Mental Health Blog

Cultivating a Healthy Relationship with Food: Not Just What We Eat, but Why.  

Posted by Makenna Clements on

Some of our most challenging psychological, emotional, and spiritual hurdles manifest as subtle manipulations to otherwise healthy things. Take, for example, our relationship with food. At its core, food is meant for survival- to nourish, to energize, to sustain. It creates opportunity for social connection, contributes to a sense of joy, and as an added bonus- it’s delicious!

The problem arises when we start using food for unintended purposes. For instance, as a coping mechanism. This happens when we turn to food instead of facing circumstances or emotions we'd rather avoid. From this perspective, food is seen less as a "life-giver" and more as a "mood stabilizer”. This might look like seeking out food, increasing consumption for the sake of comfort and happiness or to dissociate from negative feelings (hence expressions like “eating my feelings”). Or, it might be the avoidance approach, restricting food intake as a means for coping with ambiguity or to experience a (false)  sense of control.

The issue here lies in this primary assumption: that food is the answer to achieving sustained positive emotions. In reality, food might make us feel better momentarily, but this pleasure is just that- momentary. This also creates space for unhealthy habits to develop. How? The fleeting sense of relief we did experience while eating (or avoiding) has the potential to trick our brains into thinking: "It worked! Food is the answer to feeling happy!" In reality, the more we use food in this manner, the more it actually has the potential to numb us out emotionally, or make us feel even worse (hello guilt and shame). In response, our brain tempts us to turn back to food to cope with the numbness or continued negative feelings, creating a hard to break feedback loop. This doesn't just apply to food, however. Feel free to fill in the blank with almost any other coping strategy we find ourselves employing (drugs, alcohol, anger, etc.). 

This isn’t to say we shouldn’t enjoy food, or that it's wrong to make ourselves our favorite meal after a tough day at work. Simply, be cautious of seeing food as the solution to our emotions- remember, it is meant to fill us, not fulfill us. 

As an experiment, you may find it helpful to consider the emotions you’re seeking to access or cope with through food consumption or avoidance. One way to do this is to think of a food you like, and describe the feelings that come to mind when you think of eating this food (positive or negative). This may give you some insight into the emotions you are seeking to achieve by eating, or the emotions you are trying to avoid by not eating. Increasing your awareness around this provides you with space to make a choice: the next time you notice these emotions starting to come up, how might you respond instead?


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