We’re going to dive right in to our Trim Down and Tone Up series by starting out with the emotional side of weight gain and body image. Might as well get the hardest one over with first, right? I’m not a psychologist, psychiatrist, or anything else in the mental health field. My experience in psychiatry consisted of one mental health course in nursing school, and two rotations through psychiatric facilities. This is more of an armchair psychology discussion, with things I’ve picked up over the years from dealing with thousands of patients and reading psychology books. What I write here may or may not apply to you, but I do encourage you to read this post, then take a few minutes to sit back and honestly consider it. I won’t know if you do or you don’t, but if you’re really looking to drop some pounds, your efforts will go a lot farther if you consider the fact that your emotional health is part of the solution.
Food is a sensory experience. The sights, the aromas, the taste, the sounds, and the mental associations we have with comfort and love all contribute to the way we think of and relate to food. Not only that, but our own basic survival instincts play into things as well. Combine all that with the fact that processed food companies literally have scientists that develop their products to be the most rewarding, addictive, and sensory pleasing foods available, and you have the perfect storm.
Food As Love
We’ve all heard of this concept. We feel insecure, alone, unloved, etc, and we turn to food. Whether its the mac and cheese mom used to make for us when we were a kid, or the chocolate ice cream we associate with feeling good about ourselves, we turn to food to fulfill our need for acceptance, belonging, and love. Break up with your boyfriend, and all of a sudden sitting on the couch in your pajamas for days while binging on chocolate ice cream seems like a perfectly acceptable option. If we can eliminate or cover up the pain of heartache with the pleasure of food, we don’t have to deal with the underlying issues we all carry around at one point or another. Am I lovable? Am I worth it? Will there ever be anyone who loves me just the way I am? In her book When Food is Love, Geneen Roth talks about her lifelong struggle with food and intimacy issues. She was overweight, and always told herself that once she lost weight, she’d find love. The problem was that once she did lose weight and also found someone who truly loved her, all the emotional issues she’d put off dealing with came roaring up to the surface. She had difficulty letting him in, allowing herself to be vulnerable with someone who could hurt her deeply. All those years, the weight she carried around was really a shield, protecting her from getting hurt, but at the same time blocking her from experiencing love. If that sounds anything like where you’re at right now, you might want to check out her book, as it is a very powerful read.
Eating to Boost Mood
Sugary starchy foods boost serotonin. If you didn’t realize that before, you better believe the processed food companies know all about it. You need some carbohydrates in your diet, otherwise your body won’t run efficiently. But you have to be careful about the carbs you consume. White sugar, white flour, and all those other processed foods that have had most of their nutrients stripped away, are highly addictive. Remember, your brain and your body weren’t designed for the food availability of the twenty-first century. When our ancestors found a sugary, starchy food in the wild, their brains signaled them to keep eating it while it was available, because it was a ready source of fuel and provided extra calories that could be stored away for the next day when food might not be so plentiful. The boost in serotonin we get from these foods is our brain’s way of telling us that this is good, keep eating it. The problem is, the sugary foods of old were things like fruit and honey that had additional nutritive value, and they were somewhat scarce. Your brain doesn’t realize that you can get those sugary cookies any day of the week, and that they really have no value for you. So when you start eating to boost your mood, recognize the cycle that you’re in. Figure out why you’re feeling the way you are in the first place. Deal with that issue, rather than pushing it aside with a box of cookies. Call a friend, get some sunshine, do some exercising (also boosts serotonin), or just get out of the house and occupy yourself in a productive way, rather than moping around.
Eating Out of Boredom
Ok, I’ll be honest here, this is the one that gets me. I’m sitting around my house (I’m a perpetual homebody, near hermit, actually), and I get bored. Hmmm, I have that bar of dark chocolate in the pantry….that could be interesting. It’s ok, if I limit myself to a square or two and then move on to something productive (or, gasp, actually get out of my pajamas and leave the house). But if you settle into the couch with the bag of chips or bowl of sugary cereal or chocolate bar or whatever your drug of choice may be and spend the next 3 hours watching soaps, well, that’s a problem. Before you know it, you’ve consumed an ungodly amount of calories, sugar, endocrine disrupting food additives and who knows what else, and you feel like a total slug. The solution: Find a hobby! Or get out of the house, call a friend, walk your dog, do some yoga, go for a swim or lay out by the pool and soak up some vitamin D, anything to actually benefit your health rather than consuming a bunch of empty calories that you’re just going to feel guilty about later. Don’t get me wrong, I’m all about relaxation, and think that most of us don’t get enough of it. If you’ve been working hard and sleeping poorly and need a day to just lay on the couch and recuperate, by all means, do it. But don’t sabotage yourself by eating out of boredom while you’re there.
Whew, that’s a lot of emotional baggage right there! We’ve barely scratched the surface of how our emotions affect our health, but I think that’s a good place to start for this series. If you have any other insights into the relationship between emotions and eating, leave a comment for the rest of us. This is all about shared wisdom here, and the more we learn from each other, the better off we’ll be.
Don’t miss a post! Subscribe via RSS feed, email, twitter or facebook to be alerted of new posts.