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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.