Though it would be oversimplifying a lot to suggest that all of our behaviors are conditioned, we can certainly develop cues to eating behaviors that can make them harder to change.
For example, if you typically use food to alleviate feelings of loneliness, sadness, stress, guilt, frustration, or boredom then each time you do this you’re essentially strengthening the link between between the emotional cue and your eating behavior.
If you’ve been doing this for many years, that pattern becomes increasingly reinforced to the point where it almost feels automatic and difficult to break.
Unfortunately, this pattern creates a vicious cycle whereby the feelings lead you to eat, but then having eaten off plan makes you feel guilty or ends up resulting in no progress which leads to frustration. In the end, you create more negative feelings which can again lead to more eating and so on.
The solutions to this are twofold:
1) Spend some time getting to the root of the emotions you’re feeling and address it. Reducing those emotions helps to eliminate the cues that prompt you to eat off plan.
If it is stress, find ways to reduce the stress in your life by eliminating unnecessary stressors. And study how to better manage the stress you do have that you cannot eliminate.
If it is loneliness, find a community with whom you can spend time and feel included. For me, that means being part of a close-knit church community, but you can find community in any place that makes you feel at home.
If there are emotional issues in your past that you can’t seem to resolve on your own, enlist the help of a professional to help you work through those.
The point is to eliminate those cues because they will forever challenge you if they continue to exist.
2) Dissociate the emotional cues from food.
If eating in response to an emotional state strengthens the link between the cue and the eating behavior, then NOT eating in response to the emotional state will gradually weaken that link.
Except, rather than just not eating, I would suggest that you put another behavior in its place. That may be going for a walk, going out for coffee with a friend, reading, or doing any other behavior that does not involve eating.
Over time, the emotional cue that would once lead to eating can be linked (by your purposeful decision) to another non-eating behavior through repetition.
If you’re continually finding yourself eating off plan, figure out what cues (emotions, situations, people, time of day, etc) are present when you do this and start to take action to manage them.
It will make life a lot easier.