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The Emotional Value of Food

In yesterday’s post, I suggested that the perfect diet could perhaps be described by a triple Venn diagram, where the circles representing nutritional balance, caloric balance, and enjoyment, respectively, fully overlap.

As many readers rightly pointed out, “enjoyment” may be too narrow a definition of that third circle.

Perhaps we should rather describe this circle as “emotional balance”, recognizing that emotion, although a complex construct, is intimately linked to feeding behaviour. (For the sake of discussion, allow me to include both feelings (e.g. apprehension or fear) and sensations (e.g. hunger and satiety) under the term “emotions”.

While experts may argue about just how many basic emotions there may be, there is no doubt that most (if not all) can affect our eating behaviour and/or be affected by it.

Thus, foods may invoke both positive (pleasure, happiness, comfort, satisfaction, satiety) and negative (distress, pain, dissmell, disgust, fear, hunger) feelings or emotions.

While with an ideal diet, nutritional and caloric balance are hopefully in perfect balance, most people will likely prefer the emotional balance to be tipped to the positive side. This would involve maximising positive feelings or sensations while minimising negative ones.

And this is exactly where eating behaviour gets complicated.

It is one thing to focus on nutritional and caloric value of foods – these are objective and can be studied in quantitative research.

It is a completely different story to sort out the emotional value of foods – these are subjective and can only be approached from a qualitative perspective (our methods to objectively quantify emotions are laughable at best).

While our nutritional and caloric needs are dictated by physiology, our emotional needs are dictated by both past and present experiences as well as our general mental disposition.

Throw into this mix the complex influence of other factors like cost, convenience, environmental concerns, ethics, religious beliefs, and traditions and you have a perfect storm.

Unfortunately (or fortunately, depending on the perspective), short-term emotional factors will easily override long-term nutritional or caloric needs.

A food that provides me with enjoyment, comfort, or satiation (even if just for an instant) or relieves my pain, loneliness, boredom, fear, sadness (even for an instant), will tend to be consumed irrespective of its nutritional or caloric value.

In other words, emotions trump physiology.

This would not be such a big problem if we were a) fully aware of our emotions and b) able to control them – neither of which is easy (especially when I have a lot going on).

Traditional dietary counseling tends to focus on the first two dimensions of eating – nutritional and caloric balance. In contrast, it pays little more than lip service to the third dimension, emotional balance.

In other words, I don’t care how much you teach me about nutrients or calories, I still want my burst of happiness or surge of comfort (however brief) – OK, I’m weak, but I’m only human!

I do not for a minute suggest that I have a solution to this problem. However, ignoring this aspect of ingestive behaviour in any discussion of “healthy” eating, means missing a big (perhaps the biggest) part of what makes us eat the things we do.

Edmonton, AB

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  1. I cannot agree more. In our book (Stop Lying: the truth about weight loss), Deborah Nicholson and I highlight the emotional connect to our eating. We had to gain skills understanding and dealing with our emotions in order to understand then control our eating behaviour.

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  2. Brilliant Post!

    This right here sums it all up for me “short-term emotional factors will easily override long-term nutritional or caloric needs.” Amen!

    I’ve learned this a long time ago, no matter how ‘cutting edge’ a meal plan may be, most people will not follow it a few weeks in. No matter what the client ‘wanted’ their behavior was never congruent with what they said they wanted to achieve in their life. No doubt there is a rational component to our being but it’s not the only one. Most folks that need help navigate through life irrationally, they’re driven by their emotions – Like you said Dr. Sharma this is a BIG part of why most folks fail and why diets don’t work.

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  3. In your copious free time (ha!), please take a look at the work of Ellyn Satter, a registered dietitian and licensed clinical social worker. In particular: The Secrets of Feeding a Healthy Family.

    She emphasizes another balance in eating: between permission and discipline (discipline in the sense of regular meals and good self-care, not discipline in a restrictive way). She is not a ‘foodie’ and does not ban ‘junk food’, but instead talks about developing eating competence–competent eaters eat a varied diet, eat regularly, enjoy food, and only occasionally eat past the point of fullness. (That’s my off-the-cuff summary, without my copy of the book handy.)

    Reading her work and integrating the principles she outlines with my own family has really changed how I approach food in a positive way.

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  4. As always, excellent discussion Dr S. In terms of uncomplicated emotional relationships and eating behavior (and also interference with physical activity) I think you are spot on. I would however like to add that what seems to get far too little attention are the more complex inter-relationships involving emotions that truly require mental health treatment professionals to be involved. Now not every person who struggles with weight has a mental health issue; However for those that do (particularly in severe obesity) there is little to no recognition in healthcare or insurance environments that metal health treatment should occur concurrently with ‘medical’ intervention for obesity (both surgical and non-surgical). Even in surgical environments that ‘require’ a psychological evaluation – once we identify the issues, there is typically no support for treatment and ongoing support from trained obesity experts with psychological and behavioral backgrounds (i.e. behavioral medeicine specialists). In fact in the US, recent medicare coverage for ‘behavioral’ treatment by nature of the restrictions limiting these services to primary care, specifically exclude many who work in multidisciplinary obesity treatment programs. If we are to truly address obesity – we need to give equal credibility to the behavioral and emotional factors and improve access to multidisciplinary programs that include mental health obesity experts.

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  5. Thank you for recognizing the fact that “Traditional dietary counseling tends to focus on the first two dimensions of eating – nutritional and caloric balance. In contrast, it pays little more than lip service to the third dimension, emotional balance.”

    After years of dieting I am well aware of the healthy foods I am supposed to eat and to get regular exercise; which I normally do. I am now focusing on gaining emotional balance in my life and learning how not to binge on junk food when I am upset. I have realized this will be the key to achieving a healthy weight for myself. Then all efforts will not be in vain.

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  6. @Martin Binks: you are spot on with the difficulties of involving mental health in weight management. As you know, the first of the 4 “Ms” of obesity assessment is “Mental Health”. We are fortunate at our centre to have the services of four clinical psychologists and two consultant psychiatrists, without whom, the clinic would be impossible to run. In our system, these are publicly paid for – I guess we are lucky in that respect.

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  7. Thanks so much for your keen insights. Dr. SHarma. Our support group (TOPS Club, Inc) has worked with people for over six decades to deal with the emotional component of this complex challenge as well as the physiological components. Knowing what one should do is often simply not enough!

    My best, Barb

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  8. I would say that emotions and physiology interact with each other. Stress produces hormonal changes that dictate an urge to eat carbs (or a loss of appetite in some people), foods with high caloric density and are easy to digest. My personal history and tradition lead me to prefer chips and pizza where someone else might prefer chocolate or cake, but these choices are not random. I don’t think you will find many people who stress-eat fruit or tea or vegetables and hummus.

    Still, I don’t think it’s a lost cause. Peter Kaminsky talks about “flavor per calorie” and I have looked for that magic intersection myself. For some time, I used frozen raspberries as my midnight snack, and they were expensive enough to seem like a splurge while being low-calorie/ high fiber/ high vitamin enough to be guilt-free. Shrimp, lobster, crab, artichokes also work as “healthy but splurge-y”. Use of herbs and spices can also put a healthy salad into the same enjoyment level as a cheeseburger.

    The other missing link about emotional eating is that it’s relative. A small piece of cake will feel decadent if dessert is rare, whereas you might need a larger piece of higher calorie cake if you eat dessert every day. I think many diets could be improved by allowing for a weekly splurge; at least I find that whatever my daily calorie level I will have one day / week where I go over it by almost a full meal. That is, a “splurge” meal when I’m dieting may be comparable to a normal meal when I’m not, and yet has the same emotional quality as a much larger meal. Finally, emotional eating is not independent of our rational understanding of calories and health. I think we’ve all had the experience of learning how bad something is, and simply stopped eating it. My brother once described learning the theories of coconut oil and made an emotional connection to the flavor of coconut, even if I cook a Thai meal with a low-fat coconut milk. NLP can be used to train our brains to turn towards healthy foods and away from junk.

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