Food is to be enjoyed, treated like a friend. What else but food could bring pleasure three times a day, every day? Unfortunately we often have a complicated relationship with food. Rather than relaxing and enjoying a meal, people become anxious, cramming more into their mouths than they need, thus compromising the enjoyment. People also place restrictions on their diets that increase cravings. They eventually become dominated by two thoughts: “What am I eating next?” and “How am I going to lose weight?”
Obesity occurs when we make eating more emotional than functional. Food is also designed to tempt us. Food companies research how to make foods more appealing in taste, texture, odor and appearance. Much of that is wonderful, because it allows us to benefit from the sensuality of eating, which is part of the joy. Even if grass were a perfect food nutritionally, it would be dull to eat it every meal and we would not want to do it. (And how would you know which wine to pair it with?)
We are relaxed with friends and we enjoy them. We should feel exactly the same way about eating. Just like people we are uneasy around, when we are anxious about food, we blunder. One of the easiest ways to create anxiety is to forbid foods. Research overwhelmingly shows that although diets are effective in the short-term, the longer-term outcome is weight gain. Why? Once something is forbidden, we tend to value it more.
As director of a psychological clinic, I supervised group therapy for people who “failed” all other attempts at weight loss. Every member of the group was 100 pounds overweight or more and their lives were dominated by eating. Our purpose was not to get them to lose weight but to make them comfortable with themselves and eating. We made it clear that they were people of worth and worthy of respect. When they talked about eating, a typical confession was how they couldn’t help but drive by the bakery and “inhale” a whole cake before coming home and eating a modest meal. Then why not enjoy eating the cake in front of their families? We pointed out that it was not illegal, that they were eating the cake anyway and—most importantly—that it did not make them a “bad” person. Enormous resistance ensued, but most tried. It was counter to our expressed goal to have them report weight but several revealed that they were losing weight. They seemed surprised by that. I would bet it was because we reduced their anxiety about eating and it was the anxiety that drove them to excess.
All psychotherapy is about change and understanding that accepting imperfections is not incompatible with self-improvement. Many people eat too much because they have a hostile relationship with food. The antagonism drives craving and leads to overeating. Food is a friend that can be enjoyed often. And, like with friends, there are appropriate times to part ways before the visit is too long.
Next Month: Part II
Illustration by Tom LaMothe