Our Strained Relationship With Food

Why is eating so hard?

Artist Mr Toll, Photographer Jamie Toll, San Salvador

Food is hard, man. And most of us have some strain with it — eating too much, too little, over-thinking it, under-thinking it, or just not knowing what we’re supposed to eat… food is hard.

This article is not about weight.

Because we can have a strained relationship at any size…

  • Overweight individuals can have an unhealthy relationship with food.
  • Underweight individuals can have an unhealthy relationship with food.
  • Healthy weight individuals can have an unhealthy relationship with food.
  • And even health-nut gym-rats in perfect shape can have an unhealthy relationship with food.

In many cases, an unhealthy relationship with food comes down to a preoccupation with it, good or bad… though this isn’t always the case — individuals who “never think about food,” are “bored” by food, or rarely get hungry also have an unhealthy relationship with it (especially if they become underweight.)

So for this article, “weight” is of secondary, not primary, importance.

It’s about our psychological relationships with food

And because it‘s about the individual and our psychology…

Let’s use the same terms as interpersonal attachment styles:

  • Anxious attachment
  • Avoidant
  • Anxious-avoidant (or “fearful”)
  • Secure

Anxious-attached eaters: may experience a negative view of self (but relatively positive view of food), a sense of dependency, emotional highs and lows, clinginess, and fear of loss or separation from food.

Avoidant eaters: may experience a relatively positive view of self but negative view of food, considering themselves to be independent and separate from it and thinking things such as “I don’t need this” or “I can do without.”

Anxious-avoidant (“fearful”) eaters: may experience both of the above, both afraid of food and attached to it; seeking and avoiding it. They struggle with thoughts like “there’s something wrong with me” and “no one can love me,” and may abuse both themselves and food.

Secure eaters: have a positive view of themselves and food, are comfortable with enjoying it, trust it, and think things like, “this is here when I need it,” but don’t lean on it to solve their emotional problems.

Ultimately, “secure” is the goal.

Anxious: food as “good” — a companion or happiness

On an episode of the British show “Supersize vs Superskinny,” where an overweight and underweight individual compare diets, one woman shared,

“I love food a lot, because it makes me happy… when I open the fridge, it’s like your friend. And it’s like talking back to you ‘cause it’s like ‘I’m here! I want to be eaten!’”

Everyone has felt this at least once.

My BMI is healthy, but I experience this too. I’ll wolf family-size bags of popcorn in 2 days and several ounces of cheese at a time (and I’m not sure if it’s “better” or “worse” that it’s fancy cheese without crackers.) I like cookies, and fries. And, yeah, I like beer.

Many of us have a “thing.” Some turn to it more than others, but we’ve all experienced that surge of “go-time!” joy from indulging in our favorite foods.

Avoidant: food as “bad” — or “the enemy”

On Moderation Management’s website, they note:

“Most individuals who are able to maintain total abstinence first attempted to reduce… unsuccessfully.”

While the organization deals mostly with alcohol, the same is true for food (and anything else in life): sometimes avoidance is easier than managing moderation.

Fearful: food as both “good” AND “bad”

At the extreme these are binge-purgers, but it’s anyone who experiences cycles of loving and hating food, whether those cycles are minutes or months.

They probably suffer most, as they swing from both ends of the spectrum, and recovery means tackling the problem at both ends: improving their relationship with both themselves and food.

The theme of “control”

Either using food to feel it, or lacking it while eating.

We hear that “eating disorders are about control” — an effect of feeling that we lack control in life, especially following traumatic life events such as the loss of a loved one or abuse.

Using food to seek control in our lives is usually more true for anorexics, but less true for those who binge (or binge-purge.) For these individuals, the theme of “control” is more a feeling of lacking it.

Food can be a very real addiction

When I worked in a bakery in high school, I once had a customer order a cinnamon roll and then ask that I cut it in half and put it in two different bags.

No big deal — we weren’t busy, and I was happy to do it for him.

As I handed him the two packages, each with half the roll, he explained,

“I used to weigh 400 pounds. I lost over 200 a couple of years ago and I’ve been able to keep it off — but every day is a constant struggle. I have to always be on top of it, otherwise I’ll slip right back in.”

On a reddit post about fighting obesity, one user commented,

“I was formerly obese, I have since lost 100 pounds… We need to start treating people who are obese like people who are addicted to alcohol and drugs. There’s was many times during my weight loss journey that my mind would convince me that I needed those fries or that hamburger. I was addicted to the Carbs and the sugar.
I still get those cravings… I have to be vigilant when I do eat those foods that I don’t fall in… Eating bad has the same effect of a person who takes drugs, it makes the person feel good, it ignites the person’s reward center.” — KinkaJac97

Carbs are addictive

Studies have long shown that highly desirable foods can trigger pleasure centers in the brain, and it’s been known since the 1960s that insulin signals fat cells to accumulate fat and other cells to burn carbohydrates (rather than fat) for fuel, but according to a study published in the American Journal of Clinical Nutrition, simple carbs stimulate regions of the brain involved in not just pleasure, but cravings and addiction.

Carbohydrates — especially simple ones such as sugar and other junk food — have similar effects as opiates in the brain, in terms of affecting our dopamine receptors and reward pathways.

Dr. David Ludwig conducted a test in which two sets of participants were given milkshakes. Both had the same number of calories and similar ingredients, but one contained fast-digesting (simple) carbohydrates. After the fast-digesting shake group finished, their blood sugar spiked, then crashed four hours later, at which point researchers scanned their nucleus accumbens, a small area that is involved in emotions and addiction. The scan “showed intense activation in brain regions involved in addictive behavior.”

Research suggests that if you elevate insulin with simple carbs,

“the body switches from burning fat for fuel to burning carbs for fuel. This sets off a snowball effect because the more insulin you release, the more you crave carbs… insulin forces energy into fat cells, depriving your other cells of the energy they would have been utilizing and causing them to go into starvation mode, making you hungry. And not just hungry for any old food: hungry for carbohydrates.”

So, when it comes to simple carbs, “moderation” sometimes isn’t the answer — or as easy as doing without.

Signs of addiction

Food Addicts Anonymous shares signs:

  • Unable to control intake of food, especially junk food or high sugar foods
  • Tried diets or weight loss programs, but none worked permanently
  • Feeling “depressed, hopeless, sad or ashamed” about eating or weight
  • Eating when upset or as a reward for “when you do something good”
  • etc.

If food is addictive, then it makes sense to look at recovery in the same way.

How to break carb addiction

Food Addicts Anonymous offers a 12-step program lifted from AA. Step one:

“We admitted we were powerless over our food addiction — that our lives had become unmanageable.”

Moderation Management, another addiction organization (with a website like nothing you’ve seen in 20 years), includes values:

“Take personal responsibility for your own recovery from a problem.”
“Self-esteem and self-management are essential.”

These points are why I didn’t cover policies/subsidies in this article. Because:

  1. We don’t control policies as easily as we control ourselves.
  2. Even if we “fix” policies, if we don’t address our problems we’re still going to experience them (using other outlets, if necessary.)

Food addiction is particularly hard because: we NEED food

Unlike drugs and alcohol, we have to have food to survive — so unlike other programs, “abstinence” isn’t an option.

The reason it’s so hard to fight carb addiction is the same struggle many alcoholics face. On their website, Moderation Management notes,

“To be successful at moderation or abstinence requires effort and a commitment to change… you may discover that it is more difficult for you to moderate… than to abstain.”

However: if “food addiction” is not an addiction to food, but rather simple carbs, fortunately, those are more easily avoided.

It’s not just “bad” addictions — it can be “good” addiction too

There are tons of “health nuts” out there who spend just as much time preoccupied with food — weighing it, counting it, measuring it, comparing it, etc. And though their bodies are often healthy from a physical standpoint, this behavior, at its extreme, still exemplifies unhealthy and obsessive behavior.


PART II: Other things that make food so hard…

What happens after you solve the psychological problems?

There are still other issues remaining…

We don’t always know when we’re TRULY hungry

In addition to emotional drivers, we also interpret lots of physical things as “hunger” when it isn’t.

I’ve done two 5-day water fasts this year

I drank nothing but water, black coffee and herbal tea and ate nothing but salt (for electrolytes) and vitamins for 120 hours straight.

When you learn about fasting, one of the first things you’ll read is that many of the physiological signs we interpret as “hunger” (irritability, lightheadedness, nausea, fatigue, weakness, etc) are not a sign of calorie needs, but blood sugar crashes (and, in some cases, electrolyte/mineral deficiency) from our poor diets.

Because simple carbs hit our system like drugs (see above), these feelings that we’ve all learned to read as “hunger” are actually withdrawals. And the solution isn’t another “fix,” but rather not feeding it into our system.

Going into the fast, one of my goals was to be able to differentiate between “sugar crash” symptoms (as well as emotional drivers for eating) and true hunger. It was harder than I thought. Don’t get me wrong, I experienced physiological side effects — I was irritable on day 1; fatigued on day 4.

But end of day 5, I had the same underlying feeling towards “food” as day 1. Rather than rushing for it in a rabid binge-fest as you might imagine, it was a very calm affair. Almost anti-climactic, tbh.

And that’s the point… real hunger comes on very slowly; it is quiet and patient, not desperate and grabby. But the latter overrides and misconstrues what “hunger” is.

We don’t always know when we’re full

We’ve all experienced it — eating beyond fullness, or even comfort.

On the British show “Supersize vs Superskinny,” viewers often see overweight individuals eat single meals that represent a day’s worth of calories, often eating 1.5–3x their caloric needs in a day.

The only way we can do this is by barreling through “fullness” cues, prioritizing the emotional side of eating over the physical needs.

We don’t always know how much we’re eating

On “Secret Eaters,” a show about individuals who believe they eat healthy (and sometimes work out regularly) but remain overweight and “don’t know why,” the crew tracks their meals, then compares the actual calories to the individual’s estimates. The person is always eating 1.5–3x as much as they need — or realize.

Underweight individuals often overestimate the calories they’re consuming (or underestimate their needs); overweight individuals often do the opposite.

Few people — apart from those who weigh every food and/or log every calorie — know exactly how many calories they’re consuming.

Food as obligation

Many of us were raised equating “cleaning our plates” with “good.”

Americans often tie this to The Great Depression— when food was scarce and wasting it was an offense — passed down through generations. But there are plenty of other countries and cultures that do this as well: showing love through the feeding of others — and the hearty eating of food others prepared.

I grew up in such a household — my mom dotes on “big eaters,” and my maternal grandmother would flit around our plates as we ate, urging us to finish every “morsel” (and then finishing it herself if we didn’t.)

When I started researching diet in my 20s, one of the things that hit most was,

“Don’t treat your body like a garbage disposal.”

I think what they meant was “don’t eat junk,” but I took it literally. My family saw the garbage disposal as “wasteful,” and understanding that bodies are not obligated to serve this function was a meaningful 180.

Food is marketing

Some of the greatest marketing of our time (apart from De Beers “a diamond is forever,” which Advertising Age proclaimed the slogan of the century) all has to do with food. And, conversely: that’s all most of our food is.

For example: orange juice was marketing (as well as the touted benefits of “vitamin C” and pomegranates), the orange in Blue Moons is marketing, as are the copper cups used for Moscow Mules and the way Guinness is poured. Red velvet cake was marketing (for food dye) and so are red delicious apples — just to name a few.

Even the food pyramid and multi-vitamins are marketing, though neither admit it.

(As Johns Hopkins doctors published, “multivitamins are, at best, a waste of money.”)

Companies want the consumer dollar. Because “food” is otherwise just an essential, they play up emotion, excitement, and health benefits, to seduce us.

Which makes it harder to discern what to eat.

Food is confusing

So, you’re ready to eat healthy. Great.

But: what does that mean?

Is fat good or bad? (Good fats? Bad fats?) How much fat should we have? What about sugar? Fruit? (Same question.) Egg yolks? Good carbs? Bad carbs? No carbs? Gluten. Paleo. Keto. The issue with sodium. And of course all “low fat” food’s dirty little secret. (It’s sugar.)

Calories-in-calories-out, but then what about macros — didn’t they count? Insulin spikes from the “wrong” type of calories, calories on labels aren’t always accurate, caloric requirements they may not be real, and at the end of it all, you might be well within targets and still not losing/gaining a pound.

You start digging into one diet and it contradicts another. You like some elements of one, use elements of another, and every time you think you’ve got it figured out, you bump it up against everything else and nothing is consistent and why can’t someone just organize this for us already?

And that’s just the food — then there’s eating windows. Before workouts, after workouts, not after 8 pm, or only for a few hours a day… food is hard, man.

“Good” food is hard to do

Even when we’ve “chosen sides” (carbs, fats, etc.), it’s still hard to “food.”

Like many privileged people, sometimes I get on “food kicks” where I amp up my already-not-that-shitty diet and try to be more mindful of what I’m eating.

I previosuly wrote about how hard it is to find food that fits my preferences, which are: vegetarian, whole, unprocessed, low-sugar, low-net carb, and minimal meal prep and cooking, because: I don’t and won’t.

And that’s not including macros:calories.

It’s seems you get to chase one and only round out the others.

Food as a focus — and food as a tool

I won’t speak for everyone, but here’s my wish:

I don’t want to “love” food. I don’t want fancy coffee, and I don’t want to be a “foodie.” I don’t want to poodle food up.

I want my daily food boring as hell, even routine, because then it’s easier to keep it straight. I like to eat healthy, but I want to hit my nutrition, macro and caloric needs without spending an hour of my day preoccupied with it.

However: I want the joy of food — on my time, and within reason.

I don’t want food to be such a thing.

But no matter what we want, a healthy relationship with food looks a lot like a “secure” attachment style in relationships…

A positive view of both ourselves and food, not leaning on it to meet emotional needs, comfortable with enjoying it, trust it, and think things like,

“This is here when I need it.”

And knowing what “need” really means.