Donald A. Cadogan, Ph.D.




With all the medical treatment plans, scientific diets, behavior modification programs and other modern weight loss techniques available to us today you would think weight reduction would be accomplished quickly and easily and that overweight bodies would be a thing of the past.  But most of us who have tried to lose weight know how difficult it can be.  And, after a number of frustrating and disappointing failures, many people see permanent weight loss as just plain impossible.


Typically, when we begin our weight loss regimen we resolve to eat only balanced, low calorie foods and exercise routinely.  And usually the pounds start rolling off soon thereafter.  Naturally, we are encouraged by this and continue our program, looking forward to being thinner and feeling healthier.  But then, even as we bask in the glow of these golden successes, many of us begin to sabotage our good efforts.  We start by skipping our workouts or by satisfying our hunger with "junk food."  When we realize we have failed once again to stick to our regimen, we usually give up.  Thus, we decide to quit exercising completely and begin eating to our hearts' content.  We also begin feeding ourselves a line of bogus excuses ingeniously designed to reduce, not our weight, but our guilt, thus making it easier to continue stuffing ourselves with an abundance of unneeded food. 


The question for us at this point, and one being explored by behavioral scientists, is: why do we eat when we don't need to, especially when we are so unhappy with the consequences. Unfortunately, the answer to this puzzle is not fully known.  But clearly we eat for more reasons than just bodily nourishment. We know, for example, that food is one on nature's primary tranquilizer.  This effect can be readily seen in babies who sleep contentedly after being fed.  And the tendency to feel relaxed and secure after eating appears to remain with us right into adulthood.


Food can also be used to gratify a variety of other non-nutritional needs.  The majority of these other inducements, however, appear to be unconscious.  For example, we "feel" a longing for something, but do not "know" what we are craving or how to alleviate it.  We soon discover, however, that eating makes us feel better -- at least for the moment.  Thus, we learn to pacify the feeling.  (Some people abuse alcohol or drugs for the same purpose.) But the inner need producing this undesirable feeling remains unrecognized and unsatisfied; so we eat and eat.  This is one of the reasons we are usually unsuccessful with pills designed only to suppress our appetite.  However, if we became aware of our unconscious motives for overeating, we could gain greater control over our impulses and would more readily succeed in our weight control efforts.


The unconscious needs motivating our eating behavior are the focus of much clinical research by behavioral scientists.  Some of these influences have been found to be uniquely personal.  In other words, they apply to only that one person in treatment.  But it has also been found that many people share similar unconscious reasons for their weight difficulties.  I will list the most common causes here.  If the underlying need mentioned is similar to yours, but does not exactly match; perhaps, at least, it will stimulate you to think in the right direction.




1. REJECTION.    Some people eat when they feel rejected. It’s as though they say to themselves, "If nobody likes me or is nice to me, at least I can be good to myself and have fun eating."  However, if they really wanted to be good to themselves they would do that which makes them healthier and leads to them feeling better about themselves, namely eating and exercising properly.  They consider it unattractive to be overweight, yet they eat in response to rejection, which only makes them feel more undesirable.


Alas, logic looses once again.


2. FRUSTRATION.  Normally, when our efforts to accomplish or attain our goals are blocked we have feelings that range from annoyance to angry.  For many people, however, eating reduces this feeling and allows them to better cope with their frustration -- they think.  In reality, however, they only postpone the feeling, for soon they are also failing to achieve their weight goals, which only adds to their bad feelings.  Also, when some people get frustrated they eat out of a sense of enraged entitlement.  “I didn’t get what I wanted and deserve, so I will eat some tasty junk food just because I want to, and nobody can stop me.


Once again:  Passion – 1, Logic – 0.


3.  SECURITY.  As was mentioned earlier, food can create feelings of security.  This is especially true for foods high in carbohydrates, such as ice cream or, especially, chocolate, which boosts our spirits by facilitating the release of mood elevating or stress calming neurohormones. Such foods can temporarily lift us out of depression and even satisfy our natural desire for intimacy with others.   Some people literally substitute food for friends.  Unfortunately, these good feelings are short lived especially in people who desire social contact and are trying to reduce because they believe their overweight appearance makes them less socially acceptable. 


4.  REWARD.  Many people celebrate their successes by eating, as can be seen in the widespread use of feasts and banquets.  They usually feel their accomplishments or good fortunes entitle them to consume food that is basically unneeded and often unhealthy.  However, those of us trying to lose weight would do better remembering that achieving our weight goal is also a reward we are entitled to.  It is also true for some people that an unconscious need to be punished for real or imagined failings can motivate them to overeat and thereby prevent them from achieving their weight objectives.  


5.  FEAR OF SUCCESS.  This is a broad area that includes the fear of changing or becoming different, the fear of surpassing one's parents or other venerated role models, the fear of getting too close to others, and the fear of becoming attractive and of being unable to handle the attention, advances or reactions of others.  Some people actually disdain even compliments they might receive for succeeding in their weight loss efforts.  They believe the good wishes and congratulations will commit them to a body weight they fear they cannot maintain. This will then draw attention to their weight control failure and, they believe, expose them to ridicule.  Some of these concerns have deep roots and often need professional attention.


6.  REBELLIOUSNESS.  Although they overtly desire weight loss, many individuals unconsciously reject this ideal because it was pushed on them by their parents or by other controlling people in their lives.  Thus, overriding their wish to reduce is the desire to stubbornly resist the control of others.  Hostile feelings underlie and sabotage their weight loss efforts. The more others try to help them with persuasive arguments or pressure, the more unsuccessful they are likely to be.


There is a little of all these qualities in most of us.  As long as it is small, however, it probably will not interfere with your weight loss plans.  But if you continually fall short of your goals, you may wish to look more carefully at these areas.  The following short quiz may help you pinpoint any unconscious influences that may be fighting you.


Please note, the quiz is not definitive, but it should aid you in your health efforts.







Circle T (true) or F (false) for each of the following questions, but answer with the first thought that comes to your mind.  Your quick responses will more readily tap your unconscious thoughts.  Dwelling on any question too long can produce interference from your conscious mind.  When you have finished, go back and consider your answers in more detail. Your new knowledge can strengthen your weight control efforts.  You may also benefit from discussing your answers with an understanding person such as a good friend or someone with weight concerns similar to your own.


1.  You eat when you feel rejected or uncared about.                                                             T        F


2.  You eat when you feel frustrated or angry.                                                                        T        F


3.  You eat in order to feel more secure or to “comfort” yourself.                                              T        F


4.  You reward yourself with food.                                                                                         T        F


5.  You sometimes punish yourself by overeating.                                                                  T        F


6.  You use food to satisfy your sexual appetite.                                                                    T        F


7.  You identify with or model yourself after an overweight person in your life.                            T        F


8.  You believe you must “clean your plate” because wasting food is bad.                                T        F


9.  You use your overweight condition as an alibi of some kind.                                               T        F


10.  You avoid loosing excessive weight in order to rebel against authority or social pressure.    T        F


11.  You use your excessive weight to intimidate or to avoid others.                                        T        F


12.  You are unable to picture yourself looking slim.                                                               T        F





If you circled T (true) on any answer, your unconscious mind may be negatively affecting your eating behavior.  The more T responses you had the greater unconscious influence you have.  However, since non-rational forces influence most of us to some extent, two or three T answers can be considered normal.


The needs uncovered by questions 1,2, 3, 6, 9, 10 and 11 refer largely to interpersonal relationship issues. If you answered T to one of these questions, any improvement you make in your close relationships could result in increased feelings of happiness and decreased urges for food.


The other questions (4, 5, 7, 8, and 12) refer mostly to inner needs.  These desires stem more from personal habits, beliefs, and your degree of self-acceptance.  You can usually overcome influences from these areas by directly refuting any self-defeating ideas you may have in these areas.  But you must also consciously refuse to act on your faulty beliefs and habits. For example, if you have always been overweight, you may believe that you are destined to be this way and that you cannot lose weight.  But by not trying to lose weight you are acting on your self-defeating beliefs and reinforcing them.  People have also been able to refute such notions by picturing themselves as slim, focusing on their successes, and acting as though they could lose weight by eating and exercising properly.


Many people have also found that involvement in weight discussion groups can be helpful in both areas.


At this point you are probably better aware of some of the unconscious factors effecting your eating patterns.  Hopefully, you are also better prepared to control them.  The decision to loose weight is one only you can make. If you choose to eat less, exercise and, thus, shed those extra pounds, I wish you much success.  If not….well…bon appetit.