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Home / Psychology of Eating: Can You Train Your Brain to Eat Clean (and Like it?)

Psychology of Eating: Can You Train Your Brain to Eat Clean (and Like it?)

Clean eating and the concept of maximizing nutrition and health with both our food and lifestyle choices are big topics these days. However, not too many people are talking about the psychology of eating. Much less the impact our thoughts about food could potentially have on our health. I admit, I don’t typically give it all a whole lot of thought either. But I did today.

It all started with a fast…

The psychology of eatingThe Psychology of Eating

A while back I wrote about the benefits of daily 12-hour intermittent fasting (for brain health, decreased inflammation, etc.) In the article I talked about how now that I eat a nutrient-dense diet, I naturally rarely get hungry for breakfast before about 10:30 or 11 am. Since I always wait to eat until I am hungry, I have been intermittent fasting long before I even knew it had health benefits. I don’t think about the fact that I am “fasting” each morning because my “fast” requires zero willpower. I’m simply not hungry.

But today was different. I was hungry all morning. I wasn’t hungry because I had skimped on dinner the night before and I wasn’t hungry because I did an extra tough workout. It wasn’t even “that time of the month.” I can’t prove it, but I am almost certain the reason I was hungry was because I was told I needed to fast.

It’s a funny thing about me and food that I am pretty sure applies to a number of other people too….

We Want What We Can’t Have

Today I was ravenous practically from the moment I woke up. Why? I am 99% sure it was because I was told I needed to fast (now that I am 41 years old I am getting my hormones, etc tested and I needed to be fasting for my blood work).

The morning started off just like it always does. I woke up as usual but had totally forgotten about the fast. But as usual, I was not hungry, so I wasn’t even thinking about breakfast. I was, however, thinking about coffee! (For what it is worth, I definitely do not participate in any sort of “coffee fast”; Coffee is usually one of the first things that come to mind as soon as I open my eyes!)

As I was waiting for my coffee to brew and looking at my schedule for the day I saw my notes about not being allowed to eat or drink anything other than water or black coffee/ tea until after my blood work.

That’s when I started to get hungry.

The Forbidden Fruit

Here it was not even 7 am, a good three hours before I ever normally eat breakfast, and all I could think was how on earth would I be able to make it to my 10 am appointment without food.

Wasn’t I feeling lightheaded?

Wasn’t I getting a bit shaky from such low blood sugar? 

Such ridiculous thoughts, I know. But that’s what was running through my empty stomach this morning.

A similar thing happened twenty years ago when I was diagnosed with multiple sclerosis (MS). Unlike most MS patients, on the day I was diagnosed I was told that an anti-inflammatory diet could potentially potentially help slow the progression of my disease (click here if you don’t know my story .) The year was 1998 and I was just twenty-two years old. It was the first time in my life anyone had ever suggested I go on any sort of “diet”. From the moment I was told pro-inflammatory foods like ice cream and cheeseburgers should no longer be a part of my life, I started to think obsessively about ice cream and cheeseburgers. 

All I did for MONTHS after the diagnosis is feel sorry for myself that I couldn’t eat pizza or cake like all of my friends.

I talked a bit about the psychology of eating and the impact a change in diet can have on your psyche in a blog post that discussed the dark and dirty side of healthy eating: Orthorexia. A psychologically disturbing and potentially harmful condition, orthorexia is characterized by an unhealthy obsession with clean eating. And with the clean eating revolution now in full swing, it is a condition that is becoming increasingly more prevalent.

My clean food diet journey began out of necessity after being diagnosed with an autoimmune disease in 1998 at the age of twenty-two. You could say I was pretty much scared into cleaning up my diet. Looking back, I truly think feeling deprived was one of the reasons I got into cooking in such a big way! If I couldn’t eat Pizza Hut pizza then maybe I could make my own healthy clean pizza?

It’s Human Nature

If you are talking about the psychology of eating, it’s human nature to want the forbidden fruit. But the desire does not just apply to food. Consider this study below….

The Science Behind the Forbidden Fruit

During a study published in the Journal of Experimental Social Psychology, women were presented with a photograph of their potential dream man. Half of the women were told their Mr. Right was single; while the other half were told he was in a relationship. The photographs were the same across all participants. Though 59 percent were interested in pursuing the single guy, that figure jumped to 90 percent when they were under the impression he was already in a committed relationship. It’s just human nature to want what you can’t have. 

Mind Over Food

The mind is a funny thing when it comes to food. It’s why if you are trying to change your diet for the long term you absolutely MUST have the right mindset. And you absolutely MUST have a healthy relationship with food.

Consider this Scenario…

Let’s pretend two very hungry women, Becky and Sara, are given a slice of pizza.

Becky doesn’t worry about the nutritional value or carbohydrate count of the food she eats, she just eats what she likes when she is hungry. Becky eats the pizza and moves on to the next activity of the day.

But Sara is a calorie and carbohydrate-counting wizard who obsesses about optimizing the nutritional value of each and every meal. Sara knows the pizza is not healthy but there are no other options, so she eats it but feels terribly guilty while doing so. Unlike Becky, Sara does not just move on to the next activity of the day. Instead, Sara obsesses about having eaten the unhealthy pizza.

It might sound far-fetched, but according to Marc David, M.A., the Founder and primary teacher of the Institute for the Psychology of Eating, Becky and Sara could potentially metabolize the pizza very differently in response to her unique thoughts. If you are relaxed and happy your body will be functioning in a very different manner than if you are stressed and tense. In other words, what you think and feel about a food can potentially impact how your body metabolizes it.

Sound unbelievable? When you read the science behind how your brain communicates with your digestive organs, it doesn’t seem so far-fetched after all.

The Brain Does Not Distinguish Between a Real Stressor or an Imagined One

In the pretend pizza scenario above, if Sara truly allows herself to stress out about eating the slice of pizza, her body will shift into a physiologic stress-state – increased heart rate and blood pressure, followed by decreased digestive function. When you think about the science behind how stress negatively affects the body, it is not at all far-fetched to consider that a slice of pizza could be metabolized differently depending on what you are thinking at the time you eat it.

anti inflammatory dietHow to Train Your Brain to Eat Clean (and Like it!)

If you buy into the idea that your thoughts can potentially affect how your body metabolizes food, then the million dollar question is how can you train your brain to eat clean and actually like it?

I am not a psychologist and I have no official training in the psychology of eating. I am simply someone who has been eating clean for almost twenty years because I was afraid of what would happen if I didn’t. I am certain that if I didn’t find a way to make clean eating enjoyable then I would never have been able to stick with it for all these years.

If you have my Clean Cuisine book (left), then you know the way our family eats does not fit snugly into any of the popular diet categories. I am not low-carb, low-fat, vegan, paleo, vegetarian or even gluten-free! The food pyramid below is the same one that appears on page 11 of the book and it is the best way I know to visually give a snapshot of how I eat on a daily basis.

If you look at the pyramid, you will see foods that are not typically included in a clean food diet, including red meat, wine, cheese and even chocolate. That’s because all or nothing does not work for me. If you look closely at the pyramid you will see those foods are at the very tip top, which means I do not eat a lot of them. But just like what happened today with my “fast”, I would go crazy if I thought I could never eat red meat, wine, cheese and chocolate ever again.

clean eating food pyramid

I realize there are a number of different schools of thought on the healthiest and best way to eat. But in a nutshell what works for me is to focus first and foremost on eating nutrient dense “whole foods”, which is why I have the most nutrient-dense foods (vegetables and fruits!) at the bottom of the pyramid. I focus more on adding healthy foods rather than obsessing about eliminating every “bad” food. Although I do not eat any refined foods whatsoever (no refined oils, no refined sugar, no refined flour, etc.), I am definitely not nearly as strict as some clean eaters.

With the help of my husband, Andy Larson, MD, I started Clean Cuisine out of my own medical necessity. What we have done is taken all of the available research and put together a clean diet lifestyle that is both enjoyable and effective. Could you adopt a more extreme way of eating? Absolutely! Will doing so make a meaningful impact on your overall health? Based on all of the available science, we don’t think so. We focus on being strict when and where it counts most (no trans fats, no refined sugar, etc.) and then we are more lenient where it doesn’t matter so much.

But again, the psychology of eating is very complex. This is simply what has worked for me for almost 20 years.

I recognize everyone is different though. I would LOVE to hear what works for you! Please leave a comment below and tell all about it…..

Ivy Larson

In 2010, Clean Cuisine was launched because Ivy Larson wanted to share her anti-inflammatory lifestyle and delicious recipes using ingredients in their most natural and nutrient-rich state. In 2020, Ivy passed the website to Aimee and Madison. Since then, they have been adding new recipes and nutrition posts while updating old recipes and articles. Thanks for visiting Clean Cuisine!

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Stella Mary

Wednesday 11th of July 2018

Hi Ivy, This is a great post. I enjoyed reading the reactions of Sara and Becky. The same food can give different results to the body based on what we think about the food we have consumed. Thank you for the great example and the clear explanation.

Ivy Larson

Thursday 12th of July 2018

So happy you liked it Stella!Thank you for taking the time to comment ;)

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