Carla (not her real name) was a 39-year-old woman, originally from Puerto Rico, who came to my office because she was unhappy with her size and said she wanted to "get in better shape before my fortieth birthday." She was very vibrant, energetic, and talkative. She reported on the numerous diets she had been on in the past and how much weight she’d regained after each one. She was now eating “only healthy and clean” foods and had begun weight lifting. She felt that all of the foods she had grown up with were “bad” so she had stopped going to her mother’s house for Sunday dinner or eating in Puerto Rican restaurants in her neighborhood. She had difficulty perceiving when she was physically hungry and when she was full. Her enjoyment of food had diminished significantly on her new diet and she felt caught in a vicious circle of longing to eat and depriving herself of food.
You may be like Carla in that you divide foods into “good” and “bad” categories. You may deprive yourself of foods you think are bad for you and then end up craving them and overeating them at a later time. If you have obsessive thoughts about food, those thoughts may be related to how you use food to numb your feelings or deal with stress or to use food for comfort. Perhaps you are like Carla, and your focus on food is all about fixing things you don’t like about your body, rather than enjoying the food you are eating.
Shouldn't you enjoy eating? If you have these feelings about food it's important to shift from a focus on the number on the scale, or your body’s size and shape, to a focus on nourishing your body and enjoying the experience of eating. This may seem like an impossible task, and you may feel lots of resistance to changing what you’ve been doing for so long. However, ask yourself whether what you’ve been doing is working.
Principle 1: You deserve to eat foods that give you pleasure, not just foods that are part of a rigid diet.
Food can take on many meanings in our lives. People with food obsessions are often overly focused on food but not aware of why. Some of the reasons why food can take on such a central and powerful role in your life include the effects of childhood trauma or neglect, food sensitivities, problems with emotional regulation, or trouble coping with stress. You may have come to rely on food as a way to deal with issues in your life or uncomfortable emotions. This is a skill you may have learned when you were younger and you're so used to using food in this way that you may even think of food as your best friend or the only thing that brings you comfort. But when you address and heal your food obsessions, you will be able to make peace with food and instead of constantly dieting and restricting, you may discover the joy of eating again.
Principle 2: Food is meant to nourish my body and also to be a source of pleasure.
Whenever I ask people with food obsessions why they crave certain foods, they always say, “It’s because I love to eat ______(fill in the blank).” But they don’t always mean that they love the flavor or the experience of eating those foods. Rather, they mostly mean they love how the foods make them feel. For example, when I eat or even see strawberry shortcake, it takes me back to the feelings of happiness and safety I felt around my grandmother. Food can bring us pleasure for many different reasons: the taste of the food itself, the enjoyment of eating with other people, and the pleasant memories that certain foods evoke, along with any associated emotions. There's nothing wrong with food serving these purposes, but if you have a food obsessions, food may have become your only source of pleasure, your only friend or comfort. Your obsessions with food may then take over your life and cause you suffering.
Principle 3: Food should not be my only source of pleasure in life.
If you’ve been overeating for some time, or if you tend to not pay attention to what you’re eating or how your body feels, you may have gotten into the habit of eating when you are bored or stressed or angry. If so, you may have come to think of hunger not as a physical change in your body, but just as an “uncomfortable feeling.” This kind of thinking can reinforce a pattern of eating when you’re not physically hungry but want to use food to self-soothe or comfort yourself, or for its numbing effect. It’s important to learn to distinguish what physical hunger feels like in your body. Journal about your hunger and see if you are hungry around the same time of day, or in the same situations, and then plan to have a snack or do an activity at that time of day if you feel your hunger is more emotional than physical. When you eat in response to physical hunger, then you will be able to create space in your life for other forms of pleasure because food will no longer be your best friend or only source of fun, adventure, or comfort.
Principle 4: I deserve to enjoy the food I eat bite by bite, moment by moment.
Eating is meant to bring you pleasure. Eating good food—in good company or alone—shopping and preparing food, and eating out are all ways to bring pleasure into your life. Breakfast should give you a happy send off to your day and it should keep you going until lunch. Lunch should help sustain your focus and energy for the duration of your day. Dinner should be a satisfying conclusion to your day. It shouldn’t keep you up at night or be too difficult to digest before bedtime.
Before each meal, ask yourself what you’d love to eat. Experiment with eating the foods you love and journal about how you feel when you do. Sometimes you’ll find that the food you thought you’d love doesn’t actually satisfy you. When you pay attention to what you eat—how the food tastes and how it feels in your body—you can learn a lot of information about yourself. Learning about yourself should also include learning how to feed yourself in a way that brings you joy.
Principle 5: I no longer need to eat something for any reason other than that it is a food I desire and enjoy, and it fuels my body.
It may seem monumental to consider overcoming your food obsessions. If you give up or let go of your food obsession, how will you comfort yourself when you’re upset? How will you have a break from life without using food? Don’t try to figure it all out now. You didn’t develop food obsession overnight, and it won’t change overnight. But with each step, you will get closer and closer to your end goal of freedom from your obsessions around food and your body. Food obsession is fundamentally about the need for love. If there has been a shortage of love in your life, you may have turned to food to fill the gap. The good news is, you can find other ways to bring love into your life, and you can heal your relationship with food.
The famous Buddhist monk Thich Nhat Hanh suggests that “sharing a meal is not just to sustain our bodies and celebrate life’s wonders, but also to experience freedom, joy, and the happiness of brotherhood and sisterhood, during the whole time of eating.”
At the end of the day, what most people truly want is to be able to express themselves fully and without fear of judgment. It's important to understand what it means to be true to yourself, to turn away from your inner critic and instead listen to your inner wisdom—the wise part of yourself that will guide you with kindness and gentleness toward reaching the goals that are right for you.
Nhat Hanh, T. N., and L. Cheung. 2010. Savor. New York: Harper Collins.
Meule A., and A. N. Gearhardt. 2014. Five years of the Yale Food Addiction Scale: Taking stock and moving forward. Current Addiction Reports 1:193–205.