Food for thought: The relationship we have with food (Part 1)

Many of us have a complicated relationship with food. We have probably all, at some point, been on a form of diet and for most us, the relationship we have with our bodies is a constant struggle between dissatisfaction, ignoring it, and paying a lot of (self-conscious and/or self-critical) attention to it.

Despite this tumultuous relationship, food is essential to life. Not only because it sustains life, but because it motivates human behaviour as well as enhances our experience of being human. Since the beginning of time, we have hunted for food as well as bonded over it- from babies feeding from their mother’s breast to gathering with friends and family over a meal. From preparing and sharing food as a symbol of love and connection, to food used as either reward e.g. treating a child to sweets for good behaviour or punishment e.g. restricting ourselves when we feel like we have been gluttonous the day before. The experience and taste of food elicits powerful memories of childhood, past relationships, and represents identities about who we are. Think of the rituals involving food all around the world for celebrating life and mourning death, for marking milestones in a person’s life and for engaging in festivities. It’s clear that food and eating hold meaning beyond simply satisfying a physical need.

While we have a special relationship with food, our body changes its receptivity to it depending on our emotional state. It’s common to lose our appetites when we experience sadness or grief, to binge on junk food when we are going through stressful periods, or to have digestive problems or stomach upsets when we experience anxiety. Given this two way relationship, what does it mean when over 80 percent of young people are afraid of being ‘fat’ according to a study in Hong Kong and over 30 million people suffer from an eating disorder in the U.S. alone? What might patterns of overeating or restrictive diets be reflecting about our emotional health?

It’s important to know that disordered patterns of eating are related to the relationship we have with food more than what is actually eaten (or not eaten) and how a person physically looks and weighs. Consider this scenario: You are standing in front of the open fridge, wanting something to eat. You see the healthy pot of greek yoghurt or the piece of fruit but don’t feel like it. What kind of hunger are you really experiencing and what are you truly seeking to satisfy?

Or another scenario: You have just left work after an especially intense and stressful day. As soon as you get home (or perhaps on the way home), you eat everything you can get your hands on. What was the compulsion to eat until you could eat no more about? What are you really trying to stuff down?

In these situations, we eat not because we are physically hungry. These moments point to situations where we use food as a way to change the way we feel. In this way, food becomes a way to satisfy an emotional hunger or as a way to feel something else such as comfort or pleasure. Similarly, when we occupy our mind with counting calories or worrying about when we can exercise to burn off those calories, it allows us to focus on a tangible problem, instead of having to figure out the much more intangible and uncomfortable feelings arising from within us. Obsessions surrounding food gives us the illusion of control and serves as a helpful distraction from things that are difficult and perhaps even shameful to admit to having. It’s far easier to place our focus on food (or exercising, our weight, or what we allow and do not allow ourselves to eat) than to name what we truly long for. If we have learned that there is no space in the world for our appetite for power/sex/love, we remain hungry and all the more desirous of it.

Knowing what we truly hunger for means listening to ourselves and what we need. But we live in a world where directive action, linear logic, rationality and independence is often valued over qualities such as the iterative process, intuitive feeling, harmony and connectedness. More weight and credence is given to goal oriented activities and external sources of information than to being with our inner experience of things. This more dominant energy leads us to neglect the other equally important but suppressed source of knowledge that comes from within ourselves. With this more dominating energy, we become judgmental and controlling of our feelings because they are seen as irrational or illogical. We become distrustful of ourselves and what our bodies signal to us and instead take our cues from what others say we should do, whether it be diet plans or how we should look.

When we become so disconnected with ourselves, our feelings and appetite for life which come from within feel like a threat. And so disordered eating patterns serve as an escape from feeling our feelings. But we send the message back to ourselves and our bodies that we cannot be trusted to be able to give it what it wants. When we overeat, we literally stuff ourselves so that there is no room left to feel anything apart from the fullness in our bellies. In restricting ourselves when we are hungry, we send the message of denial and neglect. After all, there is nothing more distracting than a growling stomach. Our bodies cry out for one thing, and in our fear of finding out what it is trying to tell us (in the only way it knows how- through our bodies), we shut those feelings down through our eating behaviors, whether it is through bingeing or starving ourselves.

As with many behaviors which are hard to stop, we become addicted to doing something because it originally served a useful purpose. Many of us have learned to shut down what we want (and the feelings that come with it) because it was not or did not seem acceptable to others. To restore ourselves back to the mould and feel that we belong again, we must learn to quickly shut down how we feel. At some point in the past, the comfort and security of belonging was more important than the discomfort of setting out to satisfy what we want. But over time, we find ourselves longing for more. The need to satisfy something deeper than belonging begins to manifest itself in other ways. Until we learn to name our hunger and how it relates to our needs as well as the symbolic meaning it represents, we will continue to eat without ever feeling satisfied. Learning to differentiate between our physical and emotional hunger and what our urge to eat when not actually hungry is about means that we can begin to finally and truly nourish ourselves.

Part 2 of this series will talk about emotional nourishment, what it means and the ways in which we can do this.