10 Things to Know About the Psychology of Food

We do endless subconscious activities throughout the day that are actually crucial to our survival as human beings. While food is necessary for survival, it is not as cut and dry as say…breathing. We require the actions of both eating and breathing to keep our brain and body functioning. One requires more thought than the other, even if we don’t realize it in the moment. It can be easy to not place power into this mundane thing that we do multiple times a day.

In actuality, food is a powerful part of all our lives. While the act of eating is physical, the impact it has on our lives is psychological and holds more weight than we may consider.

  • Why do we eat the foods we do?
  • How do they make us feel both mentally and physically?
  • How can food harm us?
  • How can food can save us?
  • Why do we gravitate towards certain foods?

The answers to all of these questions are tied into the psychology of food. Keep reading to learn 10 things to know about the psychology of food…

Healthy food means a healthy brain. 

Food has the power to affect how we feel. When we choose food that is high in nutrients and vitamins, we are not only feeding our stomach, we are feeding our brain. A common misconception is that healthy food doesn’t taste as good or won’t make us happy. This is far from the truth. Food can fuel our brain while also satisfying our cravings and desires. Healthy food is linked to a healthy brain because it has the power to:

  • Increase energy levels
  • Improve focus, concentration, and memory
  • Improve mental health
  • Improve body image

There are key factors that affect our personal food choices.

There are many factors that can affect why individuals choose to eat the foods they do. In a piece on Human Nutrition published by the British Columbia Campus, this topic was dissected. The author writes, “To date, science has not been able to track the exact path in the brain that occurs in response to eating a particular food, but it is quite clear that foods, in general, stimulate emotional responses in people. Food also has psychological, cultural, and religious significance, so your personal choices of food affect your mind, as well as your body.”

They follow this by explaining the twelve key factors that they believe affect our personal food choices. The list goes as follows:

  • Taste, texture, appearance
  • Economics
  • Early food experiences
  • Habits
  • Culture
  • Geography
  • Advertising
  • Social factors
  • Health concerns
  • Emotions
  • Green food/sustainability choices

(List is sourced from BC Campus)

Taste buds talk to our brain. 

We all have our favorite foods that makes our taste buds feel like they are dancing. But how do taste buds actually work? How do our taste buds affect us psychologically? Well, science tells us that when we take a bite of food, a message of taste moves from the taste buds on our tongue to the brain through cranial nerves. According to Ask a Biologist, a blog featured on the Arizona State University website, “The signal is first received by areas in the brainstem, which connects the spinal cord with the rest of the brain. The signal then moves to the thalamus in the brain.”

We develop our eating habits at a young age.

Seeing as we cannot feed ourselves when we are very young, eating habits are typically developed from day one. As we grow older, we may have more of a say in what, when, and how much we eat, but we are still under somebody’s else’s care and supervision. We are also quite impressionable when we are young and may develop habits by observing others. Due to this, eating habits are likely to stick with us until early adulthood. 

This crucial time in our life essentially shapes our eating behaviors. For some, this is a great time to learn healthy habits and to become open minded about different foods, flavors, and cultures. For others, this may be the beginning of unhealthy habits such as:

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  • obesity
  • picky eating
  • other health risks. 

Our childhood eating habits do not need to be our future eating habits. 

As mentioned above, our childhood shapes our eating behaviors and habits. While many parents and guardians may do a great job at teaching their children about healthy dietary patterns, portion sizes and food selection, some struggle in this department. The way we were raised and the things we observed as children do not need to determine our entire future. It is wise to reassess the ways we do things as we grow and change. Finding your own food habits that work for your health and happiness is important. 

Certain food can be nostalgic.

Since food generates emotional responses, it is no surprise that food can create a feeling of nostalgia or comfort. We may eat certain foods at special events such as birthdays and holidays. Our mother or father may have always made us the same soup when we were sick as children. We may live abroad and can’t find the same food as home. We may have gotten a specific pasta dish on our first date with our romantic partner. Regardless of the special event, food holds meaning. It holds a special place in our heart. When we are feeling a ways and need comfort, many of us may turn to a certain food for a sense of nostalgia and safety. 

Unhealthy foods can make mental health conditions worse.

When we eat well, we are taking care of our mental health. If an individual is suffering from a mental health condition, it is equally if not more important for them to prioritize their diet and eating habits. Studies have shown that common ingredients, such as sugar and processed foods, can lead to inflammation in the body and brain. This can very easily contribute to mood disorders such as anxiety and depression. 

Nutritious foods can fight off mental illness.

As mentioned above, unhealthy foods can worsen pre-existing mental health conditions. Alternately, healthy foods can actually ward off mental illnesses and disorders. When we prioritize vitamins, minerals, and brain boosting adaptogens in our diet, we are putting up a shield to fight against scary mental disorders. Some examples of these illnesses and disorders include:

  • Alzheimer’s disease
  • Dementia
  • Schizophrenia
  • ADHD
  • Depression
  • Anxiety
  • Acute stress disorder

Healthy food and healthy eating habits are the greatest protection are brains can have.

Nutritious foods can also fight physical illness.

Healthy foods and eating habits can ward off physical illness, just as they can mental illness. When we give our bodies the fuel they need to be strong and capable of fighting for us, they can do anything! Some examples of physical illnesses that a poor diet can lead to include:

  • Obesity
  • Tooth decay
  • High blood pressure 
  • High cholesterol 
  • Heart disease
  • Risk of stroke
  • Diabetes 
  • Osteoporosis
  • Certain cancers

Food psychology is actually a branch of psychology.

There are many branches of psychology, all of which have significant purposes. According to Wikipedia, “Food psychology is the psychological study of how people choose the food they eat, along with food and eating behaviors. Food psychology is an applied psychology, using existing psychological methods and findings to understand food choice and eating behaviors.”

Food psychology is an important branch of psychology for a multitude of reasons. Food psychologists can help their patients:

  • work through unhealthy patterns
  • treat their eating disorders
  • diagnose their mental disorders
  • find healthier coping mechanisms, and more.

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