Food How Do I Use Thee? Let Me Count the Ways

By William A. Anderson

Just about everyone who admits to loving “comfort food” is confessing to a kind of food addiction. Unlike other creatures, human beings use food to satisfy a whole array of needs that have nothing to do with nutrition. Our four-legged relatives don’t eat because they are hurt, depressed, tired, lonely, or bored-they eat because they need the nutrition, and they stop when they’ve gotten enough. We, on the other hand, eat for a variety of reasons, and for some of us, there is never enough.

One of the keys to overcoming overeating and losing weight permanently is to become more familiar with our real needs, the needs that food has only been pretending to satisfy. We need to get better at fulfilling these needs with their true satisfiers. Then, managing self-control and achieving lasting weight control can become possible and much easier.

As a psychotherapist who has personally conquered obesity and overeating, and successfully trains others to do likewise, let me acquaint you with some of the ways we “use” food, a term that has a special meaning to addicts and addictionologists.

1) Soothing our hurts. The first medicine we got for life’s injuries was a soothing hug and sympathy-and often it was all we needed to get better. We still get hurt often, but our mother isn’t there to kiss the boo-boo. Her cookies and milk (or mashed potatoes and gravy) are, however. For several scientifically valid reasons, comfort foods help us to feel better. But there is that side effect of calories and pounds, and they injure us again. The first step to breaking the dependence here is to develop new, healthier ways to self-comfort, such as talking to a sympathetic friend or saying a prayer.

2) Providing fun and pleasure. Scientists know that we have a need for a regular dose of pleasure, an ongoing minute-by-minute demand to experience reward. A shower does it, eating does it, sex does it. Music, art, friendly banter, a good movie, games and sports, and success in business-there are many things you can do to have fun and pleasure. But if life has become so serious and stressful that you have an unhealthy “pleasure deficit,” eating may be the main pleasure you get every day. If so, you are dependent on food and at risk for developing some serious health problems. You need to learn from watching little kids play, and start making it your business to have fun again.

3) Finding sanctuary. Real estate agents know to bake chocolate chip cookies just before they show the house to prospective buyers. When the brain registers the smell and taste of the cookies, it says, “Thank God, I’m home, I’m safe.” To break our dependence on food, we need to very intentionally establish a sanctuary habit that helps us recover from the stress and threat of the world. At the end of the day we need something that connects us to that place where we know we’re home and safe-and it needs to be something without calories. It could be a cozy corner in your living room, a hammock on your deck, or a hot bath and a book.

4) Being best friends. Sometimes when smokers or over eaters try to abstain from their habit, they say it feels as if they lost their best friend. Nighttime eating can be the most difficult to change for several reasons, but one is that food is almost like the lover you come home to. For many over eaters, life is never boring or lonely when you can eat. We need to grow beyond this. We need to take responsibility for establishing and nurturing the important relationships in our lives so food does not have to fulfill that need or assuage our loneliness.

5) Giving your life meaning. Many times, clients confront the fact that in order to control their weight, they will have to give up, forever, some of the foods and eating habits they have come to cherish. This often leads them to think, “If I can’t have what I want to eat when I get home at night, what’s the point?” Like smokers who choose to smoke because life without cigarettes does not seem worth living, some of us have come to a point where eating has become overly important. In psychotherapeutic terms, we talk about meaning and purpose, needs that correspond to the spiritual. If we are to break the power of our overeating, most of us will need to give some serious consideration to what we truly hold up as our reason for being here. If we can’t come up with something better than the freedom to eat whatever we feel like, we can’t even begin to recover from overeating.

This is a very short list of some of the ways we “use” food. When we find ways to healthfully satisfy our most important needs with the true satisfiers, we can break the spell that food has cast on us. You will still love to eat, and you may still have cravings for comfort food when you’re hurt, tired, lonely, or stressed. But if you do a better job of satisfying your needs with the right stuff, not only will you be a happier and healthier person, but you can lessen your need for food and establish self-control and lifetime weight control.

About the Author

William Anderson, MA, LMHC, is a licensed psychotherapist residing in Sarasota, Florida, specializing in weight control. He is the author of the revolutionary new weight loss self-help book, The Anderson Method (Two Harbors Press, 2009, $14.95), and he is training a growing network of licensed therapists in his successful weight loss program. Anderson developed his approach when, as a behavior therapist, he permanently lost 140 pounds over 20 years ago after 25 years of diet and exercise failure. More information can be obtained at http://www.TheAndersonMethod.com.

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