Eating Behaviour

Have you ever thought about your own eating behaviour, patterns, or preferences? Eating is a daily occurrence for most, a background habit that occupies a portion of our time while not central to our lives. Eating behaviour has evolved with culture and society; thus, evolution, culture, and societal beliefs impact how and what we eat. Eating behaviour can have both positive and negative aspects.

Eating Behaviour Eating Behaviour

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Table of contents

    Eating Behaviour, Sensitivity banner, StudySmarter

    • What influences our eating behaviours?
    • What are the psychological theories of eating behaviours?
    • What are some of the types of eating disorders?
    • How does dieting impact obesity?
    • How are people diagnosed with eating disorders?

    Eating Behaviour Definition

    Many theories and explanations exist of how food preferences can cause healthy eating behaviours. Some examples include evolutionary, behavioural, and cultural influence explanations.

    Eating behaviours are the motives and processes associated with dieting and eating habits.

    Research has examined the role of neural and hormonal mechanisms involved in controlling eating habits and food preferences related to healthy eating behaviours. However, poor eating behaviours have been linked to eating disorders such as anorexia nervosa and diet-related problems such as obesity.

    We all have different reasons for eating. They can include fueling our bodies, enjoying the taste, boredom, or in a restrictive way. Our reasons can change daily, but this pattern of eating becomes our eating behaviour.

    What is Eating Behaviour in Psychology?

    Eating behaviour in psychology concerns what motivates our likes, dislikes and food patterns. It is caused by an interaction between physiological, psychological, social and genetic factors.

    The factors can influence our meal times, the quantity of food intake, food preferences, and food selection, e.g. if we choose to eat vegetables with our meals.

    Eating Behaviour Examples

    Since eating behaviour includes reasons for what, why, how often, and to what extent we eat, there is a wide range of examples of eating behaviours.

    Below is a list of examples of eating behaviours.

    • Eating a dish because of your family's culture.
    • Obsessively counting calories.
    • Eating food because all your friends eat that food.
    • Not eating breakfast to try to lose weight.
    • Not eating dessert.
    • Eating a lot of food and then forcing yourself to throw it up.

    Psychological Theories of Eating Behaviour

    The field of psychology has a couple of explanations for why people have different food preferences and eating behaviours.

    The evolutionary theory explains that food preferences are rooted in what our ancestors ate. Evolutionary theory states that food preferences are innate, and their purpose is to increase the likelihood of our survival and ensure the reproduction of offspring with the same 'successful' food preferences.

    The theory states that humans like certain foods because previous generations in our families liked those foods. These preferences were passed down since they were the preferences of the people who survived, i.e. the 'fittest'.

    Photograph of spices at a market. StudySmarterFig. 1. Are there any foods you like because of your cultural background? Pixabay.com.

    However, while the evolutionary theory of eating behaviour is one way to look at eating behaviour and preferences, there are other explanations.

    Another main reason for differing relationships with food is culture. People from different cultural backgrounds tend to consume different types of food, which may be due to religious beliefs or food availability.

    Do you have friends from different cultural backgrounds than you? If you do, have you noticed how they may eat different food, a different number of meals per day, or different sizes of meals?

    For someone from Spanish culture, lunch may be their biggest meal of the day, but for someone from an American background, their biggest meal is dinner.

    Think about the types of food your friends, and you eat. Are they different depending on the person's cultural background?

    The third approach to eating behaviour is the behavioural approach. This approach assumes that the individual's environment influences the psychology of eating behaviour. So, rather than someone's ancestors or culture impacting their relationship with food, what and who someone surrounds themselves with are. Some behavioural theories of eating behaviour are:

    • Classical conditioning – Individuals may develop associations between certain foods and specific responses. In classical conditioning, you are unconscious of the associations you're making. Typically, we can be classically conditioned to feel hungry when we smell food or to salivate when we see tasty food.

    Someone may form an association between eating sweets/ junk food and feeling guilty which can lead to an unhealthy relationship with food.

    • Operant conditioning– If parents positively reinforce their children when they eat something, it increases the likelihood that they will eat it again.

    For example, your mum may let you watch TV if you eat your vegetables, so you eventually associate vegetables with good feelings.

    • Social learning theory – An individual may mimic the response of others, such as a peer's response to a particular food, which may prevent or increase the likelihood of eating that specific food again.

      • Social learning theory can apply to people outside of our circle, including people we see on social media and the media. Think about people you're exposed to who are positive influences when it comes to food.

      • If you expose yourself to people like that, you can maintain a healthy relationship with food.

      • However, if you only interact with accounts, websites, or friends with eating disorders or unrealistic body standards, it could significantly negatively impact your eating behaviour.

    Eating Behaviours: Neural and Hormonal Mechanisms

    Changes in hormones and activity in a brain region, such as the hypothalamus, regulate eating behaviour.

    The activation of the hypothalamus and the release of certain hormones signal the brain when we are hungry or full.

    The lateral hypothalamus triggers hunger in response to internal and external stimuli (e.g., a low glucose level). The ventromedial hypothalamus tells you that you are full after you eat, so you stop eating (rising glucose level).

    Think of the lateral hypothalamus as the 'Go' button and the ventromedial hypothalamus as the 'Stop' button.

    High leptin levels, low ghrelin levels, and the activation of the ventromedial hypothalamus signal the brain that we are full.

    And high ghrelin levels, low leptin levels, and activation of the lateral hypothalamus signal the brain that we are hungry.

    Proper regulation of these hormones and functional activation of the hypothalamus leads to healthy eating behaviours.

    Eating Disorder Behaviours: Anorexia Nervosa

    Anorexia nervosa is a severe eating disorder that causes a person to maintain a deficient weight by exercising too much or suppressing their diet. People with anorexia often have body dysmorphia.

    Body dysmorphia is when you can't see what you truly look like. Often, people with body dysmorphia will see themselves as much bigger than they actually are.

    Several theories explain how poor eating behaviours can lead to anorexia nervosa.

    The irregular activity of neurotransmitters, such as high dopamine levels, has been linked to anorexia (Per Södersten et al., 2016). Similarly, abnormal serotonin levels can affect a person's mood enough (e.g., by causing anxiety) to trigger eating disorders (bingeing and purging).

    Dysfunctional families may contribute to anorexia. For instance, family systems theory states that people raised in an overly critical environment are more likely to develop anorexia.

    Body dysmorphia (the belief that you look different than you do) can also contribute to anorexia.

    Or, people may engage in poor eating behaviours because they imitate their role models by copying their diet or by trying to fit in with their unrealistic beauty standards.

    How many celebrities can you think of who make you feel like you need to lose weight to be like them? Due to social media, we are constantly exposed to people who have had plastic surgery and hire professional nutritionists, which may cause people to think that the way we look is not enough (which is wrong).

    People may develop maladaptive thought processes about their weight due to low self-esteem or unrealistic expectations of themselves. These irrational and maladaptive thoughts can cause the onset of anorexia.

    Eating Disorder Behaviours: Bulimia Nervosa

    Bulimia nervosa, usually called bulimia, is another prevalent eating disorder. People who are bulimic go through cycles of binging and purging.

    Binging is when people consume mass amounts of food in one sitting, such as a family-sized bag of chips and a litre of Sprite.

    Purging is when people get rid of all the foods they binged, usually by forcing themselves to throw up. Sometimes people will use laxatives.

    People who are bulimic will struggle with their body and other stressors and binge food to cope with their feelings. Then, they might feel guilty about binging and then purge to regain control.

    Photograph of fizzy drinks in a store. StudySmarterFig. 2. People who are bulimic may drink fizzy drinks to aid their purging later. Pixabay.com.

    Bulimia can happen to people struggling with their bodies, needing to regain a sense of control in their lives, or having a susceptibility in their genes. Unfortunately, bulimia, just like other eating disorders, can lead to long-lasting (negative) consequences.

    Eating Disorder Behaviours: Obesity

    While obesity is not a type of eating disorder, it's an important health concern to discuss.

    Obesity is when a person is severely overweight and has too much fat stored in their body.

    Obesity is associated with many severe health conditions, such as heart disease, diabetes, etc. Several theories explain how poor eating behaviours can contribute to obesity. Biological explanations for obesity include an individual's genetic predisposition and possible disruption of hormone regulation.

    For instance, people who are obese may have inherited the gene from their parents. People who cannot regulate leptin properly may not know when they are full and overeat, leading to obesity over time.

    Psychological explanations include maladaptive psychological processes that cause a person to overeat, which can lead to obesity. The restraint theory discusses how individuals may refuse certain foods for a while and then binge. The Disinhibition theory explains overeating is a response to a negative stimulus, such as emotional stress.

    The boundary model suggests that people who exercise restraint through dieting set boundaries/rules around their eating rather than listening to the biological signals of hunger and satiety. Over time, they become less sensitive to these signals and overeat, leading to obesity. The ironic process theory talks about how they become more likely to occur when trying to suppress thoughts about hunger and restriction.

    Eating Behaviour Psychology: Dieting

    Dieting is a key part of obesity that can help someone achieve a healthy body weight. When done right, dieting can be a crucial step for an overweight or obese person to take their life back. Typically, dieting restricts caloric intake to help the person lose weight. When dieting is paired with exercise, weight can be lost even faster.

    Unfortunately, people who lose weight from diets can put the weight back on just as quickly as they lost it. When people don't enjoy their diet or their lifestyle changes are unsustainable, it increases the likelihood of relapse. People have to make gradual and realistic changes to make their weight loss long-lasting.

    Eating Behaviour Questionnaire

    As we've learned, differences in eating behaviours can highlight our cultural differences. However, it can also signify concerns about our mental health.

    There is no one questionnaire regarding eating disorders. If there were, people might lie, and as this is a sensitive topic, it may cause the individual to struggle to ask for help. That being said, other means exist to determine if someone has an eating disorder.

    While eating disorders result from someone's mental health struggles, there are often physical consequences, such as extreme weight loss. In this instance, people can go to their general practitioner and be examined.

    Symptoms of an eating disorder can include drastic weight loss, low heart rate, hair loss, insomnia, and low blood pressure.

    These, combined with conversations with the patient, can help a medical professional diagnose someone with an eating disorder.

    Eating Behaviour - Key takeaways

    • Eating behaviours are the motives and thought processes associated with dieting and eating habits.
    • Evolutionary, cultural, and biological explanations have been proposed to explain differences in the psychology of eating behaviour among individuals.
    • Healthy eating behaviours are associated with properly activating the hypothalamus and regulating hormones such as ghrelin and leptin.
    • Irregular neurotransmitter activity, dysfunctional families, or irrational thoughts that create a distorted image of oneself can cause anorexia.
    • Inheritance of the gene from parents, disruption of leptin signalling, and maladaptive psychological eating patterns can lead to obesity.
    Frequently Asked Questions about Eating Behaviour

    What is eating behaviour in psychology?

    Eating behavior in psychology concerns what motivates our likes, dislikes and food patterns. It is caused by an interaction between physiological, psychological, social and genetic factors.


    The factors can influence our meal times, the quantity of food intake, food preferences, and food selection, e.g. if we choose to eat vegetables with our meals.

    What is the psychology of eating?

    The psychology of eating is the feeling people experience when eating or thinking about eating.

    What is normal eating behaviour?

    Typically, ‘normal’ eating behaviours involve eating only when an individual is hungry, stopping when full, and maintaining a healthy weight.

    What is the importance of having eating behaviour?

    Eating behaviour is crucial because it ensures that an individual remains healthy and can survive.

    What are the psychological reasons for eating?

    Some examples of the psychological reasons for eating are:

    • Restraint theory – Refusing certain foods for a while and then binge eating.
    • Disinhibition – Overeating in response to a negative stimulus, such as emotional stress.
    • The boundary model – People who exercise restraint through dieting set boundaries/rules around eating rather than listening to the biological signals of hunger and satiety. Over time, they become less sensitive to these signals and overeat, leading to obesity.

    Test your knowledge with multiple choice flashcards

    Which statement suggests that cultural preferences do not influence food preferences?

    What are leptin and ghrelin both examples of?

    Is atypical anorexia a type of anorexia nervosa?

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