Pavlov’s experiment helps us understand our eating habits…

Most of you have heard of the experiment Ivan Pavlov did on his dog. In this experiment, he discovered what we now call classical conditioning. This is a form of learning in which two stimuli are associated to produce a new behavior.

How is this related to our eating habits?

Let us say that, during weekdays, you are used to having your lunch at 1pm because it is lunch time at the office or simply because it is the only available time you have to eat. Your body becomes conditioned to eating at that time. It expects food to be ingested at 1pm so it starts preparing itself for digestion by secreting enzymes. On the days when you don’t have to eat at 1pm, your stomach produces those funny sounds that you associate with a feeling of hunger, resulting in a consumption of food. And yes, you eat, even if you are not hungry, but just because it is 1 pm!

Have you also noticed how sometimes when you meet friends who are eating, even though you are not hungry when you join them, you end up ordering something from the menu? The odor and sight of the food initiates a conditioned response, associating odor and smell to the expectation of food, resulting in you feeling hungry and eating.

The same applies to when you see a magazine or a TV ad for a food. This triggers a response of hunger or salivation and causes you to eat things that are not on your eating plan.

Our bodies can become classically conditioned to associate any stimulus with another and start a habit. One thing we commonly associate is our tiredness with hunger. Because of repetition and conditioning, we think that we are hungry when we are actually simply tired. So, instead of resting, we eat. What happens is that digesting food requires energy, resulting in more fatigue.

Being aware of this association between fatigue and hunger is half the solution. Once you consciously make the connection, you can use the principles of classical conditioning to counteract it.

So when you identify a feeling of fatigue, try to take a 20 min power nap to regain energy and break the association between tiredness and eating. If you really can’t rest during the day, then just take deep breaths to stimulate your body and provide it with the oxygen to re-energize it. Another solution would be to learn to drink water when you feel tired. This will hydrate and boost your body.

Any course of action you decide to take should be repeated consistently when you feel tired. Your body will soon learn this new conditioning and develop a new acquired behavior that is both healthy and effective.

Another association that we learn growing up is to relate a positive mental state to eating. All of us remember happy moments in our childhood that revolve around ice cream, chocolate or cotton candy.


Biology affects your mental well being. If your blood sugar levels are too low, this will result in you feeling sad or in a bad mood. But if they are at a normal level then you probably feel just fine.

So when you feel emotionally tired, classical conditioning will push you to reach for foods that contain stimulants like sugar and caffeine because they provide a temporary surge of energy. And we all know that after every sudden emotional high, follows a greater low. This association results in a vicious cycle of ups and downs that disrupts your diet and your emotional well being.

Use the concept of classical conditioning to counteract your learned behaviors. Instead of reaching out for foods rich in sugar or stimulants, you should engage in any activity that normally puts you in a good mood; go shopping, exercise, dance or read…

Again, if you consistently keep this new habit, then your body will learn to associate this activity to improving you emotional well-being and help you maintain your nutritional plan.

Just like for Pavlov’s dog, our habits, whether good or bad, are formed by association and reinforcement. Eating habits are no exception. But with the proper techniques and motivation, we can trick ourselves into learning new and healthy habits.

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