The habituation effect

The foods which we forbid ourselves feel off limits and exciting as we’ve told ourselves we can never or rarely have them. To take these foods off their pedestal we can implement the habituation effect. Habituation is the notion that when you are repeatedly exposed to the same stimuli, the novelty of it will begin to wear off. 

This happens with eating too, the more you eat the same food the less enticing it becomes. Of course, it still tastes good but the emotional pull towards it lessens. This has been shown in multiple studies with various different foods, including pizza, crisps and even chocolate.

Continual dieting will hinder the habituation effect

A dangerous cycle occurs with each new diet: 

Step 1. You begin your diet with food restriction. 

Step 2. You break your diet and consume the ‘forbidden foods’.

Step 3. You feel guilt and a lack of control over eating those foods.

Step 4. The feelings of guilt and uncontrolled eating lead to incorrect thoughts that you require more rules to constrain your ‘out of control eating’. 

You begin the cycle all over again. In fact, there is a growing body of evidence that shows the more you diet, the more likely you are to engage in binge eating behaviours.

Providing context to fears surrounding forbidden foods 

Following dieting and food restriction people commonly find they have fears surrounding their ‘forbidden foods’, these thoughts reflect deprivation and a lack of habituation. 

When you make peace with food a big part of this is experiencing habituation. Knowing your food is no longer off limits, will lead you to discover that when you do eat past satisfaction, the pleasurable taste of that food diminishes, the physical discomfort becomes apparent – overeating your favourite food is no longer worth it or necessary. 

What do you think would happen if you ate your forbidden food every day, for every meal? Would that be satisfying every day?

“I’ve tried this before it didn’t work …”

Did you place conditions on how much you could eat? E.g. just 1 cookie but only if I’m xx weight. Or was there a compensatory condition waiting around the corner e.g. if I eat this cookie I have to run 5k or eat less for my next meal. 

This is NOT true unconditional permission to eat. Making peace with food means there are no rules surrounding it, you simply enjoy it and move on, with the knowledge if you want more you can have it.  

“I don’t trust myself around food …” 

Dieting can undermine the self-trust and connection you have with your body, building this trust back up will take time, but every time you honour your hunger and treat yourself with kindness this will grow. Your body needs to know that it will be fed and taken care of, this will take repetition and consistency. 

“I need to lose weight first …” 

This thought reflects diet mentality, a focus on weight loss and dieting will prolong the problem not help it. Remember diets do not work! Focus on healing your relationship with food, your mind and body. 

“I am addicted to food …” 

Food restrictions and hunger will increase the rewarding value of food, this is not addiction but a compensatory reaction to deprivation, it’s a biological response for survival. Both eating and breathing are vital to life yet no one ever thinks they’re addicted to breathing. In fact, when compulsive eaters were given their ‘forbidden foods’ as part of treatment within a study, their binge eating decreased not increased. 

Making peace with food 

This process is part of your journey and there is no right or wrong, you may not be quite ready for this step and that is ok, approach it with curiosity and kindness. 

When working on the goal of unconditional permission to eat, the idea is not to ‘burn out’ on the food, but actually to remove the excitement surrounding it. 

Five steps to making peace with food: 

  1. Pay attention to the foods that appeal to you, and make a list. 
  2. Tick off the foods you already eat, circle any remaining foods you find yourself restricting. 
  3. Give yourself permission to eat just one forbidden food from your list, and buy this for yourself. 
  4. When eating the food, check in – does this taste as good as you imagined? If you really like it give yourself permission to continue including this going forward. 
  5. Keep enough food in, so when you want something it is there. If this scares you try going to a restaurant/getting a takeaway and ordering the food as often as you like. 

It is highly likely you will need to repeat this process several times, remember this is not a race and it’s important to pace yourself. 

Eating more than usual or than is comfortable is a normal response to restriction and deprivation. This can be part of the process, as our bodies need this experience to help us work our way out of the scarcity mind-set. This is temporary and feelings of intensity will dissipate over time the more you practice the process of habituation. 

Eating more fun foods than normal will not have a long-term impact on your health.  A key part of this process is having patience with yourself and being compassionate.


Epstein,L., Temple,J., Roemmich,J., and Bouton,M., 2009. Habituation as a Determinant of Human Food Intake. Psychological Review, 116 (2), 384-407. 

Holmes,M., Fuller-Tyszkiewicz,M., Skouteris,H., Broadbent,J., 2014. Improving prediction of binge episodes by modelling chronicity of dietary restriction. European eating disorders review, 22, 405-411. 

Kristeller, J., and Wolever, R., 2011. Mindfulness-based eating awareness training for treating binge eating disorder: the conceptual foundation. Eating disorders, 19 (1), 49-61.

Stice, E., Burger,K., Yokum,S., 2013. Caloric deprivation increases responsivity of attention and reward brain regions to intake, anticipated intake, and images of palatable food. Neuroimage, 67, 322-330. 

Tribole,E., and Resch,E., 2017. The Intuitive Eating Workbook. Principles for Nourishing a Healthy Relationship with Food. United States: Raincoast Books. 

Tribole,E., and Resch, E., 2020. Intuitive Eating. A Revolutionary Anti-Diet Approach. 4th edition. United States: St Martins Essentials.

About The Author

Leave a Comment

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *

Sign In


Reset Password

Please enter your username or email address, you will receive a link to create a new password via email.