anting and liking food are two vital psychological components of the brain’s reward system. Both are necessary for normal reward functioning. Wanting without liking is not satisfying or pleasurable, and liking without the presence of wanting is not fully rewarding either. But what exactly is the difference between the two and how do they affect our relationship to food, our eating patterns, and disordered eating behaviors?
Comparing Wanting and Liking Food
Before diving into how the concepts of wanting and liking affect our connection to food and eating patterns, it’s important to first differentiate between the two interrelated terms.
Wanting: Hunger Cues and Cravings
“Wanting food” is what we typically mean when we refer to having a craving. It’s a motivational mechanism that drives us to desire food when we are physically hungry. And it isn’t to be confused with cognitive wanting, in which we are fully aware of a desire for something, and we have a conscious goal.
Rather, this type of wanting is subconscious and more primitive. It isn’t pleasurable or rewarding in and of itself. It is a stimulus that indicates hunger and causes us to desire and often, under healthy circumstances, seek out food, which then becomes the reward. (1)
Liking: Pleasure and Reward
Conversely, “liking food” refers to the enjoyment we feel when we taste and consume food. It’s a pleasurable reaction to eating, the actual reward, or what we consider to be the worthwhile part of eating. Liking food can exist independently of wanting. There doesn’t need to be an object of desire, such as cake, for someone to enjoy that particular cake they’re eating.
However, people tend to enjoy the taste of sucrose more when they are hungry than when they are full. And all other types of food are more appealing when a person is hungry, as well. That is to say, the liking component of the reward system is stronger when there is already a hunger cue, or a feeling of wanting. (1)
Although liking and wanting are two separate mechanisms, they work together to help us survive. Wanting food causes us to seek it out and eat it, and liking food is a reward that motivates repeated behavior in the future. For people to experience a full reward, wanting and liking must both be present. (1)
The Role of Liking vs. Wanting Food in Eating Disorders
The link between wanting and liking and eating disorders is still not altogether clear and requires more research. But some theories have been proposed—most notably, that the development of certain eating disorders may involve abnormal wanting and liking mechanisms and dysfunctions in the reward system. (1)
Contrary to binge eating disorder, in which individuals experience a high level of wanting, people with anorexia nervosa, which involves extreme caloric restriction, have been shown to have an abnormally low level of wanting for food, particularly high-energy-dense foods. One study found that those with anorexia nervosa experienced lower wanting for high-calorie foods and higher wanting for low-calorie foods. (2)
This makes sense, given that a common strategy for controlling hunger among individuals with anorexia nervosa is to consume low-energy-dense foods, such as celery or carrots. Research also indicates that those with anorexia nervosa report significantly low levels of liking for high-calorie foods. (2)
However, it’s important to emphasize that many other factors besides the brain’s reward system affect the development of eating disorders. These include biological, psychological, social, and cultural influences, all of which play an important role in eating disorder development. And many other things can activate the brain’s reward system, in addition to food.
Mindful Eating: Finding a Way to Marry Wanting and Liking Food
For many in eating disorder recovery, it can be difficult to enjoy food again, without the shame and guilt that accompanies so many disordered eating behaviors, such as bingeing, purging, restricting, and more. But recovery is possible for everyone, regardless of what they’ve gone through.
In eating disorder treatment, individuals learn how to engage in a practice known as mindful eating, which involves being present and grounded in the moment at your meals. Listen to your body and appetite cues (wanting), and when you are hungry, feed your body and pay attention to the joy and pleasure you experience while eating (liking). Don’t wait until you are starving, since that will make it hard to be mindful while eating.
Some tips for mindful eating include: (3)
- Focusing just on the act of eating without doing anything else at the same time, such as watching TV, listening to the radio, or reading
- Paying attention to your thoughts, feelings, and bodily sensations while eating
- Avoiding judging your thoughts and feelings before, during, and after eating
- Focusing on gratitude for where your meal came from and how it is nourishing your body
- Appreciating the people you are sharing the meal with—eating can be a joyful, communal practice
- Paying attention to aroma, texture, color, and taste of your food as you cook, serve, and eat it
These tips may not come naturally at first, and that’s okay. Re-learning healthy eating habits is going to take time, but changing how you view food and eating can help you to sync up your wanting and liking mechanisms, so you experience eating as a rewarding and pleasurable experience.
- Berridge K. C. (2009). 'Liking' and 'Wanting' Food Rewards: Brain Substrates and Roles in Eating Disorders. Physiology & Behavior, 97(5), 537–550. https://doi.org/10.1016/j.physbeh.2009.02.044
- Cowdrey, F.A., Finlayson, G., Park, R.J. (2013). Liking Compared with Wanting for High- and Low-calorie Foods in Anorexia Nervosa: Aberrant food Reward even after Weight Restoration. The American Journal of Clinical Nutrition, 97 (3): 463–470. https://doi.org/10.3945/ajcn.112.046011
- Harvard Health Publishing Harvard Medical School. (2016). 8 Steps to Mindful Eating.