What is Food Psychology?

girl eating pizza

Food psychology is the study of the mental processes behind how and why we eat. While we might think of food consumption primarily from a biological perspective, research has shown that our eating habits are significantly influenced by our perception of food as well as various other social and environmental stimuli.

World renowned food psychologist Brian Wansink has published many fascinating studies on some of the subtle cues that contribute to mindless eating. For example, serving size (Wansink & Kim, 2005), appealing product names (Wansink, van Iteersum & Painter, 2005), dining with friends (Wansink, 2004) and even using silverware (Wansink, 2004) are just a few of the factors that have been linked with overeating. [showmyads]

Food can have a major effect on our mental state. In reference to comfort food, Wansink states “people cognitively connect important past associations with specific foods. Craving ice cream, for example, may stem from a desire to recapture carefree,childhood days of running after the Good Humor track” (Galisson, 2001).

Our food likings might also be indicative of certain personality traits. Galisson (2001) reports:

…men and women craved different foods. While women tend to yearn for sweet, indulgent foods like chocolate, men usually seek hot dishes like pizza. Such preferences may reveal personality traits, Wansink says, creating a “synergy between person and food.” For instance, men are more likely than women to find steak comforting, as it reinforces a traditional, macho personality.

Big business also relies heavily on food psychology. Advertising and marketing strategies such as “buy 3 get one free,” buying in bulk or using low fat labels all have an impact on our grocery shopping behavior and ultimately, our food consumption.

Additionally, individuals who suffer from obesity, overeating, binge eating, bulimia nervosa, anorexia nervosa or other eating disorders can benefit immensely from understanding how their perception of food affects their food intake. The insights gained from research in food psychology is also extremely beneficial to persons involved in food preparation such as dieticians, nutritionists, school cafeteria cooks, restaurant chefs and even parents.


Galisson, K. (2001, January 1). Food for comfort. Psychology Today. Retrieved April 9, 2012, from http://www.psychologytoday.com/articles/200101/food-comfort

Wansink, B. (2004). Environmental factors that increase the food intake and  consumption volume of unknowing consumers. Annual Review of Nutrition, 24, 455-479. doi:10.1146/annurev.nutr.24.012003.132140

Wansink, B. & Kim, J. (2005). Bad popcorn in big buckets: Portion size can influence intake as much as taste. Journal of Nutrition Education and Behavior, 37(5), 242-245.

Wansink, B., van Ittersum, K., & Painter, J. E. (2005). How descriptive food names bias senspry perceptions in restaurants. Food Quality and Preference, 16(5), 393-400. doi: 10.1016/j.foodqual.2004.06.005

Photo courtesy of Naito8 / FreeDigitalPhotos.net

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