Does Food Provide Emotional Satisfaction For You?

How Your Delight In Food Might Be Holding You Back From Where You Want To Be

By Joshua Wayne, May 6th, 2010
"I think most people enjoy food to at least some extent some of the time, but my experience is that some people develop a level of attachment - something that borders on emotional reliance - to food that goes way beyond normal appreciation for the food that is in front of you."

I want to share with you something I have been noticing quite a bit lately with people who are struggling with their weight.  I don't think it applies to everybody who fits that description, but I think its common enough that it is worth putting out there.  

These observations have taken shape through a number of experiences: observing and talking with clients, friends and family members who struggle with their weight; observing people in public (restaurants); and through extensive conversations over the years with people who are naturally thin, and who in many respects have the opposite experience of what I'm describing.

It was also triggered by a conversation I had recently with Jackie about Jennifer Aniston when she was filming the show "Friends" … but more about that in just a little bit.  

What I have been noticing is that some people get a lot of emotional satisfaction out of food in a way that really sabotages their ability to get any kind of sustained weight loss results.

I think most people enjoy food to at least some extent some of the time, but my experience is that some people develop a level of attachment - something that borders on emotional reliance - to food that goes way beyond normal appreciation for the food that is in front of you.  Often this comes from rich tasting foods.  Whether it's creamy sauces, heavy starches like pasta and bread, lots of sweets, salty snack foods or fast food that may combine all of these, they don't feel emotionally satisfied unless they have them.  If they have to eat food other than this richer stuff they've grown attached to, they feel bored and dissatisfied.    

It is almost like food is a primary source of happiness.  I don't mean that food provides a deep seated, grounded lasting sense of happiness because I don't think food can do that - ever.  Its way too temporary by nature.  Food cannot bring us anything more than temporary, sensory pleasure - a sense of pleasure that is inevitably short-lived and will frankly never be anything more than that.  It will never give us a true deeper happiness or sense of satisfaction in life, but that doesn't stop so many of us from trying over and over again to make it do so - of course with futility.  Its like trying to put a round peg through a square hole.  No matter how much we try, it will never fit.

I'm not saying you shouldn't enjoy your food.  But what I am suggesting is that if you are really struggling to get your weight where you want it, you probably need to look at the way you use food as an ongoing way to provide stimulation, excitement and even happiness in your life.  How is your desire to avoid boredom and seek satisfaction in familiar foods (that don't help your weight loss) standing in your way?

Do you plan your next meal or snack way in advance of eating it?  Do you "ooh" and "ahh" while you're eating it or looking at it before you eat it?  Is it the cornerstone of your day - the thing (or one of them) that you most look forward to?  Do you eat beyond being physically satisfied because its through feeling full that you feel emotionally satisfied, or because the food is just so irresistible that you can't pass up on eating more of it than is really necessary?

Again, I am not saying we should only eat bland, uninteresting food, but if any of the above questions ring true for you, AND you are struggling with your weight, then you might want to look deeper at your emotional connection to food because I suspect it really is holding you back.

How do I know if my emotional relationship to food is really holding me back?

Here are a few questions you may want to ask yourself if you think this may be you:

1.  How much time in my day to I spend planning what I will eat - especially foods that give me emotional comfort but that I know are not really going to get me to my goal?

2.  If I think about a week without my biggest comfort foods what kind of emotional reaction do I have?  Do I feel sad - like I'm losing something important to me?  Do I feel anxious - like I don't know how I will make it through without?  Do I feel depressed - like if I don't have pizza and cookies and ice cream to look forward to I will be totally bored - what sense of happiness is there to look forward to?

3.  Ask yourself: do I feel out of control in other areas of my life (with my emotions, in my relationships, in my job, I life), but when I eat I actually feel in control?

4.  Is the next satisfying meal all I really look forward to?  Or is it one of the very few things that I look forward to?  Is food my oasis?

5.  On a scale of 1-10, where 1 is not at all and 10 is majorly so, what is my level of emotional dependence on food? Or similarly, using the same measuring scale, how much is food a part of my sense of satisfaction or happiness in a typical day?

So what do I do if my emotional reliance on food is holding me back from getting to my goal?

If the thoughts I'm sharing with you here hit close to home, then here are a few things to think about to start turning this around.

1.  First, realize no matter how much hope you have that food will provide happiness or more than very brief satisfaction (whether its conscious or unconscious) it never will.  It can't.  While that may not be the solution for looking in the wrong place for happiness, awareness is the first step in making a change.  So be aware that food may have played that role for you in the past.

2. Don't beat yourself up!  If you have been using food in this way, don't beat yourself up for it!  Be patient and compassionate with yourself.  Just recognize that food has had greater meaning for you than just nutrition, and you have the power to change that.  I can't say this enough: beating yourself up isn't going to do an ounce of good (and isn't going to take an ounce off the scale) so don't do it!

3.  Start training your palate to look forward to foods that will really accelerate your weight loss (vegetables, beans, sweet potatoes, etc).  As I mentioned in the beginning, Jackie told me something interesting recently about Jennifer Aniston when she was doing the show "Friends".  Every day on the set - for all the years they were doing that show - she ate the same thing.  Every day!  The same thing over and over again.  I don't remember what it was, but it was healthy, simple and repetitive.  This is a trait I have observed a lot in naturally thin people.  It doesn't mean they don't enjoy food, they just don't seek their emotional satisfaction from it.  

Food is a way to get energy, nutrition and to keep the body working (and looking) well.  It's nice if it tastes good, but that isn't the primary function of it.  Insisting on a rich, varied diet - and getting your emotional satisfaction from it - can really stand in your way of getting where you want to go.  So start training your palate to be content with simpler, healthier more basic foods.  

4.  While your'e retraining your palate, identify other things in your life that can give you a real sense of emotional satisfaction.  Recognize that if food has played this kind of role for you in the past, then you need to start replacing it with other, more positive things.  This is important!  If you don't have something that will give you real satisfacion and happiness in a better way, chances are at some point you will default back to food again.  

Be patient with yourself here - are you recognizing that as a theme here yet? : ) - because this takes time.  New, healthier ways of finding real satisfaction in life don't necessarily happen over night.  They can, but you can't count on it happening that way.  For most of us it takes some time and trial and error.  

Start building a list of things can play that role for you.  Maybe it's exercise or taking up a sport where you connect with others.  Maybe it's through cultivating some new relationships or deepening the ones you already have.  This may be especially helpful to give yourself things to do in the evenings when you get home and most look forward to satiating your emotions with food.  

5.  Explore what kind of "meditation" or personal development practice you can engage in.  This doesn't necessarily mean sitting in some rigid, uncomfortable position for an hour at a time.  When I say "meditation" I just mean some way of developing a deeper relationship with yourself and learning to handle normal day to day emotions differently.  It can be as simple as taking a break in the middle of a busy day, slowing down and checking in with yourself.  

Very often what we're really looking for (and seek out in food - or shopping, drugs, alcohol, gambling or sex for that matter) is a deeper, more substantial connection to ourselves or a connection to something bigger than us (a "higher power", a sense of spirituality or a spiritually oriented group of people or community, etc).  

6.  Build good, supportive connections with others.  I mentioned this in a different way above in numbers 3 and 4, but I'll be explicit and talk about it here some more.  It's really hard to make any change 100% on our own.  Having a good friend, support group (that's the whole purpose behind PEERtrainer) or a coach to work with can make a huge difference.  It's one of our main goals to provide that in the Point of No Return Program.  

7.  Choose optimism!  Remind yourself that no matter how challenging things seem at times, you can only ever fail if you give up.  Change, by definition, isn't so comfortable or easy.  It's a process, and sometimes we feel like we're fumbling around in the dark.  But that isn't a reason to give up and retreat.  It's through patience and persistence - and especially being patient with ourselves - that we find clarity and light at the end of the tunnel.

So once again, please let me know what you think of the ideas I'm sharing here.  Do they ring true?  Did I miss something?  Any things in your experience you'd care to share that would shed light on what I'm talking about?

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btw, I have written with Jackie a 175 page digital guide to emotional eating, night eating, and many other ideas surrounding this issue. We sell the guide for $27 but when you sign up for the first trial month of the Point Of No Return program you get it sent to you for free. You can get this guide for free by signing up using this link.

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