Our ego is responsible for the delicate balance between primitive drives and reality, essentially mediating between the two poles of the id and super-ego. Our ego can be thought of as the adult within. Our id operates in accordance with the pleasure principle. The domain of the id is instinctual impulses, drives and passions that demand immediate satisfaction. Our id can be thought of as the child within. Alternatively, our id can be understood in terms of the devil inside. Our super-ego serves a role as our conscience. The super-ego aims for perfection and punishes misbehavior with guilt. Alternatively, the super-ego can be construed as the angel within us.
This framework of the psyche can be helpful in analyzing eating behaviors. Our eating can be id-driven in which we seek to achieve immediate pleasure and gratification with no thought of responsibility or of the long-term effects of that indulgence, a devil-may-care attitude. By the same token, super-ego-driven eating demands careful scrutiny and deliberation about any food item that is consumed, with great consideration given to mindful eating for the purpose of satisfying hunger and maintaining health. Any transgression from the super-ego’s tight rein and control over eating behavior would result in guilt, the avoidance of which motivates angelic eating patterns. Ego-driven eating is the compromise between these two polar extremes. This is human eating behavior practiced by many of the one-third of the population that maintain a healthy weight—generally sensible, but with occasional excursions into id domain and super- ego domain that allow us to tip over into over-indulgent eating and then right ourselves.
Although some of us display primarily ego-driven eating with forays into id-driven eating that are checked by our super-ego drives, many of us are id-predominant and a few of us are super-ego predominant. Those who do most of their eating based upon sheer instinct, with immediate-gratification-seeking consumption with no thought given to long-term consequences, are likely to be overweight or obese. Conversely, those whose eating style is tightly controlled and carefully measured, with the utmost of mindfulness applied to food choices and eating behavior, are unlikely to be overweight or obese. Super-ego driven eating is not necessarily a healthy behavior—it can be extreme just as id-driven eating is—and its obsessive nature can lead to problems such as anorexia.
Another name for id-driven eating is promiscuous eating. This wanton, impulsive and reckless eating behavior can cause or contribute to obesity. A realistic goal to counteract id-driven promiscuous eating is to employ a mindful eating strategy in order to achieve balance and moderation—not obsessive mindfulness, simply a judicious amount of attention and awareness applied to our eating. We do not need to be angels at all moments—we simply need to be mindful of when and why the devil is influencing our behavior—be aware of it, think about it, understand it—and then either avoid the behavior, intervene by stopping before it gets out of hand or, if we must succumb, substituting a healthy alternative for an unhealthy indulgence. In other words, when our eating is id-driven, we should strive to recognize what is going on through mindfulness, and then turn on the super-ego to get us back on track to ego-driven eating.
Ivan Pavlov was a Russian physician, physiologist and psychologist who won the Nobel Prize in medicine. He is best known for describing classical conditioning, summarized as follows: meat causes dogs to salivate, an instinctual reaction called an unconditioned response. Pavlov used a metronome to call his dogs to their meaty meal and, after a few cycles of repetition, the dogs began to salivate on the basis of just the sound of the metronome. The reaction to the metronome is called a conditioned response, since it is a learned behavior.
Human beings are not all that different from Pavlov’s dogs. Many foods literally elicit a “mouth watering” unconditioned response and certain specific contexts and environments can exact a conditioned response in the absence of the specific food item. This can certainly help explain the foraging for food that many of us pursue coincident with the television getting turned on. The same phenomenon happens in many movie theatres where accessory eating occurs as a result of the collusion of classical conditioning and opportunistic, temptation, and social forces. A similar situation happens to many of us as we enter our homes and head into the kitchen where all the food-associated context clues—the refrigerator, pantry, kitchen table, cookie jar, etc.—trigger our desire to eat via the classical conditioning pathway. The importance of classical conditioning vis-à-vis eating is that food-associated context cues can elicit a conditioned response that can trigger eating and drive overeating, weight gain and obesity.
A solution to eating driven by classical conditioning is to try to override it via mindfulness. When context is the initial drive to partake, the indulgence will not occur until the impulse becomes an action. When the television goes on and we get that strong urge to munch, in spite of not being hungry and perhaps just having finished a satisfying dinner, there are a number of solutions. We are intelligent and highly evolved cognitively, and we can and should be aware of the situation at hand. Before transforming the notion into an action, we can exercise a thought process to try to quell the conditioned response. That process might be musing about the folly of eating when not hungry, consideration of obesity, heart disease, clothes not fitting, flab around the waistline, etc. Our mindfulness and cognitive powers can override urges and reflexes—you might call this a mindful de-conditioning of a conditioned response. Alternatively, we can succumb to the conditioned response, but eat only a small portion of the item we desire, or even better, swap our craving from its intended source to a healthy, colorful, crunchy, natural substitute such as fruit or veggies. Not only can we de-condition a conditioned response, but we also can actually re-condition ourselves to have a yearning for something healthy when we are exposed to context clues. Another possibility is to exchange the act of eating for an alternative activity such as exercising. An example of this is my post-work routine: after a day at the office, when I enter my house through the kitchen, I have conditioned myself to think of heading down to the basement to work out in lieu of staying in the kitchen and snacking.
As a behavioral psychologist, B.F. Skinner believed that behavior could be explained on the basis of external and observable causes, and not by internal motivations. Operant conditioning is a means of learning governed by rewards and punishments meted out for the performance of certain behaviors. Behavioral change or learning occurs as associations are made between a given behavior and a consequence for that behavior. In operant conditioning, the promise or possibility of reward causes an increase in the behavior and the imposition of punishment causes a decrease of the behavior.
How does this relate to eating issues? For many of us, food functions to placate our state of emotional un-wellness. Comfort food consumption soothes our souls and drives continued comfort food consumption. I’m really stressed and beaten up from a horrible day at work, so two large pieces of seven-layer chocolate cake are going to do the trick. I deserve it. The problem is that this consumption is a behavior that begs repeating the next time the negative emotion surfaces. So, as the behavior gets reinforced again and again, a behavioral pattern gets established and over time, it gets more and more difficult to break. Additionally, food can serve as a reward for certain behaviors—I did this, so I deserve that kind of logic. I passed the exam, so I deserve a hot fudge ice cream sundae. So food serves a role in an entire range of emotional circumstances—to tranquilize and mollify a negative state, or, just as likely, to reward a positive state.
How do we combat the reward effect provided by the consumption of food to help calm our frazzled or heightened emotions? We must use Skinner’s behavioral schema and think about the reward in negative terms—by mindful consideration of the long-term negative consequences of the continued behavioral pattern (being overweight, obese, diabetic, etc.) vs. the short-term reward/gain. Instead of a re- ward (present), we need to think presence of mind. The seeming reward is, in fact, a punishment to our long-term physical and emotional well being and serves only as a short term palliation that also functions to further perpetuate the cycle. Remember, in operant conditioning the promise or possibility of reward causes an increase in the behavior and punishment causes a decrease of the behavior. So, we are applying mindfulness to Skinnerian logic to think of emotional eating in terms of punishment to cause a decrease in the behavior. If mindfulness and intellectualization are insufficient to stem the emotional or reward eating, alternatively, consumption of just a taste (portion control) of the comfort food or reward is one possibility, and another is swapping out the reward for a healthier substitute, like exercising.
Mihaly Csiksczentmihalyi is a psychologist who has written about the concept of flow—a zen-like, heightened state of intention, concentration and complete mental engagement. This condition of full immersion in the activity at hand puts us in the zone where there are no distractions, time seemingly is arrested, our performance is optimal and a sense of fulfillment is derived. Achieving this state of flow requires focused attention and awareness, and pursuits including yoga, meditation and martial arts can help direct us into the flow groove.
To what extent flow can be cultivated is uncertain, although engaging in the aforementioned activities can definitely improve our abilities to become more mindful, which is a solid step towards achieving flow. It would seem that achieving the state of flow is equivalent to the ultimate state of mindfulness, uber-mindfulness, if you will. Mindfulness, awareness and attempts to achieve flow are powerful weapons when brought to the food and eating arena. With laser-focused mindfulness, dysfunctional eating patterns become more obvious and solutions more readily employed.
Marcel Proust was a French author who is known for his novel Remembrance of Things Past, in which it is revealed how the act of eating a madeleine pastry enables the narrator to evoke powerful memories with astonishing clarity and richness. Mere words cannot do justice to the remarkably vivid memories elicited and rekindled by the sight, smell and taste of this pastry, so the reader is referred to Proust’s novel.
My personal “Proustian Madeleine” is a peach. When I grasp a fuzzy peach in my hand and draw it up to my face and breathe in deeply to take in the sweet aroma, I am immediately transported to the backyard of my grandparents’ house. I am about ten years old and it is the peak of summer, the sun is high in the sky on an intensely blue-skied, cloudless day and verdant grass and shrubs surround my grandmother and me. Their neighbors have a grand old peach tree whose branches hang over into my grandparents’ backyard. Many of the peaches are ripe and the air is redolent with the perfume of peaches ready to be eaten. I reach up and pick a big, perfectly round, pink and orange colored, downy, fragrant fruit. I bite into the succulent peach, close my eyes and the juice trickles down my face. When I open my eyes, my grandmother is smiling at my delight.
To this day, peaches evoke so many rich and vivid memories— times when there were no worries or responsibilities; my long since deceased, beloved grandmother; the warmth of summer; being out- doors on an idyllic day; nature; bliss. I am convinced that one of the reasons I love peaches, aside from the joy that they provide on face value, is their ability to allow me to revisit powerful memories and associations. In essence, I have a deep-seated form of conditioned response to peaches. My conditioned response of sorts is also an operant reward—a positive memory—from the thought process stirred up. This cheerful and upbeat conditioned response and operant reward will certainly drive me to continue to seek out peaches in particular, certainly a healthy indulgence. And I suppose that if it were a madeleine, a doughnut, or cheesecake that was the food item that evoked such happy memories, then I would be driven to eat them as opposed to my healthier indulgence.
Perhaps on a subconscious level, we are driven to eat food items that evoke in us a Proustian madeleine-type response and this may help explain in some way our propensity towards certain foods, whether they be healthy or not. Possibly, this may be a factor in the over-indulgence of certain food items that contribute to the American overweight and obesity epidemic. The Proustian response is such a formidable and compelling force that, if the food item that elicits the response is unhealthy, I am not sure that there is any simple solution. And if our positive Proustian moments are associated with healthy foods, we are most fortunate indeed.
Excerpted from Promiscuous Eating: Understanding and Ending Our Self-Destructive Relationship With Food.