The Complexities of Eating for Self-Care

Food, food everywhere, but don’t take a bite! We Americans may be unique in our relationship with food; we search endlessly for ultimate deliciousness while simultaneously self-flagellating for weight gains and illness. It’s madness, I tell ya!

I am one of the 95% of us who struggle to maintain our ideal weight in the face of endless opportunities to overindulge in food. Given that many of our self-care needs can be addressed happily with food, it is quite logical that our waistlines would grow proportionately to our personal challenges. Not only are we tempted by the variety and tastiness of our nutritional options, but a host of other phenomena contribute to our overuse of food in our efforts to nurture ourselves.

Reasons we eat (and eat and eat…):

Food as a hobby
I am an avid TV-watcher. Disappointingly, it only occurred to me recently that exposure to the glut of cooking shows, chef competitions, “foodographies”, and commercial breaks in between does not support a habit of rational eating. I finally made the connection between sitting on the couch, admiring/savoring/fantasizing about the delicacies on the screen, and rising to my feet unconsciously to grab a snack from the kitchen. This kind of eating has nothing to do with hunger, but rather with our craving sensors being triggered over and over. Satiety seems entirely elusive. Seeing these shows also inspires us to try our own hand in the kitchen and turns the act of preparing food for nourishment into an antiquated concept. Food has become fun, exciting, and challenging! Cooking is now an interest and diversion, a skill to practice and hone. And there would be absolutely no fun in creating a masterpiece and then grinding it up in the garbage disposal or feeding it to the dog. It’s a hobby with consequences for the waistline.

Sociability
In my life—and maybe in yours—one of the primary things that brings me together with my family and my friends is a meal. “Want to meet for lunch?”, “How about breakfast after tennis?”, “The girls are getting together for drinks!”. Even when a date or get-together with a friend is planned for a coffee-house, there are always sweet treats waiting in the cold case to accompany your “venti” whatever. Family meals tend to have an overabundance of courses—with the serving bowls placed right there on the table for easy access to seconds and thirds. And the ever-present dessert… I find it almost impossible to be a social person and only eat when I am hungry. I know (and envy greatly) the people who can say “No thanks, I ate a little while ago” or just savor a bite or two, but my psychology does not encompass that particular skill. And the literature proves that the majority of people are not able to avoid the many psychological influences that urge us to eat more than we need.

Neuro-/Bio-chemistry
Science is constantly learning more about the ways of the brain and the chemistry that influences human behavior. Much is known about neurotransmitters, such as Dopamine, which activate our awareness for things we “need” and that might feel good. Food is tricky because we need it AND it feels good. A wise friend of mine says it was easier to quit smoking because she didn’t need to do it to survive. With eating, we have to do it every day, so we can’t just avoid it entirely, like we can with other addictive substances. Often, the first bite triggers the appetite and then the game is on… the stomach seems willing to expand to any depth in order to receive all the deliciousness available in one sitting. Many of us are slaves to our chemical makeup, struggling with various food addictions and constant overeating, in spite of our knowledge, best intentions, and willpower.

Sugar
Much has been discovered and disseminated lately about the addictive qualities of refined sugar. In our processed-food and sweets-obsessed society, it is nearly impossible to avoid sugar without adopting a strict diet such as macrobiotics or raw food. Sugar can even slip into those, in the form of innocuous salad dressings or bowls of fresh berries (“I just sprinkled a little sugar on top for taste!”). Old down-home wisdom has always known this: the more sugar you eat, the more sugar you want. Eating sugar also leads the body to crave fats and salts, which provide less nutritional value and high calorie counts. For me, sugar has the effect of expanding my appetite so that I don’t feel full until I’m absolutely stuffed. It doesn’t only make me crave more sugar, but larger quantities of all foods. Not everyone has this sensitivity to refined sugar but, again, it is more common than not and this “addiction” still flies under the radar so that people don’t realize why they can’t stop themselves from eating.

Emotional comfort
I often hear the refrain “food is not love”, and I strongly beg to differ. Food IS love! When babies’ little tummies are empty and they cry to their mamas, they get some milk and a little snuggle— this process leads to humans who grow up healthily attached and emotionally balanced. Having our needs met in a loving way as a baby is absolutely essential to mental health and success in life. How in the world would a functional adult NOT have a connection between food and nurturance, comfort, and love? It makes absolute sense that food is one of the most common palliatives. One healthy response it to address our stressors in alternate ways to impede them from leading us into the arms of food. More often, it seems that eating is an easy escape from whatever psychological or emotional challenge has us seeking self-care. Certainly food cannot solve our problems, and often only creates new ones when it is used to an extreme. But it absolutely provides physical comfort and emotional numbing, which has value in its own right.

Deprivation psychology
People who struggle with addictions, food sensitivities, physical limitations, and other challenges often battle with the feeling of being deprived. We feel hurt and resent the fact that others can have experiences without consequence that do us serious harm. This phenomenon, and it’s emotional cousins of self-hatred, anger and depression, are strong factors contributing to relapse. Even though we clearly know our particular trigger substance or event, we want it—at times so badly that we just go ahead and indulge when the opportunity arises. That indulgence often leads to a period of time of increased usage or immersion, ultimately ending in physical, psychological, or emotional suffering. Our attempt to provide care for our hurt feelings leads us to cause ourselves greater pain, ultimately.

Conclusions
For most of us, our relationship with food is too complex to fit into a simple diet schema. Our true Self is housed within the physical body, so it follows naturally that the body would be a liaison for the care of the mind and soul. Many of our weight struggles are an extension of our constant battling against our own deep physical needs and psychological makeup. Perhaps one path to freedom from food challenges is to surrender the fight and listen deeply to what our inner appetite is saying. If we use food to fulfill a need for love and nurturance, is there an alternate way we can satisfy it? And if an alternate means for comfort is not currently available, can we allow ourselves to be nurtured by something delicious and pleasing and drop the guilt about it? Can we allow ourselves to be cared for by food and know that this is just one coping mechanism in our psychological arsenal?

Similarly, I wonder whether a greater understanding of our own personal physical, neurochemical, and social complexities may allow us to bring more forgiveness into our relationship with food and eating. When we remember that our physical lives are influenced by strong internal and external forces, we take comfort knowing that we are not bad humans for participating in the challenge that our society’s relationship with food provides for us. The continual wrestling match we engage in with food gives us a powerful window into our Selves and Life in a truly unique way. Rather than scolding and berating ourselves for struggling with our food challenges, we can open ourselves to the process and invite it share the wealth of knowledge it holds.

© Copyright 2011 by Karen Kochenburg. All Rights Reserved. Permission to publish granted to GoodTherapy.org.

The preceding article was solely written by the author named above. Any views and opinions expressed are not necessarily shared by GoodTherapy.org. Questions or concerns about the preceding article can be directed to the author or posted as a comment below.

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  • susie key

    susie key

    September 9th, 2011 at 2:23 PM

    No offense, and I know that I am lucky, but I think that I would have to poke my own eye out than to let my life and the things that I thought about revolve around food!

  • beth

    beth

    September 9th, 2011 at 7:33 PM

    Food is something that is wry essential for our basic survival but can quickly turn into a problem if we overdo it. I agree that nobody actually feels so hungry that they eat too much but it has to do with the mind and body more than anything else. We almost get tuned to eating habits and if not fixed quickly it can become really hard to change things at a later stage. And processed foods are not helping us :|

  • Sheryl

    Sheryl

    September 9th, 2011 at 9:30 PM

    Their sure are lots of reasons to overeat but none of them involve actually being
    hungry! For me the main culprit for overeating is Foods as a Hobby and Sociability.
    Foods as a Hobby because whenever I am doing something like watching tv I wind up eating out of boredom just because I can’t seem to think of anything better to do. Sociability because I can’t seem to find away around not eating with friends. Since most social outings involve restaurants it’s impossible not to eat unless you never go out. And if you decide not to eat you look ridiculous and rightfully so, imagine being on a date where your date doesn’t eat! This a good list hopefully I can find an effective way to combat eating for self-care.

  • Janice

    Janice

    September 10th, 2011 at 11:55 AM

    I stuff my feelings down with food.
    whether I am sad or happy food is always my go to drug of choice.
    I always think that this is going to make me feel better but really it only ever makes me feel worse.
    I know I need help but have reached the end of my rope. I don’t know where to turn for help anymore.

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