Common Cognitive Distortions Around Food

The brain is a powerful thing.

So powerful in fact that, for many of us, the manner in which we think can be either be of great benefit or great detriment to our quality of life.

This is true At least according to Cognitive Behavioural Theory ( and Cognitive Behavioural Therapy) which suggests, among other things, that there exists a direct connection between our thoughts and emotions.

In simplified terms, if we can manage to think positively more often, we can manage to feel good more often.

There is no question that this sentiment rings especially true for many people as it relates to their thoughts about eating and associated emotional states – also fairly described as their relationship with food.

The American Academy Of Dietetics had this to say about CBT in a 2010 review paper:

Strong evidence exists to support the use of a combination of behavioral theory and cognitive behavioral theory, the foundation for cognitive behavioral therapy (CBT), in facilitating modification of targeted dietary habits.

So why my sudden interest in this topic area?

Truth be told, I recently listened to a podcast where the guest was speaking about specific phenomena within the realm of Cognitive Behavioural Therapy and it felt extraordinarily relevant to many of my client’s experiences ( and probably many of your own) so I deemed it a worthy topic to explore further in a blog article.

The podcast guest identified 3 destructive patterns of thinking that many people tend to have, and they are just SO relevant to the average person’s psychological grievances they relate to thoughts and behaviours around food.

The three patterns identified include:

Catastrophizing: Just like it sounds, catastrophizing is essentially carrying on with the expectation that the worst will always happen if you deviate from the course you think you should be on.

The most obvious food-related example here is the manner of thinking that so many fall victim to when pursuing behaviour change related to healthier eating – the notion that a meal or day of eating that does not fall in line with some artificially rigid and self-imposed expectation completely discredits all of ones dietary work so far and leads to the negative emotions associated with such thought patterns.

Black and White Thinking: Broccoli is good. Brownies are bad.

A classic example of black and white thinking.

Something that perhaps we have all been guilty of, or at the very least know someone who is negatively impacted by this type of thought process.

It’s one thing to be able to make the calm objective assessment that, yeah, broccoli is a more nutritionally dense food than brownies are, but that brownies serve an entirely different role in your life.

Issues arise when this distinction is so harsh such that inappropriate amounts of your mental energy are wasted on this subject area to the detriment  of your emotional state.

Omitting The Positive: My clients do this all the time, and I am certainly guilty of it in other areas of my life as well.

From my seat as a private practice dietitian I can honestly say this is among the most pervasive of cognitive phenomena that I encounter – although I never had a name for it before I heard it so plainly described as Omitting The Positive.

Simply put – most people just don’t appear to give themselves enough credit.

It’s most noticeable at follow up appointments where clients often downplay their personal success and achievement – instead choosing to focus on the one or two things that they perceived to not go as well.

So yes, as it sounds, omitting the positive is that lurking urge we all have to downplay our good work and instead opt to highlight our perceived shortcomings – and it should be identified and called out as such.

These Phenomena Are Known as Cognitive Distortions

In the world of CBT, the thought phenomena described above are known as cognitive distortions.

I don’t even need to ask, I am 100% confident that you have caught yourself engaging in these types of destructive modes of thinking.

I mean.. who hasn’t?

A poor relationship with food, as it would be fairly defined from this line of thinking, is at least partially a result of these cognitive distortions stacking on top of each other over time.

There is undoubtedly more to it than that, but for the sake of simplicity in today’s article that statement is sufficient.

So can you identify these or other cognitive distortions in yourself?

The first step in working towards solutions for these thought patterns is to be able to catch them.

This sounds easy, but actually requires a good deal of introspection.

These thought processes could have started years ago and many were likely gradually reinforced overtime.

I Leave You With A Challenge

While I’m by NO means an overnight expert in this subject area, the goal of this article is to provide you with some food for thought as it relates to cognitive distortions and their impact on your relationship with food.

I will leave you with the introductory challenge of starting the process of thinking about any cognitive distortions that may have worked their way into your thought process.

When did they start? Did they get worse overtime? Why?

If you are able identify even one distortion, and there are many more than the three I listed today, think critically about the main types of situations which are likely to bring them about and how these situations make you feel.

Then ask yourself the honest question of whether or not this type of thinking actually makes sense based on the available evidence and your rational intuition in this mode of self-analysis.

Finally, ask yourself if there is a different, more constructive thought you could think in these situations instead.

Consider bringing up that more constructive thought the next time you find yourself in that situation.

Now this is VERY much a introductory and grossly oversimplified kitchen-sink activity, but a useful one nonetheless for those who may not have tried such an exercise before.

I hope you find it useful!

Until next time,

Andy De Santis RD MPH