Words are Fattening; Watch What You Say to Yourself

I was downdog-ing along, minding my business, when I heard a man’s voice break through the gym’s hubbub.

“..and the cherry sauce over the chicken was rich and dark–must have had some  brandy in it–so wonderful!”

His personal trainer (female voice), “uh hnn.”

“The stake was marinated in something special, wine plus fancy herbs–smelled as good as it tasted.  The desserts we all shared. Wait’ll I tell you the choices.”

No longer minding my own business, I looked up to see a man with both palms on the wall mirror into which he was leaning for wall “push-ups,” but he was too distracted by his food fantasy to do much pushing or upping.

This episode reminded me of a theory I’ve been kicking around for some years.  I wonder how much over-eating, or consuming calorie-laden food is mediated by the words and feelings we say about such foods.


The basis of cognitive behavior therapy is that thoughts and statements have emotional consequences. “Comfort food” may stir feelings that “macaroni” may not.  Is “cake” less enticing than a “special treat”?

Will changing the words (and thus the feelings) around food change behaviors?

If you’re game, try an experiment. Be your own psychologist. No charge.

Begin the cognitive behavioral process with observation, detached, neutral, and recorded (on paper or phone, whichever is constantly within reach).  Notice and record the words (and their emphasis) which you use around food and restaurants. Add any observations about feelings that accompany those words.  Do you say to a toddler, “How about some yummy meatballs?” Do you tell your spouse, “I indulged myself at Whole Foods today; that special wild caught salmon is only in season for a few weeks”?

Watching your word choice is likely to uncover the use of ‘reward’ words for food.   As much as 50% of an unconscious behavioral symptom may be ameliorated by giving it conscious attention.  Being a scientist about yourself is the first step in changing a behavior.

For the other 50% or more, you’ve got step two.  Make deliberate changes. Try replacing “loaded” words with neutral descriptors. For example, adjectives (you remember them from high school– descriptive words that go in front of nouns to modify their meaning).  Make an effort to take out “yummy,” “delicious,” “special,” the best.” Record your use of the newer words, along with their timing and any effect they have upon your eating behavior.

Additionally, stop reading those restaurant reviews and, while you’re (not) at it, the recipes themselves.  And, yes, this includes the TV, too. Stop watching the food channels, which, along with the rapid rise in obesity, have become the most popular shows on cable.  Before I developed my food-word theory, I couldn’t fathom why folks who never cook–too old or sick, never learned, hate it, don’t own a pot–could while away hours watching strangers chat up and prepare food. Images and words about food have powerful psychological effects.

Duh! you’ll say.  And then you’ll ask me: Will following this word-avoidance advice help you lose weight?  

Answer: It’s worth a try. I don’t know of any research in this area; please fill me in if you do.  

But wait, you might say. What about those thin people who talk about food all the time, bake ‘special treats’ for friends, watch Rachel Ray–you know the type?

Well, some folks are just lucky.


I help adults and adolescents through the particular struggles of our time: tension between couples, parenting frustration, blending new families, separation and divorce, (un)employment, cancer, and loss. When relationships come to an impasse, I use mediation techniques to try to ensure that each party will have his/her needs heard and accounted for in a dignified way. In addition to talking, listening, and reframing, I utilizes the tools of metaphor, active teaching, role-playing, visualization, and hypnotherapy.for families and businesses, as well as in cases of divorce.

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