Food can be nourishment.
It can be fuel.
It can be the power source for our day.
It can also be celebration. Escape. Distraction. Amusement. Consolation.
Why we eat and when we do is often rooted in patterns we can't remember forming. They begin with exposure to certain people, places, or activities where we feel permission to act in a particular way, often out of sync with what our body really wants. Through repeated exposure, we learn to choose to listen to situational cues, not internal ones.
When we continuously expose ourselves to situations that promote an eating behavior that is anything apart from fueling, we entrench habits more and more deeply. Of course, there is always a time and a place for celebrating with food (and in many instances, food is supposed to be fun!) It's when we lose track of when we are eating for fuel versus some other reason that we run into trouble.
Personally, I've struggled with misplaced eating since I can remember. I've always had a hard time feeling full and until my mid-20s, I too often felt like the need to fill time by eating. It has taken a great deal of effort to tap into why I eat when I do – and what I can do instead when I feel "hunger” that is actually emotion.
In health coaching, we talk a lot about the important of ‘primary foods’; that is, the things in our lives that nourish us. Strong relationships, a fulfilling career, ample physical activity, and a connection to some higher power truly sustain us: eating is meant to provide fuel to help us fully thrive in the other four areas. When one of those primary foods is out of balance – or contributing negatively to our life – we turn to food to try to recalibrate. Unfortunately, all of the junk food in the world can’t turn a stressful day into a better one (as I’m sure we’ve all experienced), and the lasting effects can be worse than the stress itself. In the moment, the food seems like the best solution; in the long term, the situation requires mediating in another way. For so many of us, the food solution is the quickest way to address the problem... and it’s a reaction that might root more deeply than we know.
As children, we learn to think about food according to the situations in which it is provided. When it’s given as a bribe, a reward, or for comfort, food can take on very specific meaning. Used too often for purposes besides fuelling, kids will learn to use food to cope with emotions, even in the absence of hunger. This can lead to a skewed idea of why to eat and when, and can confuse the mechanisms that allow us to feel satiety. This (very common) issue is one that psychologists call “emotional regulation”: it teaches kids to confuse emotional discomfort with hunger, which can lead to overeating. Children who inappropriately identify emotional discomfort as hunger are more likely to respond to any negative situation with food. Trouble is, it’s not usually the healthiest option.
Think of your past relationship with food. What purpose did it serve when you were a child? Has this changed? How does this influence your present relationship with food: do you eat if you're feeling down? Bored? Stressed? Happy? Try to reflect on where this comes from.
Food associations can also form around situations or surroundings: they become inextricably linked, until the reason for doing one and not the other is unclear (why would I go to the movies and not have popcorn, or to grandmas and not have copious baked goods?) We are smart creatures: the connections happen quickly and run deeply. Only with mindfulness of where the behavior comes from can we untangle why we act the way we do, perhaps put better practices in place, and demonstrate healthy food behaviors for our families. For parents, how we dole out snacks (distraction, reward, comfort) can build the eating habits that will stay with kids for a lifetime. Look at how food fits into your child's life (not just what they're eating, but when and how) to begin to identify emerging patterns. We can aim to teach lessons that will serve them best as they become more autonomous with their food choices.
By tapping into the habits we have established and finding other activities to fill our time, we can build a stronger relationship with our nourishment. A healthy connection to why we eat will actually be more beneficial to the body: food consumed when we are calm is better absorbed, more easily digested, and has been linked to less weight gain. When we have enough joy elsewhere in our lives, we don't need to round out our mood by eating. Instead, we can fuel with the best foods possible, consumed in a mindful way, to fuel those big parts of our life.