Food Psychology: How What We Think Changes How We Eat

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You Know More About Food Psychology Than You Think 

In a roundabout way, if you have read the posts on gastrophysics, the practical guide of how to develop your palate, and thinking about food differently, we have been talking about aspects of food psychology all along. 

We have talked about how taste buds aren’t the only measure of how a dish tastes. You must also consider what you are smelling, your memories around the food, and how your brain reacts to it all to fully decide what you are tasting and whether you like it. In Gastrophysics, we learned emotions can affect your perception of a meal. 

 In “How to Develop Your Palate”, we talked about how to begin training your palate, with the first step being to notice which tastes you are drawn towards. A major component of training your palate is paying attention to the texture, smell, color, and taste – otherwise known as mindful eating. In “5 Steps to Think About Food Differently”, I recommended that the first step is to check in with yourself. 

Enter food psychology, otherwise called nutritional psychology, which is the study of how negative and positive thoughts about food can affect your wellbeing and overall health – more than the nutrients in the food itself. 

Bakery shoot – donuts

How does the brain talk to the body about food?

We learned in Gastrophysics that your perception of a food (even before eating) is just as important to your experience as the taste itself. We learned that the brain is involved in combining tastes and smells to communicate flavour back to us, where we think it comes from only the mouth. Most of the time, we are unconscious of our thoughts, prejudices, and experiences around food because we are eating mindlessly.

As Marc David describes in Nutritional Psychology: Is Your Mind Ruining Your Food?, the different areas of the brain, spinal cord, and nerves help communicate with digestive organs to properly absorb nutrients, rid excess waste, and digest food. First, the brain forms an image and hypothesis of how the food will taste in the cerebral cortex – the area of the brain that is used for higher thinking.

Once an image and opinion has been formed, the information is shuttled over to the limbic system – the “lower” area of the brain responsible for regulating emotions and physical symptoms like hunger, sex drive, thirst, heart rate, etc. These signals then move to the hypothalamus which integrates the mind with the body and produces the physical symptoms by sending signals to the appropriate areas. 

The Brain in Action

For example, say you are sitting down to eat your favorite meal, in my case that would be Chicken Fried Steak with A1 sauce and a squirt of lemon juice on top. I have so many good memories of eating Chicken Fried Steak that I am primed for another positive experience. My heart rate increases, my saliva glands activate, and I am excited thanks to the hypothalamus talking to my cerebral cortex and limbic system. Because I savour each bite, closing my eyes and chewing slowly, I am more likely to ramp up my digestive system and metabolize the meal more fully than if I were eating something I don’t enjoy. 

Marc David illustrates the opposite by explaining a scenario with ice cream. He says, “If you’re feeling guilty about eating the ice cream or judging yourself for eating it, the hypothalamus will take this negative input and send signals down…[which] initiates inhibitory responses in the digestive organs, which means you’ll be eating your ice cream but not fully metabolizing it”. These inhibitory signals decrease how efficiently calories are burned, leading to more of the ice cream being stored as body fat.

Negative emotions like disgust, guilt, or fear are more likely to induce stress hormones and inhibit digestion. Positive emotions increase metabolism, reduce stress, and lead to increased absorption of nutrients from food, regardless of diet (Harvard Health: Your Brain on Food).    

How to Discover Your Personal Food Psychology

The science behind nutritional psychology and how thoughts can affect digestion, body response, and mood is simply fascinating. To work on having a better, healthier relationship with food, which would promote digestion, weight loss, and reduce stress, some questions have to be answered first. 

Marc David provides the springboard for discovering, and ultimately, changing your own food psychology by asking yourself pointed questions about your relationship with food. 

What do you tell yourself when eating?

Which foods are on your “good” list?

Which foods are on your “bad” list?

Is food your enemy or your ally?

Start by asking yourself these questions. Start by noticing how you feel when you see donuts, salad, vegetables, potato chips even. Changing your food psychology can help change the way you eat, perceive different foods, and ultimately foster a stronger and healthier relationship with food. We’ll be talking about how to change your food psychology soon!

Tell me what you learned below about food psychology in the comments!

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