Unhealthy Relationships With Food: When Eating Is What's Eating You

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Recently, a reader reached out to me with this comment:

"I think it would be great if you could cover disordered and compulsive eating. Not just for people who have suffered through an eating disorder, but for many people who find that eating to soothe, eating to not feel, is just a part of life."

Great idea! If you’re a regular reader, you know that I tend to use things like donuts, cake, and cupcakes all the time in the examples I use to illustrate different concepts. Pictures of them, too!

Like here, where I used being torn between eating cake and exercising as an example of ambivalence. (I went on to talk about how satisfying cravings perpetuates them, and ultimately bites you in the rear end, among other things.)

Or in this piece, where I covered a technique for depowering your cravings when you’d like to, such as when you’re trying to eat healthy foods but coworkers are putting pieces of birthday cake in front of you. 

In this piece about the allure (and dangers) of instant gratification, I talked about a “friend” who ate five donuts in one day. In case my hints in that article weren’t clear enough, I’ll spell it out: there was no such friend. It was me, okay?! I ate five donuts!

The unique challenges of food

So it’s no accident that sweets appear so frequently on the website; those examples are usually autobiographical in some way. Sometimes I actually eat a very healthy diet; when I’m off the “healthy wagon,” I do enjoy a donut, cupcake, ice cream, or Otter Pop—or a few.

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Now, I was being a little facetious a minute ago, in that it isn’t really that difficult for me to fess up to my dietary habits. But it isn’t like that for everyone. Food is not an easy issue for everyone to be open about.

Emotions run pretty high around discussions of food, actually. Some people are vehement advocates of eating or not eating certain entire food groups, to the point that their diet has become linked to their identity, and they argue and get upset about it.

There’s also the importance that our society places on physical appearance, which can cause people to feel insecure and ashamed of their body and, in turn, of what or how much they eat.

That can drive the topic of diet underground altogether, making tasty foods a dirty secret for some people. Yet, as my reader alluded to, food can also serve as a source of comfort when facing those same difficult emotions. (Or others.) It’s a recipe for a vicious, self-perpetuating cycle.

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Further complicating matters is that, unlike alcohol or other drugs that people can develop problems with, we’re required to have a relationship with food. It’s not like you can wean yourself off of it, or quit it . . . um, cold turkey . . . even if you wanted to.

That’s one of the reasons why eating disorders can be very difficult to treat. It’s like being addicted to oxygen!

(Note that in this article, I’m mostly setting aside life-threatening eating disorders like Anorexia and Bulimia Nervosa. They’re complex and outside the scope of this article, although people with those problems may find the discussion useful.)

These are just some of the physical, social, and psychological factors that are tangled up in our eating behaviors. And, in our prosperous society, most of us are fortunate enough to have ample food available to us to use, or misuse, in response to them.

Probably several times a day, you negotiate a relationship with food. At what point does it become dysfunctional, and why? And what can you do about it?

Food addiction: Yay or nay?

Although binge eating is now officially recognized as a disorder, food addiction still isn’t, even though the concept has been tossed around for decades. Intuitively it would make sense for there to be such a thing, right?

It’s no secret that some people have trouble cutting back on eating, continue eating food types or amounts despite adverse consequences, spend significant time thinking about and planning how to get food, etc.—the same behaviors you see in drug addiction.

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Well, nowadays, the evidence in support of food addiction is really mounting. Scientists observe many of the same chemical reactions taking place in the brains of people with compulsive, binge-eating patterns as they see in people with substance addictions.

Researchers have also found, at least in rats, that binge eating of “highly palatable” (a.k.a. delicious, sugar- and/or fat-rich) food is an effort to ward off the depression that comes from withdrawal from that food—another similarity between disordered eating and  substance use disorders.

These are important findings, because they highlight a path to a healthy relationship with food.

When food or any substance serves as a form of self-medication, to avoid negative feelings, the underlying problem is going untreated, much as taking an aspirin may help with the pain of a broken arm, but still leaves you disabled. You’re just kicking the can down the road.

Eating (or using other chemicals) to avoid the experience of withdrawal is even worse, really, because the bite you take of that highly palatable donut is not just providing temporary relief but it’s also guaranteeing that another withdrawal will occur in the future!

So you need to stop stoking the fire to break the cycle. How do you do that?

Where mindlessness and mindfulness come in

Well, reaching for short-term fixes without regard to our long-term best interests is the job of our powerful primitive brain parts. If you’re a regular reader, this concept might ring a bell with you, because I talk about it all the time. Left to its own devices, the brain tends to fall into “default mode,” mindlessly seeking short-term gratification.

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It’s no coincidence that researchers have found that people who aren’t able to identify and describe their emotions (about 10% of the population) are at major risk for all kinds of compulsive behaviors. Not just excessive eating and substance use, but gambling, sex, and internet use, to name a few. 

Obliviousness to your present-moment experience of life plucks you out of the driver’s seat and places you in the trunk: you’re still moving right along, but you don’t have much idea where you’re headed. You’ll find out when you get there.

That state is the opposite of mindful awareness. When you possess mindfulness—awareness, curiosity, and acceptance of our present-moment experience—you can be aware of cravings as they arise, along with their attendant emotions and physical sensations.

Becoming conscious of your cravings tends to weaken their grip on you. The noticing of an urge provides just enough space to choose how to respond to it, rather than unthinkingly reacting to it. The human-specific parts of your brain and their interests take precedence.

Both the noticing and the responding take a bit of practice, but it does work. In fact, there’s an intervention called Mindfulness-Based Relapse Prevention specifically designed to help people work with compulsive behaviors.

In any area of life, mindfulness helps you (a) know what’s happening in any given moment, (b) get in contact with the parts of your brain that want you to be happy in the long run, and (c) respond to (a) in a way that will get you to (b).

Mindfulness tips

Therefore, if you’re struggling with emotional eating, binge eating, or some other problematic food relationship that is at odds with your long-term happiness, you would do well to give mindfulness practice a shot.* You could get started right now by going here to try a mindfulness meditation.

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However, since mindfulness is a state of mind, you can also practice it during any kind of activity, including eating itself.

Next time you sit down for a meal or donut, try to eat slower than usual, taking time to savor the intricacies of each bite. The smell of the food; different aspects of the flavor; the texture of the food; the sound you can detect as you bite into it. There are many more aspects of the experience of eating than people tend to notice when they’re just gobbling.

You’ll take more time to eat this way and, coupled with extracting more enjoyment from each bite, you’ll probably end up eating less. But, more important, mindful eating allows you to nourish your body and your mind at the same time. Cultivating appreciation for the quality of your experience is an exercise that will yield benefit long after you put down your fork.
If you have difficulty with feelings around your body image, and/or have been diagnosed with an eating disorder, be cautious with your exploration of mindfulness. Some times (not all the time) people facing these challenges find that bringing awareness to their body (as in the Body Scan meditations here on the site) triggers anxiety or other unpleasant states.

I advise practicing with a facilitated group and/or a psychotherapist if you feel at this sort of risk and, at all times, to prioritize compassion for yourself (including stopping if you’re experiencing a great deal of distress). Also, please understand that you shouldn’t consider anything in this article to be psychotherapy or a treatment recommendation.