It is probably fair to say that the vast majority of us do not eat to live. Sharing a meal together could form the backbone of family dynamics or social engagements. Different types of foods and their aromas could also evoke certain memories and emotions in us that go much further than their nutritional values. Without understanding our own often complex and deep relationships with food, it may sometimes be difficult to stick to a diet plan or cut out certain types of food even if we know that they may not be the most healthy options for us.
Emotions/feelings are a powerful trigger for food choices because food can go far beyond physical sustenance to become intertwined with family relationships, friendships and memories. For instance, food is often tied up with celebratory meals, commemorative dinners and even in grief when food is served at a meal after funerals. Food can also unconsciously become a way to cope with emotions whether happy or sad. This relationship can start well before we are even in control of our own diet, influenced by our parents’ choices for us.
Without unpacking the complexities that come with our eating habits, it can be difficult to stick to a healthy diet or meal plan.
As human beings, we do a lot of things to either seek pleasure or avoid pain. Eating is no different. On a basic level, we deal with the discomfort of hunger by eating and drinking. On the emotional level, we may subconsciously use food to self soothe because we have learnt on a basic level that food and drink can alleviate pain. This may create a cycle of binge eating or unhealthy eating patterns whereby using food as a pleasure and avoidance tactic is shortlived and therefore repetitive. The cycle repeats itself and the underlying issues remain, something that is not being dealt with.
We can also often find ourselves stuck in a bit of a pleasure trap when it comes to food, especially the types of food that trigger off the reward centres in the brain.
This is where being mindful about how we eat, why we eat and what we are eating come into play. By becoming aware of our feelings and understanding them, we can begin to change how we respond to those feelings and thereby alter our relationship with food.
As a starting point, if you find yourself repeating unhealthy eating habits again and again, you may wish to consider the following questions honestly.
- Do you use food to derive pleasure? If so, how do you do this?
- Do you use food to numb negative emotions such as pain loneliness, grief, anxiety or anger? Does that work and for how long does it work?
- Does eating certain foods make you feel more anxious, guilty or ashamed? Do you judge yourself for eating these foods?
- Do you turn to food in an attempt to fulfil much deeper cravings simply because you are dissatisfied with the other areas in your life? If you began to live in alignment with your highest values, do you think that would impact your relationship with food?
- What is your ideal emotional relationship with food?
Acknowledging this relationship with food is present is probably the first and most powerful step in looking to change that relationship and help shed light on the connection between your eating habits and your emotional state.
The development of a more mindful relationship to food will allow you to make more conscious decisions.
There are various therapists that you can go to for advice on this issue. Please always seek professional advice.