Relationship Status: “It’s Complicated” with…Food

The late night binge. The weekend cheat. The social splurge. Indulgent foods are our hero and our kryptonite, all at once. What a messy situation. No wonder we’re swept up in a cycle of desire and guilt. The band aid that helps us is the same iron that burns us. It seems like we can never win, and so were always stuck. Emotional eating is a difficult habit to break, because there’s so much grey area. We have to eat, and there’s a huge sliding scale regarding what’s “good” or “bad”. Too many moving parts.

One side of the argument says it doesn’t really matter how much you eat, as long as it’s all healthy. So, we go keto, and carb free, gluten free, and high protein, etc. The other side says it doesn’t really matter what you eat, as long as you what your portions. So we count calories, split cupcakes in half, and measure-by-tupperware. These tactics can be a comprehensive solution for some people. A little awareness and you’re on your way. But for most of us, the problem runs deeper. We’re fully aware of our poor choices, and we do it anyway because food is serving a greater purpose.

Food has now become a solution for a multitude of sufferings far beyond hunger. It us an instantaneous, limitless fix for daily ailments like loneliness, boredom, comfort, connection, significance, anticipation, reward, and so on. We have a deep, instinctual response to eating. To our primal body, eating correlates to survival. We have a dopamine response to food, especially sugar, salt, and fat, because they help us live the longest in a famine. The way our body gives us a pleasure response from reproducing to encourage us to continue, we get pleasure from eating. In our culture, we’re so heavily deprived of this pleasurable dopamine response, and it’s cousin serotonin. We can thank stressful work environments, lack of exercise, roles that make us feel insignificant, toxic relationships, disconnection via technology, and so on.

A huge drop in Serotonin results in the feeling of depression. We don’t like to feel depressed! While Serotonin is the much more fulfilling, satiating hormone, which is preferable, but is mainly achieved through social sources. Think of it as your long-term relationship. Dopamine, the quick fix, is like your one-night-stand. Not as good in the long run, but definitely works in the moment and sometimes is a little more fun. Dopamine spikes are sort of addictive, and you better believe we remember our dealers. For some people, they seek out this dopamine rush from drugs, gambling, sex, shopping, and food. Starting to get the picture? When that serotonin/dopamine combo has us feeling low, we need a fix. Serotonin takes longer, and requires more effort, like accomplishing a goal or participating in a fulfilling activity. Who has time for that? Cake takes 30 seconds. I’m in.

While drugs and gambling are a more easily recognized issue, it’s hard to tell someone to just quit food cold turkey. So what do we do? We have to build our Serotonin and Dopamine sources from healthy sources like connection and significance in the workplace, in our personal relationships, in our self development, wherever we can. We have to isolate our unfavorable food choices and the triggering event or feeling that we had before hand. When we can understand what role food plays for us, or what it is taking the place of in our life, we can find another way to fill that space with something less detrimental to our health.

These behaviors seem to come out of nowhere, like we can’t control them. I hear my clients say “I don’t know why I ate that” or “I didn’t even really want that”. It seems impulsive, and that’s because the driver is on the subconscious level. We can’t see it readily or associate off the bat, and that’s why trying to change what we eat or looking at the specifics foods as the problem is ineffective. In fact, the restriction often enhances that feeling of emptiness because we’re withdrawing from our drug without a replacement. We relapse, and feel guilt and shame for failing. That’s another downer, and we need a pick me up. Ice cream will do! The cycle continues. At this stage, it’s key to reflect on when and why we go off the rails with undesirable food choices and see if we can work to build a replacement in that area of our life.

A healthy relationship with food is not about healthy food. We often say “a little treat in moderation is okay”. Of course it is! If that’s all it is. But it doesn’t always work that way. It’s like the alcoholic slipping out of AA for just a martini here and there because “we have to enjoy life”! It’s not about moderation, it’s about intention. What is that food doing for you? Is it bringing you a bit of simple, unattached joy? Or is it covering up a deeper issue that’s being ignored? Also, how much is a “little”? How often is “in moderation”? The more vague we are about our boundaries, the easier it becomes to bend and shape them to fit our needs at the moment and validate our choices.

On the other end, it’s not about deprivation. It’s about connection. When we are connected to our needs and how we’re feeling, we begin to understand our choices and can course-correct those that are breeding unhealthy patterns. We don’t need to deprive ourselves of anything pleasant and all the foods we enjoy. We simply need to purify the role that food plays for us, and allow it to do its job; nourish us! When we can fulfill those deeper, emotional needs with their appropriate remedy, we won’t have to lean on food to do so many jobs it’s not qualified for. We ask food to solve so many problems it’s not qualified for, and then we develop resentment and guilt when it causes harm or lets us down. We can’t ask it to fix everything. We can let it have some time off and spend more of our working on other feel-good activities. Who knows, maybe you’ll learn how to crochet and drop a dress size, all in one shot!

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Holistic Wellness Expert: Certified Coach in Habit Change, Functional Nutrition, Cognitive Behavior, Achievement Psychology, and Therapeutic Exercise.

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Allison M

Holistic Wellness Expert: Certified Coach in Habit Change, Functional Nutrition, Cognitive Behavior, Achievement Psychology, and Therapeutic Exercise.