Why It’s Hard to Say No to Comfort Food
By David Kessler, author of The End of Overeating
Cues, priming, and emotional triggers all drive conditioned hypereating in fundamentally the same way–by stimulating mental ghosts. These ghosts are representations of past sensory and emotional associations with food that we have stored in our brains. Expectations, or what Mark Goldman, associate director of the U.S. National Institute on Alcohol Abuse and Alcoholism, calls “traces retrieved from memory,” give form to these ghosts.
When we expect food to give us pleasure (positive reinforcement) or relief from distress (negative reinforcement), that expectation amplifies the reward value. Expecting something to be rewarding stimulates pursuit of that reward.
“If most often eating alleviates my negative mood state, then over time, that cognitive memory will become the salient, predominant one,” said Gregory Smith, of the psychology department at the University of Kentucky. Having come to associate the behavior of
eating with a desired outcome, we begin to act more automatically to achieve that outcome.
For example, I believe a Milky Way candy bar will make me feel better because it has done so before. That expectation drives my action. I’m caught in a cycle of craving, satisfaction, and more craving. Conditioned hypereating takes on a momentum of its own.
The dominating influence of rewarding food can be marked along a continuum. Many people like and want a food, but only some of us develop elaborate thoughts about it, or a preoccupation with it. We still need to dig further to understand why some people are so
much more vulnerable than others, but for those unlucky ones, an increasingly intense focus on reward can spiral into obsession.
Someone who can’t stop thinking about a cream cake when she would like nothing better than to shut it out of her mind comes to wonder, “What does it mean if I have this thought? This must mean I’m a very weak person. I’m somebody who cannot succeed at a diet.”
The brain is conflicted. That generates unhappiness, followed, ironically, by the notion that only the cream cake can bring relief. We begin thinking, “I feel so awful now, but if I actually had that cream cake, I’d feel better.”
The clash escalates as we try to put the cream cake out of our minds. That’s known as the white bear problem–if you tell yourself not to think about white bears, soon that’s your dominant thought. The research literature tells us we can suppress thoughts only for short periods of time. As soon as we tell ourselves, “I’d better make sure to avoid that thought,” we start to focus on it. “An attempt at suppression is going to mean that the thought becomes
more salient,” said Kavanagh.
Indeed, focusing single-mindedly on not eating eventually pushes us to eat more. Feeling deprived only increases the reward value of food, and then usually gives way to indulgence, and often to abandon. As desire evolves into need, we do exactly what we’ve tried
so hard not to do–we eat that cream cake. And then we feel worse, which makes us even more likely to be out of control.