I love you, I love you not

Understanding our fickle relationship with food

by Mia James

We know that we need food to survive and that when we make the right choices it can give us energy and help us fight illness and support overall health. And we often just simply enjoy it. Many of us, however, have a love/hate relationship with food, as we struggle to reconcile the many positive aspects of our experience with food with the guilt, anxiety, and other negative emotions that eating can trigger.

Food and You: How Relationships Form

Our emotional connections with food run the gamut from positive associations with health, happiness, and pleasure to darker themes of anxiety and guilt. How each person arrives at his or her unique relationship with food and eating—be it blissful or turbulent—is likely a mixture of family, cultural, and social influences combined with personal emotional makeup.

According to Katherine L. Applegate, PhD, a clinical psychologist with Duke University Health System, personal history—including your family’s culture and traditions—as well as financial resources and regional influences make up your early food education. “Eating and food choices are learned behaviors,” she says.

Our attitudes toward food get more complex as we endow specific foods with meaning and purpose beyond basic nutrition. “People start to make associations with different foods and ascribe meaning to different food choices,” Dr. Applegate explains. “There are foods that we have to celebrate a birthday, to celebrate a religious holiday, foods that we eat when we’re under stress, foods that signify grief or loss of a loved one,” she says, describing some potential emotional associations with food.

Another way our attitudes about food can be shaped is through media and social influences like fad diets that promise dramatic weight loss and improved health. “Food choice is something that can definitely become disordered and affected by trends in the media,” Dr. Applegate explains. Trends, she says, such as low-fat, low-carbohydrate, and other diet fads can lead us to choose specific foods while eliminating others, and our responses to and reasons for these decisions can have emotional implications.

“When people make choices and eat certain types of food, they can have a variety of emotional reactions to those choices,” Dr. Applegate says. For example, learning that a food is “bad” or may be fattening can instill fear and avoidance of that food. These negative associations can get more pronounced when we feel guilt or shame for craving or eating “bad” foods and when we turn to food to cope with difficult emotions like stress and loneliness. As well, developing obsessions about our diet (such as which foods to avoid for health and weight management reasons) is likely to create stress and tension about eating.

It’s important to note here that while some relationships with food—like those described above—affect people negatively, many of the ways people connect emotionally with food can be entirely positive. Take, for example, the pleasure you may find in a delicious meal or the fun of preparing and sharing a favorite dish. And for some people, food may not offer any type of emotional associations but may exist only as a source of basic nutrition.

More Prone to Conflict

Certain people may be more likely to struggle with food relationships, explains Leslie A. Sim, PhD, clinical director of the eating disorders program at the Mayo Clinic in Rochester, Minnesota. “There are specific people who might be more anxious and more harm-avoidant [worry excessively],” she says. Such people might be more likely than others to interpret nutrition information rigidly and develop strict dietary rules, such as cutting out a particular food or food group. As well, people prone to anxiety may form attachments to food and often worry about their choices. “If you’re an anxious person, you start to wonder Am I doing the right thing? Is this bad?” says Dr. Sim.

When it comes to emotional overeating, Dr. Sim says that depression or sadness and easily available food can be a risky combination. “If you’re prone to depression or negative moods and are in a food-rich environment, that can put you at risk of binge eating or comfort eating,” she explains.

Developing a Healthy Relationship with Food

Despite the many conflicts and complexities that shape our relationship with food, there are ways to reshape how we think about eating and how we cope with challenging situations. By determining your own challenges when it comes to food, you can make choices to avoid negative feelings about eating and build a happier relationship.

One step, says Dr. Applegate, is to figure out what’s really behind your cravings. If you feel that you make food choices to soothe yourself when you’re upset or distressed, which you later regret, determine what you’re really feeling. It’s likely that it’s not hunger, she explains. Are you lonely? Stressed? Sad? “Try to notice if there’s a particular pattern,” Dr. Applegate says, “and address the emotion, not the hunger. Remember that your sad or stressed feelings will pass; be patient and know that food will not resolve them. Then ask yourself: What might be contributing to that pattern? Can it be changed? You may find that discussing these issues with a friend or counselor may help you become more aware of patterns as well as come up with ways to address them.”

You may also need to cut yourself some slack. Undereaters tend to establish rigid rules for their diets, which lock in their beliefs and emotional associations with food, says Dr. Sim. If this sounds familiar, you might benefit from breaking your own rules. “This can help people start seeing their thoughts or beliefs about food,” she explains. Some individuals will benefit from trying the foods they’ve labeled as “bad” and learning that, in sensible portions, there are no horrible consequences.

If you struggle with overeating or binge eating when you’re distressed, you may control this urge by keeping your belly full. “Hunger can be a big trigger, and I think it makes you more prone to emotional eating because you’re not as rational when you’re hungry,” explains Dr. Sim. She also says that many people who are prone to emotional eating also restrict their diets, so efforts to normalize eating patterns and, again, loosening the rules can help break this pattern. A regular and nutritionally balance diet can also regulate hunger.

Celebrations like holidays and weddings that promise large meals and rich desserts can be a source of anxiety for people worried about giving in to temptation and overeating. The key in these situations, says Dr. Applegate, is to make sure that the reason for the celebration or event—not the food—remains the focus of the gathering. “If you are using food to mark a special event, make sure food isn’t the only indicator of that event,” she explains. Look instead to the social aspect to share in the spirit of the gathering. Arriving with a game plan can also help: ask for just a small piece of cake or sip tea during the dessert course.

Some people worry about craving food that they consider unhealthy. Dr. Applegate says that there’s no need to feel shame or guilt. “It’s natural to have cravings,” she says. Instead of feeling guilty for wanting that milkshake or cheeseburger, learn what to do with that craving. Dr. Applegate suggests thinking about what you really want instead of acting impulsively. This may help you make a decision that you’re happy with in the long run.

You can also build a positive relationship with food through proper nutrition. Therese Shumaker, MS, RD, LD, a dietitian at the Mayo Clinic in Rochester, suggests avoiding foods high in simple sugars that only briefly satisfy your cravings and give only short bursts of energy and instead filling your plate with a proper balance of protein, carbohydrates, and fat. By choosing the right nutrients, she says, you can enjoy lasting energy and avoid the emotional ups and downs caused by an unbalanced diet.

Finding Peace in Mind and Belly

Love it, hate it, or a little of both, one thing’s certain about your relationship with food: you can’t live without it. With that in mind, one of the best things you can do for overall well-being is establish harmony between yourself and food. This solid partnership can bring you years of health and happiness.

Feed Your Relationship

Therese Shumaker, MS, RD, LD, a dietician at the Mayo Clinic in Rochester, Minnesota, says that learning about healthy food choices and taking time to plan healthful meals can help people who struggle emotionally with food get back on track and work toward a better relationship.

“I think one of the most important things is to educate people about how food works in the body,” Therese explains. “For example, foods that are high in simple sugar (such as cakes, cookies, and ice cream) give us quick energy and make us feel better only temporarily,” she says. With a balance of protein, carbohydrates, and fat, you’ll feel satisfied and energized longer. This is because protein helps regulate appetite, and together fat and protein take longer to digest than carbohydrates.

With this background knowledge to work from, the next step for those looking to transform their relationship with food is to build an individualized meal plan. “It’s a meal plan that will give the patient the right amount of calories, protein, and fat—all the nutrients that the body needs,” she says. This includes a goal of eating about six times per day (three meals and three snacks) to avoid hunger and support a healthy metabolism.

By following a meal plan that provides all the nutrients your body needs, Therese says, you’ll likely feel better physically and enjoy a more upbeat mood. With balanced food choices, she says, “We have the energy to do things that make us happy.”

Therese encourages patients to avoid strictly restricting any foods. “People who severely restrict their diets often take out foods that they really enjoy.” This tendency can trigger you to crave that food and may lead to overeating. “I always try to teach people that food restriction really creates food interest,” she explains.

Along with a meal plan, Therese encourages people to keep a food journal. “I call them ‘clue sheets,’” she says of the journals, “because they can really help patients clue into what they’re eating and how they’re feeling.” These clues can reveal the emotions behind what Therese calls “destructive eating patterns.” The journals are used to track hunger levels before and after meals and can also include mood, thoughts, and feelings when eating.