Overeating and Wanting Vs Liking
Often we find ourselves eating more than we intended to, whether that is after a meal, in bingeing episodes, or just generally grazing throughout the day. We can look back and think ‘Why did I eat that’?
It is easy to become frustrated when a consistent pattern of overeating develops, especially when it feels as if there is a large part of yourself that doesn’t want to be overeating, or doesn’t even particularly enjoy the food you are eating.
If this resonates with you, you may also have felt confused as to why you have this eating behaviour. Often, the confusion and frustration can lead to more self-depreciation and anger towards oneself. When confronted with the harsh inner-critic, we can rely even more on overeating to provide comfort or distraction. This can lead to more frustration and confusion, and so the cycle continues and with it a growing belief that we are helpless, broken or weak.
We can help ourselves to break this cycle by applying understanding and compassion, where there is usually self-depreciation and frustration.
Our relationship with food and eating is a complex one, driven by societal, cultural, interpersonal, developmental, and biological factors all interacting. In this article, we will be exploring a small but important factor to understand when it comes to eating behaviours and overeating: wanting vs liking.
WHAT IS WANTING, WHAT IS LIKING?
Wanting and liking are often used interchangeably when it comes to our desire to eat something. This appears somewhat self-evident – we want to eat something because we like it. Ideally, the two behaviours do work in tandem: our wants are driven by our likes and vice versa. However despite their closeness, the two concepts are actually distinct and driven by separate neurological pathways in the brain.
|The drive to obtain and eat food, often caused by physiological triggers such as the fullness of the stomach or glucose levels in the blood. Our wanting can also be implicitly influenced by triggers labelled as ‘food cues’
|The subjective experience of pleasure as a result of eating the food
These pathways do indeed work together closely to influence our behaviour, but there are some important distinctions between them:
- Our want for certain foods varies and is very dependent upon external factors, whilst our liking for certain foods remains fairly stable over time. For example, you may rate raspberries 8/10 for liking and 9/10 for wanting in the morning before breakfast, however after a breakfast including ample raspberries, you may rate your wanting for more raspberries as lower, say 3/10 whilst your liking rating stays the same at 8/10.
- How much we want something and how much we like something is influenced by the amount of activity in separate (but related) areas in the brain. The more activity in the regions responsible for wanting results in a felt experience of increased desire to eat the food, whilst increased activity in the regions responsible for liking result in increased sense of pleasure from eating the food. It is possible to have more activity in the ‘wanting’ areas than the ‘liking’, which results in excessive wanting for food, i.e. a craving.
- Interestingly, the areas of the brain involved in wanting are larger and more numerous than the areas involved with liking.
- Evidence suggests how much we want something is a stronger determiner of how much we will eat, not how much we like something. In other words the amount we eat is more determined by our wanting, than our liking
- Whilst liking something is a fully conscious experience, wanting to eat is more easily influenced by factors outside of our immediate conscious awareness. We can be unconsciously influenced to want to eat by factors such as surroundings, sounds and food images – even certain light levels [1, 2].
WHAT HAPPENS WHEN WE WANT MORE THAN WE LIKE
Whilst ‘Wanting’ and ‘liking’ usually work together and in balance, as described above the two pathways are in fact separate. For some individuals, ‘wanting’ can dissociate and greatly exceed ‘liking’.
As a result of more activity in the ‘wanting’ areas of the brain, or higher sensitivity to various food cues, wanting of the food can exceed the liking of the food. This can result in overeating behaviour that is driven more by a strong sense of wanting food, otherwise described as urges or cravings.
Examples of Food Cues (events that trigger us to want to eat)
|Walking into a restaurant
|Talking about food
|Decrease in Glucose levels in the blood
|Seeing food logos and marketing
|Being with friends or family
Evidence suggests this dissociation between wanting and liking is particularly noticeable when individuals are under stress or emotional strain. Emotional eating or comfort eating isn’t always born out of an excessive liking for certain foods, but rather an increased want due to the ‘wanting’ brain pathways being sensitive to emotional stress.
In more extreme instances, this dissociation between wanting and liking can be a factor in conditions such as binge eating disorder and obesity.
As described above, wanting is already a more powerful predictor of the volume of food we eat than liking; when individuals are also more sensitive to wanting over liking, are exposed to hundreds of food cues throughout the day (conscious and unconscious) and are also emotionally strained or stressed, it is easy to see how patterns of overeating develop.
3 Things You Can Do
Just because there is a biological background to overeating and craving behaviours, it doesn’t mean we cannot break these patterns. Pathways in the human brain change depending on the input we give them. Think of it a bit like drawing a line in the sand – the more and more you go over the same line, the deeper the line in the sand becomes. But the human brain can draw new lines in the sand (build new neurological pathways) that allow us to learn new behaviours and find new ways of coping.
Rather than drawing the same line in the sand over and over, below are some of the things you can do to help learn new behaviours and draw new lines in the sand:
- Become aware of your food cues
A food cue is something that consciously or subconsciously triggers your brain and body to expect food and want to eat. There are thousands of different things that could be a food cue for you – from smells, surroundings, social occasions, images, sounds and even just certain times of the day.
To help you to identify what things trigger your wanting, it can be really useful to keep a food diary for one to two weeks. Note down where you were when you ate or started wanting food, note down your emotions, what happened leading up to the wanting, who you were with and what it was you were craving.
Building up an awareness of what your food cues are can help you to distinguish from when you are genuinely hungry as opposed to when you are wanting as a result of experiencing a food cue.
Although not possible to entirely rid your surroundings of food cues, you can also help yourself by limiting your exposure to things that trigger you to want to eat, or pre-emptively planning what you can do if you know you will encounter unavoidable food cues.
It may seem counterintuitive that exercising reduces our excessive wanting for certain foods. However, studies have shown that moderate exercise is associated with lower cravings and excessive wanting.
This may be due to the beneficial effect of exercise on our appetite control and energy levels, which also influence our susceptibility to cravings.
Exercising also has major benefits to our mood and stress levels, which as we have explored above, are also important to nurture if we want to avoid excessive wanting.
- Behind a want there is a need
Overeating and excessive wanting may not just be due to sensitivity to food cues.
An excessive wanting for food may also be an expression for wanting and needing comfort, distraction or escape.
If we are stressed, suffering from low self esteem, have psychological wounds from trauma, or experiencing/have experienced neglect and do not have a strong support network or toolkit of other healthier coping mechanisms, it can be very easy to turn to food for comfort or distraction.
Eating ‘bad’ foods can also be a way to rebel against the demands and restrictions we experience throughout life. We can find ourselves craving the euphoria of the moment when we let ourselves ‘give up’ and ‘give in’ to the cravings.
When we ‘want’ the food, what we may actually want and need is support.
Working with a therapist can help you understand, and rebuild, your relationship with food.
Our team of therapists at WeightMatters are highly experienced in this area. With awareness and understanding, we can support you in changing and updating the lines in your sand.
Remember, your relationship with food and eating is a complex one, driven by many factors, all interacting.
This article has explored one small aspect of eating behaviour. You can explore much more about the psychological and physiological aspects of eating by browsing our WeightMatters and NutritionalMatters websites and services.
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