Food, Emotions and Emotional Literacy

Pat Kitchener

Reprinted from "Eating Disorders" issue of Visions Journal, 2002, No. 16, p. 9

Many of us are puzzled by our relationship to food. We are even more puzzled by the relationship between food and emotions. On some level, we know that some of our eating or not eating is not about being hungry or full. We try to find a rational explanation for our behaviour, and see that the link between food and emotions is a sensible one because being nourished (food/feeding) and being nurtured (feelings/emotions) are linked. From the time we are infants, we are held and fed at the same time. When our bodies feel discomfort or hunger, our mother or caregiver comforted and fed us. Thus from the beginning of our lives, our emotional needs are met at the same time as our food needs — and so the two become linked and inseparable in our lives.

As we develop, we quickly learn that when we are uncomfortable, we can control that discomfort through food and eating. If we can’t control our discomforts in other ways, we achieve control using the basic formula of food and comfort. For example, we have a dinner with friends and later, even though we know we are not hungry, we find ourselves in front of the television eating ice cream directly from the carton. Perhaps the contrast of being with others and then coming home alone leaves us feeling lonely, and unconsciously leads us to fill that emotional need with the ice cream. Or maybe the dinner left us feeling emotionally unsatisfied because we didn’t connect with someone the way we expected; or there was tension, and we came away unsatisfied. Yet, we couldn’t name the vaguely uncomfortable feelings in our bodies, and thus we satisfied ourselves by using food.

As we grow older, this relationship becomes more complicated, as unrecognized feelings and unmet needs get further translated into not only eating behaviour, but also body dissatisfaction. When we are invited to a special occasion — a high school reunion or a family wedding — or we’re simply out with others, why do we become preoccupied with how we look and our weight? We don’t acknowledge how we feel emotionally about the event. Instead we believe if we lose a few pounds, we’ll feel better at the event. So we begin to restrict our food using whatever diet is currently in favour, and if we are successful in losing weight, we attend the event feeling more confident and focused on our weight loss. But did our confidence simply divert us from our feelings of nervousness or excitement? If we don’t lose weight, we are convinced the feelings we experience are because of our failure to lose weight.

Although it makes sense that food becomes linked with emotion, why can’t we separate the two as we grow out of infancy? For one thing, throughout life, food continues to be associated with emotions. If Mommy loves me she’ll make my favourite foods, give me a cookie, or buy me a ‘treat.’ Besides families, many religions and cultures have strong traditions about food — fasting or feasting — to mark the intensity of special occasions. This reinforces the link between food and emotions. It is almost as though we cannot go through any highly emotional event without using either the restriction or consumption of food.

The link between food and emotion becomes obvious during the pressure of exams, when a student can consume a bag of cookies or box of potato chips while studying, hardly remembering opening the package. When a relationship breaks up, we find our weight going up or down dramatically without noticing any change in our eating habits. At such times, we are preoccupied with intense emotions and pay little attention to eating food for nutrition. We may be curious about this, but we usually don’t value our feelings enough to examine what is happening.

Over the last 20 years, two other things have happened that have increased the focus on restricting and/or consuming food, and distracted us from seeing the relationship between food and emotions. First, the incidence of anorexia nervosa and other eating disorders has increased, and secondly, at the same time, fast food has become so readily available. Therefore, it is has become easier for us to focus on either food refusal or consumption as the issue, instead of dealing with emotions.

However, more recently, there has been a move towards ‘emotional literacy,’ and we are being encouraged to be aware of our feelings and emotions. This awareness could be a valuable resource for making decisions about our behaviour, and about how we go about getting our emotional needs met. Emotional literacy quite possibly is the way to separate food from emotions. Then we could eat food for nutrition and get our emotional needs nurtured more appropriately. Once aware of feelings, we recognize and label them, as well as understanding the underlying needs. Then we can act on getting our needs met in a healthy way.

 
About the author
Pat is a psychotherapist in private practice in West Vancouver, specializing in the treatment of eating disorders and relationships. She personally suffered from disordered eating.
Close