Food is fuel, but food is so much more. Food is pleasure and comfort, punishment, resignation and despair. Food is sensual and a subsitute. Food is a treat, a gift to oneself and one’s loved ones. Food is a symbol of morality, self-control, indulgence and lack of discipline. Food wears the coat of many many colours.
Are women more likely to take refuge in food as both a pleasure and a punishment? It does seem that way. Is that the manifestation of the specific cultural pressures women face, hormones or a combination of both? Does one play off the other – cultural pressures influence towards dietary restrictions and indulgences that have their own effect on the body’s hormones which then have their own effect again on appetite, weight and mood?
Sometimes it seems that there’s truth in the saying: when the student is ready the teacher will appear. Paleo for Women’s Stefani Ruper had a very timely post on binging that really resonated with the place that I’ve been for a couple of months now.
The psychological deprivation may be worse. It puts us in a state of hyper-awareness about food. The decision to restrict induces a constant struggle to eat less and exercise more, and it makes it nearly crucial for a woman to constantly check herself against her desires, lest her stock-piled hunger pick her up and shove her head-first into the overeating rabbit hole. The more a person thinks about food, the more he doesn’t want to think about food, but the more he ends up emphasizing it in his brain and thinking about it anyway. Then the more he messes up, and the more guilt he has, and the more negative he feels, the more strongly he needs to eat. So deprivation is one huge psychological factor. And so is the need to medicate against negative self-talk. Food is a powerful, powerful drug. And this whole process, a vicious, vicious cycle.
I have been very distrustful towards the idea of intuitive eating. Several of the blogs I read encourage it as a healthy (mind and body) approach to diet. However, I have had a lot of trouble with the idea that we should trust our bodies. Why? Have you looked around, our bodies have no idea what they are doing? I would be ashamed to let some of my nearest and dearest see how much I can eat in one go. My mind might know its a problem but my body doesn’t. I know that if I eat a certain way – lots of refined carbs – I just get hungrier and hungrier. I always have a dessert stomach! So how can I trust my body?
But maybe my body needs to trust my mind. Pushing your emotional concerns down doesn’t get rid of them. And, maybe there’s a certain pre-deposed aspect to it, eventually there’s an escape. Willpower is a finite resource. In some ways it acts like a muscle – you can develop it – but it also fatigues. If you are using up your willpower on the unaddressed or unadressable emotional issues, you have none left to control your diet. All the comfort that food can offer can no longer be refused. Consuming enough food to cause real physical discomfort can be a manifestation of the emotional turmoil you aren’t ready to deal with. The exhaustion of a busy and stressful situation that doesn’t seem to end can be overcome through high energy foods that offer brief dopamine boosts to help you rise above it temporarily.
Stefani’s comments on the role of food hyper-awareness on over-eating resonated me. I decided that I would no longer track my food. I wouldn’t monitor how many calories or carbs I was eating. I wouldn’t pay attention to how paleo my food is. Instead I would attempt to journal, paying attention to how I felt about my food intake, but really just about how I feel.
Charlotte (thegreatfitnessexperiment.com) has also recently posted on using a food journal to examine the interaction between food and emotions.
In the past when someone has asked me if I am an “emotional eater” my response has always been “Duh, yes! Isn’t everyone?!” I know there are some people out there who see food purely as fuel and nothing more but for the majority of us, food is intimately connected with our emotions. This isn’t a bad thing (survival 101?) but understanding the interaction would be very helpful. So that’s why I’m doing this. And, one of the great things about keeping a mindful journal is that I still get to write other stuff not just about food.
Its far from a success yet. But I’m working on eating what I want – but trying to pay attention to what I actually want – not just eating junk because its comfort food. That’s an important distinction for me. I realise I’ve come to associate certain types of unhealthy food as the tasty food. Even when they often aren’t as tasty as I imagine. I’m working on exercising enough to make me feel good – no half-marathons for a while, and some good solid strength training because I like the way it feels to do, and the way it makes me feel having done it. Getting enough sleep – definitely still a work in progress. And I’ve managed to resume enough enthusiasm to post again.