Why Does Eating Get Conditioned So Often And Not Other Behaviors?

Emotional eating is extremely common. It seems a lot more common than other conditioned behaviors. Which leads me to the question why do so many people condition eating and not some other behavior?

The answer is simple. There are no other “pleasurable distractions” that
naturally occur three times a day.

Imagine that one of your triggers occurs frequently in your life, such as
negative feelings, boredom, loneliness, or feeling unlovable. Imagine further
that you had gone to a movie several times a day earlier in your life and you had noticed over and over that the movie almost always provided a pleasurable distraction from the negative experience. Can you see that going to the movies would eventually become a
conditioned response to your negative triggers?

In other words, eating is the most common response to our triggers
only because we normally eat more often than anything else that provides
a pleasurable distraction, a sense of comfort, immediate gratification, or a calming down.

Which Of These Eating “Triggers” And “Rewards” Make You Eat When Not Hungry?

Emotional eating is caused by triggers and rewards.

The following is a list of all the triggers and rewards that I have heard from my emotional eating clients. No single client had all of them; most have from 15-20, and different clients have a different combination.


• Eating to reward myself when I feel no one else or nothing else will.
• Eating to feel good, comforted, happy, secure, centered, at home.
• Eating to give myself pleasure.
• Eating to experience being in control, to experience that no one can
stop me.
• Eating to celebrate.


• Eating when I’m nervous.
• Eating when I’m bored.
• Eating when I’m lonely.
• Eating when I want to take a break from work, as a diversion.
• Eating when I want to avoid doing something I don’t want to do.
• Eating when I think there won’t be enough food . (This is a response
to childhood deprivation. If there wasn’t enough food to eat—if you
didn’t eat the food right away it would be gone and you wouldn’t be
able to eat at all—you can get conditioned to eat whenever you see
food whether you are hungry or not.)
• Eating when I’m in social situations where everyone else is eating.
• Eating when I feel deprived of food.
• Eating when tired (to get energy).
• Eating when nauseas (to stop it).
• Eating when not doing anything specific (not necessarily bored).
• Eating when feeling sorry for myself.
• Eating when feeling unloved.
• Eating when emotionally charged.
• Eating when depressed.
• Eating when experiencing intense hurtful emotions.
• Eating when stressed.
• Eating when feeling guilty.
• Eating when feeling unlovable.
• Eating when anxious, angry, upset, sad, etc.
• Eating when feeling needy.
• Eating when feeling rejected.

Some of my clients have suggested to me that they are driven to eat just
because food is in front of them, just before they “start” a diet, when they
think they can eat without gaining weight, or that they just can’t stop eating
once they start. These are not examples of eating triggers. They are just
symptoms of other triggers and rewards.

You eat in these four situations because at least one or more of the
other triggers and rewards are almost always present, so if there is food in
front of you or you’ve already started eating, the other triggers or rewards
have you continue to eat even if you aren’t hungry. But when all the real
triggers and rewards have been de-conditioned, you will no longer eat in
these situations.

From my experience with my clients, I am convinced that most
emotional eating is the result of eating that has been conditioned to occur whenever there is a specific trigger or the desire for a reward present. Also from my experience, when you de-condition eating you’ll stop overeating … for good.

The Five Critical Distinctions You Must Make To De-Condition Emotional Eating Behavior

To stop your emotional eating once and for all you must make five critical distinctions that allow you to de-condition eating so it doesn’t automatically occur whenever one of the triggers or rewards shows up.

The Lefkoe De-conditioning Process helps you make all the necessary distinctions. Specifically the LDP assists you to do the following:

1. You realize that you wanted the “reward” (e.g., feeling loved), not
what got rewarded (e.g., eating). That enables you to find healthier ways to
get the reward than overeating.

2. You recognize that you wanted what eating provided, for example, a
pleasurable distraction from a trigger, not the eating itself. In other words,
you wanted to stop the “trigger” (e.g., having negative feelings), you didn’t
want eating (which was just one arbitrary behavior) that provided you with a
pleasurable distraction.

3. You realize that something you thought was “the truth” because you
thought you ”saw” it in the world, namely, that eating was the best way to
get what you wanted (either a reward or a pleasurable distraction from a
negative trigger), never really was in the world. You never saw it. That was
merely a thought that has existed only in your mind as one possible meaning
to gave to a series of events you were trying to understand earlier in your

4. You realize that eating never really gave you what you wanted. It
provided a momentary reward or relief from a negative feeling, but as soon
as you finished eating, you were right back where you started.

5. When you are conditioned to eat, knowing that there are alternatives
to eating doesn’t stop the eating. But once eating has been de-conditioned,
you are able to identify and use healthier ways to get rewards or a
pleasurable distraction than overeating.

When you use the Lefkoe De-conditioning Process to make these and other distinctions, your eating conditioning gets de-conditioned. And the overeating that had been due to the conditioning stops easily and for good. If beliefs also happen to be involved,
and they aren’t in most cases, once they have been easily eliminated all
emotional eating stops for good.

Once you do that, you are free from the prison emotional eating has
locked you in— free to experience a slimmer body, greater energy and the
peace of mind that comes from an end to your struggle with food.

So How Do You Get Rid Of The Conditioning That Makes You Eat?

Here’s an example of how the Lefkoe De-conditioning Process works to
de-condition eating as a very effective way to deal with emotional eating triggers and rewards, based on my notes from a recent client.

This woman compulsively ate whenever she experienced negative feelings, such as general upset or anxiety—a very common emotional eating pattern.

How was this conditioning formed?

As a child anytime she got upset, her mom gave her a cookie or some
other “sweet.” The food provided her a pleasurable distraction from the
anxiety or upset, which conditioned the eating, so that whenever she felt
anxious or upset from then on, she would compulsively eat in order to attain
the pleasurable distraction.

In other words, because eating gave her the pleasurable distraction from the strong negative feelings that she wanted, eating got conditioned to occur whenever she felt the strong negative feelings.

Here’s how I helped her de-condition eating whenever she felt anxious or

When the session began I asked her why it was important to her to stop
her emotional eating. She told me it made her gain weight, which wasn’t
healthy and made her very dissatisfied with the way she looked. Eating when
she didn’t really want to also made her feel out of control and then guilty
after she finished eating.

I had her imagine a situation in which she felt anxious or upset and then
asked her if in this type of situation she could imagine easily not eating
without using a lot of will power. She said she couldn’t imagine not eating. I
ask this question to make sure that we are dealing with a real trigger and also to provide a benchmark experience, because I ask the same question at the end of the LDP, so the client can experience the difference after the de-conditioning process is

Next I asked her: What value do you get from eating when you are
anxious or upset? She answered: I experience pleasure and I am distracted
from my negative emotional state.

I got her to make a crucial distinction: She realized she never really
wanted to eat; she wanted a pleasurable distraction from her negative
feelings. Eating was only a means to the end, not an end in itself.

I then helped her reach two important realizations: (1) The only reason
eating had been desirable was that it produced a pleasurable distraction
that nothing else had at the time. And (2) if she had found other ways to
get a pleasurable distraction when the conditioning first started, she
wouldn’t have needed to eat.

I then helped her realize that, while eating might have been one way to
get what she wanted, it wasn’t necessarily the only way.

Next I showed her that eating when she was experiencing negative
feelings never really gave her what she wanted. In other words, she had a
momentary pleasurable distraction from her upset or anxiety, but the
unpleasant feelings didn’t go away for good. As soon as she finished eating,
they were still there.

I then asked her to imagine a situation when she had eaten in response
to an experience of negative feelings. She took a moment to do this.
Then I asked: Didn’t it seem as if you could see that eating is the best
way to get a pleasurable distraction. In other words, didn’t you discover that it
was “the truth” as a result of seeing it in the world?

She told me she could really see that.

When I asked her to look closer, to describe what “it” looked like, she
realized she couldn’t really “see” that eating was the best way to get a
pleasurable distraction. It was only a conclusion she had reached in her mind
and wasn’t necessarily true.

Finally she realized that the connection between eating and
experiencing negative feelings had been an accidental connection made in
her childhood, and that there was no inherent connection between the

If her mom had taken her to a movie or played a game with her
whenever she had been upset or anxious, then that behavior would have
gotten conditioned and now she would go to a movie or play a game
whenever she experienced negative feelings.

At this point the “trigger”—namely, negative feelings—had been de-
conditioned and would no longer result in her eating compulsively.
In order to deal with negative feelings in the future, she identified
several things she could do to deal with them in the future,
such as exercising, calling a friend, and reading a book. As long as she was
not compelled to eat, these activities would do the job.

To make sure that de-conditioning really had taken place, I asked her
the same question I had asked earlier in the process: Imagine a situation in
which you are experiencing negative feelings. Can you imaging yourself easily
not eating without having to use a lot of will power?

Her answer this time was, “absolutely.”

Before she left I told her I was convinced that the de-conditioning had
been effective, but that the only way to know for sure would be to test her
behavior in life. I asked her to watch her eating and let me know if she was
eating whenever she felt negative feelings.

Two weeks later she told me that despite having had negative feelings
on several occasions, she hadn’t even been tempted to eat in those

After going through a similar process with all of her triggers and
rewards, she stopped overeating and began to lose weight.
And she’s not alone. Other clients have told me about similar results
after several sessions with me.