Food: Feeling or Fueling?
Written by Melissa Hurley
Is food a feeling for you? Or is it a fuel source? Have you ever said, “I was so bad last night. I had ice cream” or told yourself, “I worked so hard I deserve a piece of cake”? Or how about “He is being so good having a salad”? Why do we associate food with emotions? Last I checked, food doesn’t have feelings and it sure as heck doesn’t care how it makes us feel.
The power of food is how it fuels your body.
Food is not “good” or “bad” by itself, and eating clean is not some kind of punishment that you are forced to abide by and deny yourself all fun. That line of thinking actually leads to even more urges to comfort eat. Here are some suggestions on what to do instead.
Food is Not Inherently “Good” or “Bad”
Even if you don’t usually notice it, you’re surrounded by messages that assign moral value to food – some foods are “good,” other foods are “bad,” and you are “good” or “bad” for eating or not eating them.
Think about how we, as a society, add moral value to food. We use phrases like “guilty pleasure,” implying that by eating that food you’re doing something wrong. How many times have you heard a decadent treat described as “sinful”?
Cravings do exist and there are ways to help eliminate their sometimes overpowering force. Making sure to you are eating enough carbs and enough calories really helps. To a certain extent, you do just have to grit your teeth and power through the “withdrawal” you might feel from using food as an emotional crutch. However, craving comfort food isn’t just about what you eat, it’s also about how you think about food. Specifically, it’s about making food into a moral issue.
Sadly, we judge our own and other people’s worth by what we eat or don’t eat. The same mindset makes people think it’s OK to shame and put down people they perceive as overweight. Do you punish or shame yourself for eating certain foods, or feel guilty after eating them?
None of these thought patterns are healthy. Food does not have moral value. You’re not a good person because you ordered the salad, and you’re not a bad person because you ordered the pizza. You might be a person with a stomach ache, but that doesn’t make you bad.
Treating food as a moral issue inevitably leads to a mindset where healthy eating and avoiding junk food is tied up with shame and punishment, and the evidence shows that shame about food and your body rebounds in the form of comfort eating.
Don’t make eating clean a punishment. Food should not be a constant struggle against cravings and it should not be the enemy.
The Journal of Clinical Psychology, noted that among patients who attempted to lose weight, relapsers showed more “disengaging coping strategies,” a category that included negative self-talk (beating up on yourself). By contrast, people who successfully kept the weight off used less self-shaming techniques and more “engaging coping strategies” like tackling the problem head-on or getting support from a friend. Shaming and punishment are direct consequences of seeing food as “good” and “bad,” and they rebound spectacularly.
Reframe Your Mindset Surrounding Food
If you don’t want food to rule your emotions, and keep you on a rollercoaster, it helps to completely dissociate food from shame, blame, “goodness,” “badness,” or punishment. You deserve more than living a life of self-hatred and research shows that this behavior actually increases cravings in the long run. Here are some ways you can break yourself of this habit and start to reframe your mindset.
Do’s & Don’ts of Food-Related Self-Talk
Don’t refer to foods as “good,” “bad,” or “evil” (no, not even sugar!). If you accidentally do, stop and correct yourself.
Don’t refer to yourself as “good,” “bad,” etc. for eating or not eating particular foods. If you accidentally do, stop and correct yourself.
Don’t deprive yourself of food in general or specific foods in particular as a punishment for something you think you did wrong.
Don’t force yourself to do things with the promise of food as a reward. This includes exercising to “earn your carbs.” If you’re alive and hungry, you have already “earned” the right to eat as much as you need to feel full.
If you start experiencing a craving for a food you know isn’t healthy for you in the long run, say some variation of this out loud: “I choose not to eat ____________, because I respect my body and want it to be healthy and feel amazing.”
Be good to yourself and those around you. Instead, focus on habit change and reframe healthy eating as a way of respecting yourself and fueling your body to do great things. Eating clean is not a punishment, it’s a way of eating that should make you feel like a million bucks all the time – and you can’t feel like a million dollars if you’re too busy shaming yourself over food!
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