The Psychology of Food: Mind Over Food

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One of the most fundamental building blocks of nutritional metabolism is neither vitamin, mineral, nor molecule. It’s our relationship with food, or our food psychology paradigm – the sum total of our innermost thoughts and feelings about what we eat. Our relationship with food is as deep and revealing as any we might ever have in life.

The great Sufi poet Rumi once remarked:

“The satiated man and the hungry man do not see the same thing when they look upon a loaf of bread.”

And Al Capone, noted gangster, astutely observed:

“When I sell liquor, it’s called bootlegging; when my patrons serve it on silver trays on Lake Shore Drive, it’s called hospitality.”

Indeed, how each of us thinks about eating is so profoundly relative. If a group of us were looking at the same plate of food, no two people would see the same thing, or metabolize it the same way.

Say, for example, we were to contemplate a plate of pasta, chicken, and salad.

A person wanting to lose weight might just see calories and fat. They might respond favorably to the salad or chicken, while viewing the pasta with fear and apprehension.

An athlete trying to gain muscle mass might look at the same meal and see protein. Their focus is on the chicken, and how important it is that they get in extra protein, while looking past the other foods.

A pure vegetarian might not be able to see beyond the poor chicken that’s appearing on their plate, and not be able to touch any of the food – feeling distaste, anger, and sadness.

A chicken farmer, on the other hand, would likely be proud to see what they consider to be a “good” piece of meat, something they’re grateful for and put a lot of work into raising.

Another person trying to heal a disease through diet would see either potential medicine or potential poison, depending upon whether or not the plate of food is permissible on her chosen diet. While a scientist studying nutrient content in food might simply see a collection of chemicals.

What’s amazing is that each of these eaters will metabolize this same meal quite differently in response to her unique thoughts1. In other words, what you think and feel about a food can be as important a determinant of its nutritional value and its effect on body weight as the actual nutrients themselves.

Sound unbelievable?

In this article, we’re going to take a look at how our thoughts and emotions shape our digestion and metabolism. Let’s begin by exploring some of the science behind food psychology.

Food Psychology: How Your Brain Eats

The information highway of the brain, spinal cord, and nerves are like a telephone system through which your mind communicates with your digestive organs. Let’s say you’re about to eat an ice cream cone. The notion and image of that ice cream occur in the higher center of the brain – the cerebral cortex.

From there, information is relayed electrochemically to the limbic system, which is considered the “lower” portion of the brain. The limbic system regulates emotions and key food psychology functions such as hunger, thirst, temperature, sex drive, heart rate, and blood pressure2.

Within the limbic system is a pea-sized collection of tissues known as the hypothalamus, which integrates the activities of the mind with the biology of the body. In other words, the hypothalamus takes sensory, emotional, and thought input and transduces this information into physiological responses.

This is nothing short of a miracle.

If the ice cream is your favorite flavor – say, chocolate – and you consume it with a full measure of delight, the hypothalamus will modulate this positive input by sending activation signals via parasympathetic nerve fibers to the salivary glands, esophagus, stomach, intestines, pancreas, liver, and gallbladder. Digestion will be stimulated and you’ll have a fuller metabolic breakdown of the ice cream while burning its calories more efficiently.

If, however, you’re feeling guilty or judging yourself for eating ice cream, the hypothalamus will take this negative input and send signals down the sympathetic fibers of the autonomic nervous system. This initiates inhibitory responses in the digestive organs, which means you’ll be eating your ice cream but not fully metabolizing it. It may stay in your digestive system longer, which can diminish your population of healthy gut bacteria and increase the release of toxic by-products into the bloodstream.

Furthermore, inhibitory signals in the nervous system can decrease your calorie-burning efficiency via increased insulin and cortisol, which would cause you to store more of your guilt-infused ice cream as body fat. So the thoughts you think about the food you eat instantly become reality in your body via the central nervous system. And in turn, the hypothalamus plays a big role in our appetite regulation3.

Here’s the thing: our brain doesn’t distinguish between a real stressor and an imagined one.

So if you were to sit in a room all by yourself, feeling happy and content – and you started thinking about the guy who did you wrong years ago, and if that story still carries a charge for you, your body would quickly shift into the physiologic stress state, which, among other things, will increase your heart rate and blood pressure, and decrease your digestive function.

Any guilt about food, shame about the body, or judgment about health are considered stressors by the brain and are immediately transduced into their electrochemical equivalents in the body.

You can eat the healthiest meal on the planet, but if you’re thinking toxic thoughts, stressed out, and in a state of sympathetic nervous system dominance, the digestion of your food goes down and your fat storage metabolism can go up.

Likewise, you can eat a nutritionally challenged meal, but if your head and heart are in the right place, the nutritive power of your food will be increased.

Placebo on a Plate

To fully appreciate the power of the mind over metabolism, let’s take a fresh look at one of the most compelling phenomena in science: the placebo effect. Here’s one of my favorite examples of this extraordinary force.

In 1983, medical researchers with the British Stomach Cancer Group tested a new chemotherapy treatment4. One group of cancer patients received the actual drug being tested while another group received a placebo – a fake harmless, inert chemical substance.

Pharmaceutical companies are required by law to test all new drugs against a placebo to determine the true effectiveness, if any, of the product in question. In the course of this study, no one thought twice when 74% of the cancer patients receiving the chemotherapy drug exhibited one of the more common side effects of this treatment: they lost their hair.

Yet, quite remarkably, 31% of the patients on the placebo chemotherapy – an inert saltwater injection – also had an interesting side effect: they lost their hair too. Such is the power of expectation. The only reason that those placebo patients lost their hair is that they believed they would. Like many people, they associated chemotherapy with going bald.

So if the power of the mind is strong enough to make our hair fall out when taking a placebo, what do you think happens when we think to ourselves, “This cake is fattening, I really shouldn’t be eating it,” or “I’m going to eat this fried chicken but I know it’s bad for me,” or “I enjoy eating my salad because it’s really healthy?”

Certainly, I’m not saying we can eat poison without any harm if we believe it’s good for us. I’m suggesting that what we believe about any substance we consume can powerfully influence how it affects the body.

Every day, millions of people eat and drink while thinking strong and convincing thoughts about their meals. It’s time to bring awareness to the powerful effect our thoughts have on our digestion and metabolism – and to our overall vitality.

Food Psychology & Food Myths

As we’ve been exploring, all of us tend to make strong associations and hold strong beliefs about food. But they’re not necessarily apparent until we’ve taken the time to explore these associations.

Consider some of the foods you’ve given strong associations to:

  • “Salt will raise my blood pressure.”
  • “Fat will make me gain weight.”
  • “Sugar will rot my teeth.”
  • “I can’t make it through the day without my cup of coffee.”
  • “Eggs will raise my cholesterol level.”
  • “Calcium will build my bones.”

To a certain degree, some of these statements may be true.

But is it possible that we are instigating these effects? And if these effects are the inherent result of eating these foods, can you see how we can enhance those results with the potency of our expectations?

The Placebo Effect is Common in Food Psychology

The placebo effect is quite common. I think, if we were to recognize the true extent of it, we would see that not only is the placebo effect happening in our food psychology, but is occurring in many areas of our health. For example, researchers have estimated that 35% to 45% of all prescription drugs may owe their effectiveness to placebo power and that 67% of all over-the-counter medications, such as headache remedies, cough medicines, and appetite suppressants, are also placebo-based. In some studies, the response to placebos is as high as 90%.

Researchers are increasingly studying the effects of placebo treatment in symptoms like pain, depression, and cancer-related fatigue. As one indication of the prevalence of placebos in medical treatment, it’s estimated that between 17%-80% of physicians in countries around the world prescribe placebos for their patients (with consent).5

It amazes me that very few in the scientific community have made the obvious connection between placebo power and our food.

Indeed, the placebo effect is built into the nutritional process. It’s profoundly present on a day-to-day basis every time we eat. It’s like phoning in a prescription to your own inner nutritional pharmacy.

What we believe – whether “true” or not – is alchemically translated into the body through nerve pathways, the endocrine system, neuropeptide circulation, the immune network, and the digestive tract.

And it’s the healthy functioning of those systems that ultimately determine our overall health and well-being. Therefore, our thoughts, feelings, and beliefs about food (our food psychology), are truly instrumental in creating lifelong health.

I hope you’re seeing the importance of your inner world – the bond between the mind and food – when it comes to metabolizing a meal.

With this awareness, you have the knowledge and power to shift any negative thoughts, feelings, and beliefs you might be holding around food and body … and instead find a happier, and more relaxed relationship with food. It’s through the intentional cultivation of a positive relationship with food that you get the most nutritional benefit from food, while increasing your vitality and mind-body health.

I’d love to hear your thoughts and insights. Please share your own stories about the power of the mind to influence a meal.

And if you’re interested in going deeper into this work, I recommend you learn more about our food psychology coach certification training, The Mind Body Eating Coach Certification Training. It’s a powerful, in-depth, 8-month journey where you’ll learn how to transform your thoughts, feelings, and beliefs around food – and help others do the same.

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  1. David, M. The Slow Down Diet: Eating for Pleasure, Energy, and Weight Loss. (2005). Healing Arts Press, Simon & Schuster. ↩︎
  2. Torrico, T. and Abdijadid, S. (2023). Neuroanatomy, Limbic System. StatPearls Publishing [Internet]. ↩︎
  3. Suzuki, K., Simpson, K., Minnion, J., Shillito, J., and Bloom, S. The role of gut hormones and the hypothalamus in appetite regulation. (2010). Endocrine Journal, 57 (5), 359-372. ↩︎
  4. Fielding, J., Fagg, S., Jones, B., Ellis, D., Hockey, M., Minawa, A., Brookes, V., Craven, J., Mason, M., Timothy, A., Waterhouse, J., Wrigley, P. An interim report of a prospective, randomized, controlled study of adjuvant chemotherapy in operable gastric cancer: British stomach cancer group. (1983). World Journal of Surgery, 7, 390–399. ↩︎
  5. Howick, J., Bishop, F., Heneghan, C., Wolstenholme, J., Stevens, S., Richard Hobbs, F., Lewith, G. Placebo Use in the United Kingdom: Results from a National Survey of Primary Care Practitioners. (2013).  PLoS ONE 8(3): e58247. ↩︎

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