Separating Habit from Addiction, and Staying on a Diet

What Separates Habit from Addiction? What does this have to do with dieting?


  • Pavlovian conditioning is learning in its most basic form: it ties a stimulus with a visceral response. As dogs and bells remind us, it really does ‘work’. Some people believe this belies our inability to stay on a diet: we are conditioned to surrounding external stimuli that elicit food craving.

  • Learning, in its more complex forms, is determined based on the punishing or rewarding consequences of ones’ actions. The bigger and more immediate the reward/punishment, the faster you’ll learn. Temporal delays often mix up the way we learn, which may explain why weight loss is such a hassle. Immediate pleasure is achieved with food. Turning your body around takes months, maybe even years.

  • Certain substances hijack not only reward-sensing areas in the brain (‘this is your brain on drugs’) but also the learning process, making it easier and faster. Conditioning explains why 3 years olds recognise Golden Arches before they recognise the letter M. Learning explains where ‘stress eating’ comes from.

  • One key issue, is that we learn the context of where and how we receive these kinds of rewards very quickly. Contextual reminders, called Reward Cues, can spark cravings.

  • If this gets really out of hand, if you learn something too well, even a quick experience with a Reward Cue can elicit craving (i.e. the physiological responses that prepares your body for the delivery of the reward (think Pavlov, think Bell). This can be as basic as a flash of colour, or scent, let alone a 30 second advertising segment.

  • Weight loss requires some serious re learning. In order to lose weight, you’ll need to engage in Goal Directed Action. Problematically, Reward Cues can often derail your plans. Knowing about this can provide a stronger model of motivation, and allow you to gain greater insight into what your own ‘Reward Cues’ are.

  • We discuss the top 10 reward cues and top 10 Goal Directed Actions for getting back on the wagon.

  • For more explicit information on the areas of the brain affected by Pavlovian conditioning, or how reward ‘works’ in the brain, please see the reference section.

Why Staying on a Diet is So Hard

There’s a saying about smoking- ‘Quitting’s the easy part. I’ve done it a million times’. To a degree, this also applies to changing your eating behavior (this is also one of the many reasons people in public health draw lines of parallel between the obesity crisis and smoking).

You can try short-term interventions (in essence, crash diets) but in order for the behavior modification to stick, and to get off the weight loss rollercoaster, you’re going to have to learn the habit of eating less and exercising more for the long haul. For the rest of your life, that is.

Although we go into extreme detail in Lose it Right, here we thought we’d put together a clear guide to understanding the motivational foundation for acquiring the Eating and Exercising Right habit.

What exactly defines a habit? Beyond a practiced action? And why are ugly habits, like overeating ice cream under stress, such a bitch to quit? (Spoiler: They’re ‘Easy’)… And finally, what separates ‘habit’ from ‘addiction’?

If stress eating is a habit (even minor), you’ll want to read this.

Motivational Magic versus Scientific Fact

There are a lot of pseudo scientific theories to describe human motivation. Awaking the Giant Within, Secrets, Linguistic Programming… Very few go into great depth, and fewer still have any real scientific legitimacy. However, motivation is a pivotal aspect of psychological and neurobiological research. Understanding what motivation is can be an important tool in obtaining the healthiest body possible (it has nothing to do with giants, no Secrets either. No psychophysics. Regretfully, ‘Magic’ is pretty much absent from the equation. Sadly!!!).  And there is an equation for basic learning and motivation (it involves a bell and a dog):

For all the Visual Learners out there, a quick blitz through conditioning and Pavlov’s model (PS, bear with the pedantic review, I’m sure you’ve seen this, but a refresher course never hurts) (also? Click on the image! It looks much better when it’s big).

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In the previous example, the Dog learns to salivate to the Bell, which has now become a conditioned response.

‘But,’ you’ll say, ‘That’s ridiculous. I knew about all of this behavior. Food advertisements don’t make me crave pizza. Trust me.’ And I do believe you. I don’t necessarily think food advertising causes _your _overeating. However, there may be other things at work, deep within your unconscious, which you pair with food, that you probably need to know about.

I had promised a Magic- Free explanation, and that you’ll get. I’m also wary of Freudian ‘beyond subconscious’ explanations too. However, a step beyond Pavlovian conditioning is what is known as Pavlovian to Instrumental Transfer (PIT), and this begins to describe how cravings emerge.

PIT allows us to gain insight at how a colour makes me crave chocolate. Think about a Cadbury purple, and then we’ll address that very issue in this post. Going back to the very start of the article, we’ll finally address why it’s so easy to go on a diet, but so difficult to stick with it.

Two Really Important Points:

  • Goal Directed Action = going to the gym, meal planning
  • Reward Cues = food advertisements, symbolic representations of the ‘perfect life’ (think fitness models), or even stressful moods. These things can either keep you on the slow and steady, or derail your plans. They’ll occur in your dynamic environment, and if you have an issue with bad habits, they will cause the visceral physiological reactions that are known as ‘craving’.
  • Reward Cues can cause relapse. However, your mood or motivational state at the time you encounter a REward Cue will determine whether or not you grab some smarties, or jump into your running tights. Is that clear enough?

How We Learn:

Conditioning is one thing, but learning is another. It’s a complex version of conditioning. Learning is determined by the outcomes of our actions, governed by the punishing or rewarding consequences. Most actions that lead to enhanced survival will produce a rewarding feeling. Also, through practice, we learn to avoid punishment. When we’re so ‘natural’ at some thing that we surpass punishment entirely, and it becomes ‘automatic’, well, that’s what’s called a ‘habit’.

Take bike riding: recall the painful ‘scrapes’ phase. The scrapes are simply the consequence of unequal weight distribution. Eventually, weight distribution becomes ‘instinctive’- or rather, it becomes a habit. We develop a weight distribution habit in order to learn to ride a bike. Some other examples include reading (we do this automatically, but a four or five year old doesn’t), or learning speaking another language.

Big rewards, and big punishments, expedite the learning process. Yet, what happens when the reward is ‘too rewarding’? Or too punishing? We either try to do it all the time, or never at all.

Learning on Warp Speed

Speaking of punishing consequences? When learning to speak Spanish (I was about 25) I told my grandfather-in-law I ‘enjoyed his testicles’ at dinner. Humiliation ranks pretty high on the Punishment scale- and so I learned, lickety split, ‘huevos’ in Spanish has an entirely different meaning from what it means in English. The key here is context.

But let’s get to more positive experiences. I mean really feel good moments. Feeling too good kinds of moments. Certain substances, like drugs, elicit a massive feeling of pleasure. The amped pleasure we get from drugs actually speeds up the learning process.

We learn really quickly to pick up the situational and contextual cues associated with delivery of a reward/ punishment. Illicit drugs, cigarettes and alcohol, or chocolate sundaes speed up learning, enhance memory, and generally encourage subsequent use more quickly than other natural rewards. Scientists use the term that they ‘hi jack’ the reward system, because ingestion of the previous substances leads to a huge release of:

  • dopamine (this encodes the experience as well as eliciting the euphoric effects we feel when we obtain reward)
  • Opiates (the ‘ahh’ feeling)
  • Cannabinoids (more of the ‘ahh’ feeling)
  • Maybe even oxytocin

While eating is inherently rewarding (it enhances survival, after all) double fudge sundaes have nothing to do with survival. Certain foods elicit more pleasure than others. Certain punishments are more awful than others.  Context, and degrees, are key.

An important caveat: this is not new news!! There is no major intellectual glory in reporting that eating is rewarding. It stimulates the reward pathway in the brain, because it enhances survival.

The biggest problem with food/weight loss is that the contingencies are way out of whack. With food, the pleasure is immediate. With weight loss, the journey is slow. Moreover, we often don’t see the immediate consequences of a binge, and we certainly don’t see any immediate differences in dieting for a week or two. It can take three months of extremely hard, extremely unnatural work before even the hint of physical change can be detected.

So. The weight loss learning habit is a bit of a slippery one to ‘acquire’. The bike took a week and knee scrapes. Full blown behavioural modification of the adult brain? For something as fundamental as eating? You’re looking at about a year.

Even then you have to keep upping the challenge of your physical exercise to keep your body in shape. If anyone tells you differently… Well. Remember: there is NO PLACE for magic, giants, or secrets when it comes to human motivation or getting it back on track.

Once you’ve learned it, once it’s truly a habit, it’s the best gift you can give to your mental and physical self. The pay off? You’ll stop berating yourself everytime you have a chocolate sundae. You’ll learn to live with less. You’ll train to a point where you can exploit the same ‘feel good’ hormones you achieve with food with exercise.. That’s when you’ll really see differences in your body. Once you address this area of emotional dysfunction, you’d be amazed how much easier the rest of your life can be- and next post, I’ll describe where exactly all of this learning occurs.

Next Post: The Neural Correlates of Pavlovian Instrumental Transfer, Examples of Goal Directed Learning, and expanding Reward Cues beyond ‘The McDonald’s Ad made me do it’.


  1. Canbeyli, R. (2013). Sensorimotor modulation of mood and depression: in search of an optimal mode of stimulation. Front Hum Neurosci, 7, 428. doi: 10.3389/fnhum.2013.00428

  2. Lovibond, P. F., & Colagiuri, B. (2013). Facilitation of voluntary goal-directed action by reward cues. Psychol Sci, 24(10), 2030-2037. doi: 10.11770956797613484043

  3. Wiltgen, B. J., Sinclair, C., Lane, C., Barrows, F., Molina, M., & Chabanon-Hicks, C. (2012). The effect of ratio and interval training on Pavlovian-instrumental transfer in mice. PLoS One, 7(10), e48227. doi: 10.1371/journal.pone.0048227

Quick & Clear explanation of PIT: