Why Do We Struggle in Our Relationship with Food?


The biological, psychological, and social factors behind emotional eating.


By Jen Nash, DClinPsych

Do you ever find yourself feeling, down, unhappy, or restless — and before you know it, you're eating something you hadn't planned to? If so, you're not alone. "Emotional eating," or "comfort eating," is really common, both for people with and without diabetes. As an attempt to feel better (temporarily, at least), it's ok to use food like this some of the time. However, when you start to feel that food controls you rather than that you control food — particularly if you have weight to lose — it can be helpful to consider your eating behavior from a different angle. What is your "relationship" with food? This column will help you understand the way you relate to food and that diabetes weight loss is not just a simple formula of "eat less and move more." There are numerous reasons why the relationship you have with food may be complex — and these can be divided into biological, psychological, and social factors.

Biologically, we are fighting against our evolutionary history — our bodies have evolved to store food in times of plenty to sustain us in times of scarcity — and this is at odds with our modern day lives in which food is more abundant. Our bodies simply haven't caught up with our contemporary western world.

Psychologically, the connection between emotion and food is one that is established from birth — from the very first time you cried and your mother comforted you with milk. As you grew up, you may have been given sweets to cheer you up after the upset of hurting yourself, or been cooked your favorite dinner when you'd fallen out with a friend. Food is not just a fuel. It has been conditioned as a soother of emotions for as long as you can remember. So now when you've had an argument with your partner or a bad day at work, there can be an impulse to reach for food as a way of calming, distracting, or comforting yourself.

Further, being able to limit food intake to maintain a socially desirable slim body shape is valued in today's western societies. Therefore, eating choices aren't just made on nutritional content or taste, but are complicated by their connection to personal sense of self-worth.

Socially, shared eating experiences are a way of bonding, celebrating, and showing love within our families and communities. Births, deaths, marriages, and all occasions in between are marked by food. Family members may offer food (and keep offering, long after we've said "no thank you!") as a substitute when it is difficult for them to express love through a hug or by saying "I love you."

So fast forward to the diagnosis of diabetes. You are suddenly required to sharply focus on food and be thoughtful about changing or limiting previously enjoyed food choices. Your healthcare provider, certified diabetes educator, and registered dietitian will tell you that healthy eating is one of the crucial elements of optimal diabetes control. However, given the link between food and emotions, it's hardly surprising that encouragement by healthcare professionals to cut down on fatty or sugary food is sometimes difficult to implement.

You know in your head what you should be doing, but it's hard to break away from the conditioning and pattern of food as an instant route to pleasure, distraction, and satisfaction.

However, this pattern can be changed. The goal is to reach a place where you can make a decision about whether or not to eat when you are feeling emotional, rather than it just being an automatic response. An important point to remember is that everyone — of every shape and size — can use food to deal with their emotions, and occasionally it can be fine to use food in this way. The danger is when food becomes the only way to deal with emotions. The upcoming columns in this series will examine strategies to help you gain control over your eating, the central role of your thoughts in eating behavior, and how authentic emotional expression can help.

Dr. Jen Nash is a clinical psychologist who has lived with diabetes for more than 20 years. She runs www.PositiveDiabetes.com, an education, therapy and coaching service that supports people with type 1 and 2 to manage the emotional and psychological impact of day to day life with diabetes.

Read Dr. Nash's biography here.

Read more of Dr. Nash's columns.

NOTE: The information is not intended to be a replacement or substitute for consultation with a qualified medical professional or for professional medical advice related to diabetes or another medical condition. Please contact your physician or medical professional with any questions and concerns about your medical condition.


Last Modified Date: July 10, 2013

All content on dLife.com is created and reviewed in compliance with our editorial policy.

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by Brenda Bell
Many people say that depression is a side effect or complication of diabetes. Without discounting the association of the psychological condition with the physical one, I'm not convinced that our high and/or unstable glucose levels are directly responsible for that change in our mental state. My belief is that the unrelenting need for self-care, for following the sort of care schedules that can drive licensed, professional caregivers crazy, is what overwhelms us...
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