The Emotional Language Of Food: How Our Relationship with Ourselves Can Reflect The One We Have With Food

Have you ever noticed that our relationship with food often reflects our relationship with ourself - our emotions, our interpersonal relationships, our upbringing even? When you're sitting in a 'good place' in your life, you can consider food more in terms of social enjoyment and necessary fuel rather than an abusable substance. Perhaps this is more apparent when we are NOT sitting in such a good place - when we're stressed at work, in an unhappy relationship (or lack thereof relationship), or grappling with deep wounds and battle scars from an unhappy childhood. Or something entirely different. The point is, many of us turn to food to comfort us when we are not feeling nourished from within with love and security.

As we know, this can create another damaging relationship in our lives - reminiscent of the same toxicity from a bad break-up that just never seems to be truly over. We know it's not good for us, but in the short term it fills a void. We mindlessly go back for more with no thought about what it's doing to our physical and mental health long term. After the ecstasy has worn off we then wallow in our shame and mindlessly reach once more into the Tim Tam packet for some chocolatey goodness to numb the pain.

Around and around we go.

Some may scoff and say "toughen up" and find it hard to fathom how people can't seem to ever properly break this cycle of emotional eating, but it's a real battle for a great number of people and there's an actual scientific reason as to why.

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When we are stressed, depressed, angry, or feeling any number of other negative emotions, we can find ourselves craving certain foods that will cause our dopamine levels to increase. The food industry knows this and spends an exorbitant amount of money each year into taste testing and creating foods that hit the 'bliss point' - the point where the food is highly palatable but not too over satiating so that we don't get sick of the one flavour and keep going back for more. A lot of these created foods are processed foods; foods that our brains are not necessarily ready for.

These foods release dopamine in our brain and this makes us feel good and desire to eat more. Some foods will create more of a rush than others, however the more regularly we consume these foods the more we need of them to reach the same climatic high as before. It's the same chemical release as with recreational drugs such as cocaine. It can also create that same 'out of control' feeling as with an addiction, whereby you have an overwhelming craving and repeatedly engage in activities that will provide relief, despite the negative consequences. As with addictions, there will also be the discomfort of withdrawals afterwards.

What I often observe is that there may be an acute time of stress or emotional turmoil in one's life where they will fall into the emotional eating habits described above and then when the turmoil has passed they are then still stuck with the unhealthy food habits -they have become dependant if you will. This in turn, creates a new emotional turmoil that is more chronic in nature. It goes something like this:

I FEEL SAD - I KNOW, I’LL EAT SOME YUMMY NUTRITIONALLY EMPTY FOODS - OH, I FEEL GOOD NOW - WHAT? NOPE, I FEEL GUILTY AND FAT - I KNOW WHAT WILL MAKE YOU FEEL BETTER - SOME MORE CALORIE DENSE FOODS - OH, NOW I FEEL REALLY SAD

I've been on this merry-go-round before. It's very easy to jump on but very hard to get off! It's actually very naive to judge people for being stuck on this ride, as it's not simply a matter of being strong of mind, it's actually about slowly having to change the chemical balance in your brain back to a less "needy" state. The good news is, you can get off, but it may take a bit of time, patience and understanding.

So yes, food speaks to our emotions and it's real and if you relate, you are not alone!

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My advice?

There's no quick fix or easy answer here, but I do recommend the following for some food for thought:

1) Stop referring to food as "good" and "bad" - think of it as "everyday" and "occasional". As soon as we tell ourselves we have eaten something "bad" we start the cycle of quilt and shame.

2) Be prepared and organised with your food. Start a meal prep Sunday which includes meal planning, grocery shopping and cooking. Include some tasty snacks in the prepping such as bliss balls, nut slices and veggie sticks with hummus - things that you can pack with you during the day and consume when tempted to go to the vending machine. Make sure that you are having enough protein in each meal so that you feel satisfied.

3) If you are trying to break habits, confide in your family and closest friends so that you can have them support you and you can be accountable to them.

4) Keep a food diary and include a summary of your daily emotions (stress levels, hormonal changes, mood etc) so that you can see if there are particular scenarios that are triggering you to over-indulge when you don't need to.

5) Break your nightly routine. Many of us mindlessly eat in front of the TV. Try eating at the dinner table and finish with a peppermint tea and then go and clean your teeth straight away. Maybe reading a book instead of watching your favourite TV show will assist in preventing the mindless snacking. You can always watch your favourite shows on the weekend instead when folding washing ;-)

Most importantly, don't give up simply because you have a bad day, weekend or entire week. Be kind to yourself and try to work on changing how you speak to yourself and to others about your food habits. Lose the negative terminology and remember that food is good and important for energy, socialising, physical (and mental) health and well-being. Food is not your enemy. If you can change how you view food and speak about it then you are already on the right track to having an emotionally healthy relationship with food.