Food is at the center of life. It provides us with the energy needed to keep our hearts beating and our breath flowing. We organize our schedules around food, and meal times are a focal point in families and communities. Sharing food with loved ones is one of the most fundamental ways we give and receive love.
Since food plays such a central role in our lives, the way we relate to it can give us important information about ourselves. Specifically, our relationship with food has the potential to teach us about what we need to feel healthy, balanced, and authentic.
An important first step is to understand why some of us have challenges with food. We have mistakenly come to believe that our struggles with food—which include yoyo dieting and repeated cycles of weight loss and weight gain—are caused by a lack of will power and self-control. The message we often receive from the media, fitness experts, doctors, and other health professionals is that by committing to exercising and making healthier food choices we can reach and maintain a healthy body weight once and for all.
This message creates the misguided assumption that if a person is unable to stick with a particular diet or exercise plan, they just haven’t applied the same formula of exercise, healthy eating, and self-control hard enough. The assumption is that, eventually, the formula will work.
It’s tempting to believe that more discipline will finally help us create a healthy relationship with food and achieve a balanced body weight. However, as I’ve witnessed in my psychotherapy practice, the reason that this approach generally doesn’t lead to lasting change is because it’s not a lack of self-control and discipline that perpetuates people’s struggles with food. Rather, we tend to eat certain foods to help us cope with strong and challenging emotions. Oftentimes, we don’t have other tools to better manage these feelings, so we are drawn to eat particular foods that allow us to simply feel better.
When we struggle in our relationship with food, it’s often a younger part of us that is looking for relief and doesn’t know how else to get it other than by eating. In fact, a significant part of a baby’s life is receiving nurturing through food from their caregivers. When a hungry baby is fed by its caregiver, the baby usually feels comforted and nurtured. If we consider this important early experience around food, it makes sense that as adults we are drawn—both consciously and unconsciously—to eat certain foods for a sense of comfort and soothing. We may also use food to numb certain overwhelming and even painful feelings to provide relief for a younger part of us that is experiencing emotional pain.
If we consider the possibility that people develop certain eating tendencies to comfort and soothe these younger aspects of themselves, instead of blaming these habits on a lack of self-control, we have an opportunity to learn more about what feelings may be influencing our relationship with food. This perspective also helps to reduce the shame that often arises when one experiences the perceived failures inherent to the yoyo dieting cycle.
Since eating food we enjoy often provides us with a sense of comfort and relief, struggling with balanced eating and maintaining a healthy body weight could be an indicator that food has become a coping mechanism by which we feel comforted and soothed. If this is an experience that resonates with you, it can be helpful to be curious about what emotions might be needing comforting and soothing. The more you can understand what is influencing your relationship with food, the more you have an opportunity to realize that a lack of self-control is not the problem.
In the end, it’s actually not about food. Food challenges, such as over-eating, under-eating, over-exercising, etc., are coping strategies used by younger parts of us to get relief and feel better.
In my work as well as in my personal life, I have seen how listening to these younger parts and learning what they are really hungry for (which ultimately isn’t food), creates possibilities for healing. As a matter of fact, these younger parts have some really precious and valuable things to teach us. The more we can learn about what they are really using food for, the more we are empowered to take steps in the direction of authenticity, balance, and healing.
By Erin Stohl