Food. Most of us love it. We all eat it. But the truth is that many of us have a conflicted or complicated relationship with food. Below are three aspects of our relationship with food that highlight how food is not just sustenance, but also an emotional element of our lives, and one that connects deeply with our psychology.
1. Food as Comfort
We use food and eating as a nurturing, soothing mechanism. This habit goes all the way back to infancy when eating (or nursing, or taking a bottle) may have soothed the angst we felt being both hungry and dealing with the discomfort of development. As babies, we may have gotten accustomed to feeding while falling asleep, eating as a way to relax and our brains likely started to wire together the experience of eating with a sense of support, care and comfort.
It is perfectly natural to look to food and eating for a sense of comfort. After all, eating does soothe our survival instincts that relax when our body has food available to it. Food can also do a brilliant job of comforting us. Fatty foods like burgers, fries and ice cream line the gut with fat and provide a dense and heavy blanket on our stomach lining, calming the nervous system and slowing our bodies down. We may associate the smells and taste of food with familiar and familial settings from childhood, the nostalgia of which can bring us back to simpler times, or being cared for by parents at home.
While food and eating does seem to have a significant comforting and soothing effect for most, you want to be careful to not rely on food and eating too much as a source of comfort. While allowing food and eating to be a source of comfort is a good thing, if we take it too far, we find ourselves binge eating for comfort, seeking out food when we don’t need it and engaging in unhealthy dietary behaviors like craving certain foods — sometimes unhealthy ones — and then feeling regretful later that we ate so much. Relying on food for comfort too much sets up a conflicted relationship with food, which then causes its own additional stress.
TIP: If you notice your mind and body often gravitating toward food for comfort, practice seeking out comfort in other ways in those moments instead, like going to your partner for a hug or some cuddling, playing games with kids and laughing, massaging your own feet, taking a bubble bath, reading a book, or asking a friend to take a walk with you. Some of the best alternatives to food when we want to feel soothed are developing friendships and partnerships that feel nurturing and have a caring dimension to them. Engaging others and being social as a means to comfort is an effective way to shift your regulating tendencies from food to meaningful personal interactions.
2. Food as a Source of Control
This psychological dimension of our relationship with food gets into eating disorders and less-serious, but similar issues that can distort having a healthy relationship with eating or with our bodies. Eating and food is highly personal. It is an aspect of our living that we have a fair amount of control over. For some who grew up in chaotic homes or in families that provided little emotional support, food and eating provides a way to feel organized and exercise a sense of control.
When we use food as control, our relationship with food can become highly structured, regimented, rebellious or conflicted. We may eat less than we should to maintain healthy weight, or exercise more than what is healthy for our bodies. And we might experience — sometimes subconsciously — a rebellion against those who tried to make us be a certain way or were always telling us what to do. Eating and food is a portion of our lives that we are in charge of — a domain in which we have more power than others. In some cases, it can become an area of our lives that we manipulate in order to feel in touch with that sovereign power that we have.
We can also control our bodies — to some extent — through our relationship with food and eating. That control becomes an extension or a partner to our relationship with food. We can be slimmer by avoiding eating, or over-exercising, and that might help us feel better about ourselves as others admire our discipline or figure. Body image issues and self-esteem come into play in our relationship with food, and we might try to feel better about one or both by controlling our diets, or through an unhealthy cycle of binging and purging, which often also involves a lot of psychological shame.
TIP: If you notice that you use food and eating as a source of control, it can be important to work with a therapist who specializes in this area to help you develop a healthier relationship with food. Typically, this will include an exploration of how the sense of control through food is helping you feel organized in the world, more regulated emotionally or how controlling diet and/or your body can serve as a way to feel autonomous in a way that your family growing up didn’t support.
3. Food as Pleasure
Because food stimulates our senses — our taste buds, sense of smell and sight — and feels nourishing, we often eat for pleasure. Certain foods can also activate the reward center in the brain, producing an effect similar to certain pleasure drugs and then producing a potentially unhealthy cycle of craving that experience through food. We often eat as a replacement for a sense of connection; we may eat if we feel alone or isolated; and we may eat to make life interesting and experience something new, or to share an experience with others.
Eating for pleasure, within reason, is very healthy. It is good to take pleasure in eating, to savor food from our senses, to be fully in the moment and appreciate eating from a tactile sense, and to enjoy meals with others. The issue is if we often seek pleasure from food and not enough from other sources. Similar to seeking comfort from food, if food is a primary source of pleasure and we do not have other alternatives, then we start to develop an unhealthy and conflicted relationship with food.
The trick here is to realize if we are looking to food as a primary source of pleasure, meaning that we give it significant emotional weight and responsibility above being sustenance and to a degree that we may engage in unhealthy habits. What is complicated, however, about understanding our relationship to food as a source of pleasure, is that it is important to become comfortable with our senses as a gateway to pleasure. In the same way that food activates stimulating responses in the brain and body, so do other pleasure channels, like touch, sounds, smells, sight, sex, etc. It can be helpful to enjoy food and indulge without guilt on occasion, as it helps us understand how to receive pleasure and nurture through other sensory channels as well. People can get addicted to food as a source of pleasure in a similar way to sex. And in both cases, it is generally healthier to have a diversity of ways to experience pleasure in order to maintain a healthy balance between pleasure channels and not overly rely on one area.
TIP: If you notice that you use food as a primary source of pleasure too often or to the exclusion of other pleasure channels, consider what other activities bring you pleasure that you can swap in for eating. It is important to eat a healthy, balanced diet and get enough calories every day to maintain healthy body functions, but many people overeat unnecessarily because it’s a pleasurable activity. When you crave food in such instances, you might engage in another pleasurable activity, like taking a walk with a friend, listening to a favorite album, reading an interesting book or trading massages with a partner.
The Bottom Line:
Our relationship with food is not just about sustenance, it’s also highly emotional and involves the desire to relax, feel comforted, and experience pleasure, in ways that can go back to childhood. In addition, we sometimes use our relationship to food, eating, and to our bodies to feel a sense of control over our lives or to soothe ourselves in a shame cycle that becomes unhealthy.
While learning to derive pleasure and comfort from food is important to receiving nurture, care and fulfillment. A healthy relationship with food and eating includes allowing fulfillment through a diversity of pleasure channels, especially close relationships that provide a sense of connection and minimize isolation. Using the tips above, you can begin to notice what you’re really craving when you are turning to eating beyond a reasonable degree of what is nourishing, and learn to seek comfort, relaxation, connection, pleasure and a sense of organization through more diverse means. Since meals are meant to restore and ‘feed’ us, physically and emotionally, consider how a guitar session with a friend could be a meal or a walk and conversation, or connecting deeply with a friend — all ‘meals’ that can energize and sustain us! When we broaden our definition of a ‘meal,’ we tend to not eat food mindlessly, and incorporate other fulfilling activities into our daily feeding. Enjoy your next meal and share it with a friend!
*John Howard and Peter Craig are psychotherapists at Austin Professional Counseling™, a counseling practice devoted to helping individuals and couples heal, grow, and thrive at life and offering individual, couples and group therapy.