Emotional and other maladaptive eating behaviors develop in response to a diversity of triggers, from psychological stress to the endless external cues in our modern food environment. While the standard approach to food- and weight-related concerns has been weight-loss through dietary restriction, these interventions have produced little long-term benefit, and may be counterproductive. A growing understanding of the behavioral and neurobiological mechanisms that underpin habit formation may explain why this approach has largely failed, and pave the way for a new generation of non-pharmacologic interventions. Here, we first review how modern food environments interact with human biology to promote reward-related eating through associative learning, i.e., operant conditioning. We also review how operant conditioning (positive and negative reinforcement) cultivates habit-based reward-related eating, and how current diet paradigms may not directly target such eating. Further, we describe how mindfulness training that targets reward-based learning may constitute an appropriate intervention to rewire the learning process around eating. We conclude with examples that illustrate how teaching patients to tap into and act on intrinsic (e.g., enjoying healthy eating, not overeating, and self-compassion) rather than extrinsic reward mechanisms (e.g., weighing oneself), is a promising new direction in improving individuals' relationship with food.
Keywords: craving; disordered eating; maladaptive eating behaviors; mindful eating; mindfulness; obesity; operant conditioning; reward.