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Are You An Emotional Eater?

Emotional Eating and the Motivational Triad

As humans, we are evolutionarily wired to:

  • seek pleasure  
  • avoid pain 
  • exert the least amount of effort possible

Dr. Douglas J. Lisle and Dr. Alan Goldhamer called these three basic human motivations, the Motivational Triad.   

The Motivational Triad has kept our species alive over millions of years and the Motivational Triad remains alive and well today.  Understanding our brains and the Motivational Triad can help us understand why we may be emotionally eating (i.e., eating for reasons other than providing fuel for the body).  

We eat to seek pleasure by tasting something good even when our bodies don’t actually need the food for fuel.  

We eat to avoid pain (emotional pain).  Since eating usually triggers chemical reactions in the brain that make us feel good, we can eat to temporarily feel better when we are experiencing an uncomfortable or negative emotion.  We can use food to avoid feelings we would rather not feel (for example, boredom, frustration, irritation).

And finally, our brains resist putting in the effort required to change our habits because it costs our brain energy to change.  Our brains want us to exert the least amount of effort possible.  Our brains tell us to just keep doing what we have been doing as that has kept us alive thus far.  Our brains think changing things up might be dangerous for our actual survival.

The bottom line is that the Motivational Triad explains how our brain is trying to keep us safe.  Our brains crave safety.  Safety means survival.  Our brains want to protect us from physical harm and also from emotional discomfort.  Our very old primitive brain from millions of years ago does not know that emotional discomfort cannot kill us. 

If you are an emotional eater, you can thank your primitive brain for working hard to try and keep you feeling safe by telling you to eat as a way to increase your pleasure and avoid pain.  And after thanking your brain for keeping you alive, you can tell it that you are now on to its unhelpful suggestions.  You can be aware of the suggestion to eat that your primitive brain is offering you and then, like a boss, take over control of your prefrontal cortex, your modern brain, and start to think on purpose.  You can override your default primitive brain settings by using your modern brain on purpose.  Your modern brain knows that emotional discomfort is not a life threatening emergency.   

Every human has a primitive brain and a modern brain.  You can learn to harness the power of your modern brain to stop emotional eating and achieve the weight and life you desire.


Lisle, D. J., & Goldhamer, A. (2007). The Pleasure Trap: Mastering the Force that Undermines Health & Happiness. Book Publishing Company.

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