Singapore’s food obsession in COVID-19 times

Our reputation as a foodie nation reached new heights when a popular fast food establishment and bubble tea stores shuttered during periods in the circuit breaker – long queues and “food fights” ensued. Experimental social psychologist Dr Bobby Cheon sheds light on the method in this madness. 

Bubble tea

Why do people have cravings for food, especially those that they are denied (e.g. bubble tea)?
There are a number of reasons why being denied or losing access to foods we enjoy and consume can increase cravings for such foods.

Habits formed around specific foods
If you usually get a bubble tea after your lunch break at work or on your way home from the gym a couple of times a week, then these actions will become associated with each other. Thus, the first action may serve as a cue or trigger for your desire for bubble tea.

Regulating emotions and coping with stress
People may consume foods they especially enjoy as a means to regulate their emotions or cope with stress. Besides gaining satisfaction and pleasure from eating a favourite food to reduce stress and negative emotions, some may also eat such foods when they experience positive moods as a way to prolong those positive feelings. This pattern of experiencing a particular emotion (negative or positive) and then consuming highly desirable foods can also become reinforced as a habit. As a result, people may experience strong cravings for specific foods in response to the fluctuations in our emotions throughout everyday life. Denial of these foods removes one method that a person may typically use to cope with stress, which could further contribute to stress and amplify desires for these foods.

Opportunistic eating
Having limited access to a typically desired food (or food in general) produces a pattern of eating behaviour known as opportunistic eating. This is the tendency to eat without restraint (leading to overeating) when food is available, even in the absence of hunger. Animals that have restricted access to food also display this pattern, which suggests that opportunistic eating may be an adaptation to when food is scarce. If one does not know when the next meal or opportunity to eat their favourite food will come, then he or she may take advantage of any opportunity that becomes available to indulge and fill up on that food. It also explains why children from households with parents who are overly restrictive about feeding “junk food” may ironically be prone to overeating those foods when they actually become available (e.g. at a friend’s house). 

How can people overcome cravings and eat more nutritiously?

Avoid exposure to triggers

Given the link that cravings may have with specific triggers (such as places, routines, and emotions that we experience), one way to limit the power they have over our eating behaviour is to avoid or minimise our exposure to those triggers – especially situations where reminders and cues of food are concrete and visceral.

For instance, your craving for pizza may start out very abstract (“I feel like a pizza for lunch today”), but once you actually smell its delicious aroma, your body already begins preparations – increased salivation and circulation of hormones to amplify motivation to eat – to consume and digest it. At this point, the prospect of having pizza is no longer just an idea in your mind to suppress. It’s become a physiological reality that you have to put the brakes on, which will require substantially more self-control. If you experience powerful cravings for a specific brand of pizza, then making a personal commitment to avoid the part of your neighbourhood, campus, or workplace where one of those pizza outlets is located during mealtimes can reduce the likelihood of activating the craving. These types of implementation intentions (specific plans for avoiding and dealing with possible temptations) can be especially useful when we feel uncertain about our ability to control our cravings.

Breaking old habits and developing new behavioural patterns
Another approach is to change our habits, particularly around using food as a means to regulate our emotions. For people who are prone to cravings during stress, this involves gradually forming new behavioural patterns in which other activities are introduced for stress reduction instead of eating. Exercise, sports and physical activity are excellent alternatives that are effective for taking our minds off stressors from the day, leaving us with a sense of accomplishment and contributing to healthier lifestyles. Eventually, instead of feeling the urge to eat a whole pizza after a stressful day at work, we may experience an urge to go for a run.

It’s important to note that there’s no “magic bullet” to beating our cravings. Overcoming cravings involves the exercise of willpower and self-control, but planning ways to avoid situations that trigger our cravings can minimise the likelihood of facing an escalating struggle to battle temptation.


“Although we may talk about them in the same way, cravings and hunger are two different processes. Cravings are experienced for specific foods and only satisfied by consuming that food, whereas hunger is a more general desire to eat that can be satisfied by many foods. Cravings can also occur even when a person has just eaten, whereas hunger is dependent on when a person’s last meal was.”

Dr Bobby Cheon