The way I see it, and from what I gathered from my clients, our relationship with food can be broken down in two ways: healthy and unhealthy. Unhealthy often begins with a physiologically-based craving, which turns into an emotional craving.
What defines a healthy relationship with food? A healthy relationship is to acknowledge food as information for our bodies; as a means of nurturing and taking care of our bodies, physically, emotionally, and spiritually. Food can be used to celebrate (showing love), share (gifting), and spending time with people we care about (pleasuring ourselves and those around us). It can also be used in very creative, imaginative and loving ways as well. Food is a way of identifying ourselves as a culture with roots in traditions and stories. When it becomes a religion or dogmatic, that is when it is slotted as unhealthy.
Physiologically based cravings are urges we cannot distract from and are often associated with a distressed feeling of ‘being without and in urgent need of replenishment’. These cravings are often described as cephalic or measured in the brain as a strong signal to the central nervous system. For example, one would feel extremely irritable along with the physiological signals of a rapid heart rate, body temperature fluctuations, twitching, pacing, etc. Even without physiological responses, you might get to a point in which your emotions become unregulated and the behavior that ensues is not one you are overly proud of. You might find yourself going out of your way to get it, to the detriment of yourself (lost time, productivity) or someone else.
Now, I can imagine many of you are saying, ” But that is me every morning before having my coffee 😩” If that is the case, I will let you sit with that one for a while 🤔. However, for others – this is a lot more serious. The substance they are ingesting is not favorable for the body. Remember what I said to you in last week’s post about what a healthy relationship with food is; it is seeing food as a medium to obtain nutrients for our body.
“When we find ourselves wanting something strong enough, we’ll do just about anything to get it.”
Let’s face it, when we find ourselves wanting something strong enough, we’ll do just about anything to get it–sometimes at the expense of our bodies, brains, bank accounts, and relationships. So why do we have the irrepressible feeling that we need something-such as food, cigarettes, alcohol, or sex when in actualization, when we really just want it? We become a child in that moment. We stomp our feet and cannot self-regulate. It becomes a need vs want. Momentarily you have stepped out of the present.
- Emotionally based cravings are often described as ‘mindless eating’ or ‘not being in the present’. For, if we were in the present, we would realize that we are not actually hungry. We are out of tune with ourselves and our surroundings. We are eating as a response to an emotion, rather than a response to hunger. We are just ‘going with the motion’ rather than taking part in the act of nourishing our bodies. I think many are guilty of this. When was the last time you had breakfast in which you sat down and thoroughly enjoyed what was in front of you? In which you looked at the plate or bowl and savored each bite in a way that you were at a Five Star Resort. Lunch is very similar. How often do you eat in your car or at your desk? Or during COVID-19, walking into the kitchen to wolf something down, or standing up at the kitchen island while you eat.
Emotional-based cravings are similar to physiological cravings in the sense that they too have a cephalic response to ‘replace something that feels uncomfortable’. However, there is less of a physiological response with emotionally based eating. Clients will tell me, ‘I was binging to ease the pain’. The bad feeling is replaced by a flood of endorphins, the strongest being the neurotransmitter dopamine. Dopamine, our happy hormone, can also be called the ‘learning’ hormone. When dopamine drops and you respond with a behaviour that replenishes it, you naturally want to do more of it. What you need to realize is the reward lasts only a few seconds, but the aftermath can last month, years, or decades (ill health and weight gain).
Here are some of the more common sources of emotional eating:
- Victimization. You guessed it, that is the same old, ‘well if my girlfriend wouldn’t have broken up with me…, or if my job didn’t suck… or the classic COVID-19 excuse, in which the mindset is framed as, ‘this is happening to me’, rather than ‘I am choosing to do this’. Need I say more on this topic? I think we all tend to self-justify our behavior, which does nothing towards finding a solution.
- Lack of Motivation. When someone tells me they are not motivated to change, I often need to question whether or not there is a source of fear behind the stagnancy. Are you feeling you might fail if you try a new eating regime or habit? Or do you have a closed mindset? For example, ‘My dad lived until he was 90 and he smoked, ate bacon every day, and didn’t exercise a day in his life’, or the classic, ‘I’m going to die of something someday, so it might as well be something I like to eat’.
- Diets Don’t Work. That statement is true in many ways. So, can I challenge you to find something that does?
- Lack of Self-Compassion (body image). Do you have little respect for yourself and your body? Do you not love yourself enough to nurture your body? If you are making poor food choices, or eating when you are not hungry, then you might want to reconsider your relationship with food.
- Being told what to do. No one likes being told what to do, what to eat, or when to eat it. Especially when that strict author voice is accompanied with passive-aggressive shaming. With the plethora of information out there telling us what we should be doing – clearly this is not working for emotional eaters.
Next week I will wrap up this three-part post on food addiction with suggestions of how to overcome your addiction and improve your relationship with food. Till then, try to become more aware of when you eat, and why you are eating. Are you really hungry? Or is there something else going on behind the scenes?