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Dieting for the new year? Learn more about unhealthy eating motives and how to break them

The new year often brings new resolutions, the majority of which are centered around physical health or weight loss, research shows. Diet and nutrition fads flood the internet with promises of quick weight loss, but many dieters find the regimens difficult to maintain.

Instead of focusing solely on a restrictive diet, researchers at the University of Alabama at Birmingham found that understanding one’s motive behind overeating what they call palatable foods can help predict one’s likelihood to gain or lose weight.

“Palatable foods are your yummy fast foods, “junk” foods, sweets and snacks that are often consumed for reasons besides hunger, leading to weight gain and obesity,” said Mary Boggiano, Ph.D., associate professor in the UAB Department of Psychology. “There is an assumption that those who overeat these foods, or eat when not hungry, do so solely due to an emotional or coping reason; but that is not the case.”

In 2014, Boggiano’s lab created the Palatable Eating Motives Scale, or PEMS, which measured the frequency and reasoning behind why people overconsumed palatable food. The scale divides people into one of four motives categories — coping, reward enhancement, social and conformity.

While PEMS began as a clinical tool for those who are overweight or obese, Boggiano says it is also used in weight loss intervention programs to better tailor the program to the individual.

“PEMS helps people recognize what their motives are behind overeating palatable foods,” Boggiano said. “Once someone is aware of their motives, they can start to take steps to adjust those motives, break certain habits and create better ones.”


People who frequently eat palatable foods as a coping mechanism use food to escape from negative feelings, problems or stressful situations. When life gets hard, they reach for the chip bag or candy bowl. Further PEMS studies have shown that people who eat to cope also have a higher risk of developing binge eating disorders and obesity.

Boggiano says the first step for those in this category is to recognize when they are feeling stressed, have negative emotions or are bored. They can then work toward breaking the habit of using food to medicate.

“When one is feeling stressed, and they are not hungry, they should look for anything else to do beside eat,” Boggiano said. “Going for a walk, working on a hobby, meditating, watching TV, or talking to a friend can help break the habit. It is also an opportunity to incorporate healthy habits into one’s routine.”

Reward Enhancement

Those who eat for reward enhancement love to eat palatable foods purely for the taste and satisfaction they feel while eating these foods. They could be completely full after a meal but will not hesitate to eat the dessert placed in front of them. They also are more likely to treat themselves to delicious foods as a personal reward.

Incorporating the “tasty” foods into meals and avoiding grazing and snacking between meals can help reduce the frequency of palatable food consumption.

“Studies show that people are less likely to stick with diets that restrict certain foods,” Boggiano said. “We’ve found that people are more likely to eat less palatable food when they are encouraged to incorporate it in other ways rather than urging them to cut their favorite foods out completely.”


People who overeat when they are with family and friends or at a party or celebration fall into the social motivation category, which is the most common. Arranging social gatherings around full meals instead of snacking or grazing events can prevent overconsumption and potential weight gain.

“Center your social gatherings around the people you are with, not the food,” Boggiano said. “If you already ate before a gathering and there is food present, do not feel that you have to continue to eat.” The point is that eating when not hungry, especially palatable food, is what causes weight gain.


Many people-pleasers fall under the conformity motivation. They continue to eat certain foods to appease family and friends and to avoid teasing or negative comments if they do not eat the foods, whether hungry or not. Boggiano says the best way to break one’s conformity habit is to become assertive with others about one’s body and health.

“Learn to communicate with friends and family and create healthy boundaries with them when it comes to food and eating,” Boggiano said. “It may feel awkward at first, but it is OK to tell them that you would be happy to eat the foods when you are hungry.”

(Courtesy of UAB News)

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