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Why ELSE do I eat when I shouldn’t?

The 101 on food associations

By: Tanya Rosen 

Do you feel like you HAVE to stop by a gas station for those chips every time you go on a road trip?

Do you associate a snow day with hot cocoa and baking?

What about bungalow colony Sundays with BBQs? Do the two MUST go together?

If you answered yes to one or more of these questions, you’re not alone!

“We have hidden emotions and thoughts that are out of our awareness but still motivate many of our actions,” says Nina Salvelle-Rocklin, PsyD. “Our brain ties the foods we eat to a happy memory or a feeling of reward. Therefore, thinking about a memory associated with a food can make us crave it”.

I first started thinking about this on a recent trip to Upstate to check on my house. I had this sudden strong desire for a calzone from the local pizza store that’s open all year there.

In regular life, I never even think about calzones unless a client is talking about it so it was weird to all of a sudden not only think about it but literally have this strong urge and an “I MUST have this” feeling! Upon analysis (yes, I analyze this stuff), I realized that I associate trips to Upstate in the winter with this. Not even in the summer because that’s when I live there and have access to all foods. In the winter though, that’s the only option so if I don’t take anything along or my kids want pizza, that’s where we go.

On this trip, I took along salads and everything else and no kids came along so there was less of a need to go there. So why the cravings and strong pull to have a calzone? This got me thinking. I posted this on the client Whatsapp chats we have, as well as the nutrition counselor chat to hear what other associations people have with different foods/drinks. 

Here are some of the responses: 

Coffee + Muffin or cookie

Road trip + Chips 

Upstate + Calzone (mine)

Hotdog + Bun 

Steak dinner + Fries + Dessert 

Friday afternoon + Kugel 

Movies + Popcorn 

Snow day + Baking + Hot cocoa

Saturday nights + Pizza 

Shabbos morning + Cheese Cake or Kokosh cake 

Sunday mornings + Pancakes or French toast 

Reading + Munching 

Kiddush + Herring

Super bowl + Wings 

After the Dentist: Ice cream 

After Fasting: Cinnamon buns + Danishes + Bagels 

Syrians: Shabbat day + Mazza

Kislev: Donuts 

Adar: Hamantaschen 

Being sick: Chicken soup 

End of Pesach: Krispy Kreme donuts and of course pizza 

So is this even in our control and what can we do about it???

YES! Here are some suggestions:

  1. Ask yourself why (like I did with the calzone)

Sometimes just by understanding the reason or trigger behind it, you can have a better chance of making a different decision if you so choose.

  1. Disassociate:

Studies show that food cravings can be understood as a conditioned response that therefore can also be unlearned.

Do something different a few times so that you create a new experience or change the pattern. For someone who always has pizza motzei Shabbos, they can try going out for sushi or even going to the mall and getting frozen yogurt. 

“Each time you do something different to change the association, you weaken the association a bit. Over time and repeated new associations, you will need much less self-control in order to be successful in those situations. One can think of it as an investment – invest some serious self-control now so that it becomes easier in the future.” says Dr. Malka Ismach, a psychologist in Long Island, New York. 


Think you can’t change?

Think of a Baal teshuva.

They have tons of associations with foods and things they don’t do anymore.

That cheeseburger he always got on his way home from work? No more.

The Friday night work events she never missed? Nope!

This shows that we DO have control over our decisions and choices, even if we’ve had years of associating with them.


If you tried the above and still feel you need it (or more likely, want it) then don’t tell yourself no, tell yourself you’ll have it soon. 

Say it’s a snow day which you associate with baking (and eating what you baked) and sugary, full-fat hot cocoa, keep delaying it for later. Chances are that by the time “later” comes you won’t even want it as much (or at all).

What if your food cravings aren’t linked to specific events?

Even though this article isn’t about emotional eating in general but rather about associations specifically, here is some “food for thought” anyway:

If you crave tough foods like meat or hard and crunchy foods, you may be feeling angry. If you crave soft and sweet foods like ice cream, you may be feeling anxious.

If you crave salty foods, you may be stressed.

One study found that happy people seem to want to eat things like pizza, while sad people prefer ice cream and cookies, and bored people crave salty, crunchy things, like chips. Researchers also found that males seem to prefer hot, homemade comfort meals, like steaks and casseroles. Females are more likely to go for chocolate and ice cream.

“One of the biggest myths about emotional eating is that it’s prompted by negative feelings. Yes, people often turn to food when they’re stressed out, lonely, sad, anxious, or bored. But emotional eating can be linked to positive feelings too, like sharing dessert on a birthday or the celebration of a holiday.” says Mary L. Gavin, MD 

As humans (versus animals) we have a lot more self-control than we realize. As frum Jews, we have even more! We know how to stick to halacha after all. So give yourself some credit, analyze your WHY, and start recreating it, one association at a time!