Food is love. For me and for a lot of people, food is a way to offer myself care and rewards. It’s one of the ways I show my kids I love them (hello rainbow cakes).
When I was a child and I did something good, my mother would take me to Dairy Queen. This was a serious reward because I was one of those kids with the healthy lunch before every kid started having a healthy lunch. You know the lunches – wheat bread and meat, never mayo or peanut butter and jelly, 100 % juice only, never Capri Sun, and, if I was lucky, Fig Newtons as a desert. No one ever wanted to swap with me. So you can see how those Dairy Queen trips would seem like a big, important thing. They felt like an icy-cold, sweet and comforting demonstration of affection and pride.
My other food=love memory is of when my mom would make macaroni and cheese (from scratch but using Velveeta – shocking considering the health regime in our house) once a week while I watched the Cosby Show and a Different World.
Those are good memories among a set of more difficult memories of my relationship with my mother and my relationship with food. It’s been a near continuous cycle of restrict and binge for nearly as long as I can remember. I’ve tried nearly every diet –cabbage soup, weight watchers, carb free, the master cleanse…I’ve done them all. During high school and college, with my mother’s encouragement and insistence. Those trips to Dairy Queen and mac & cheese nights disappeared with a near obsessive focus on my weight and appearance. It didn’t improve when I moved out and lived on my own. It’s really only in the last three years, since starting to work with other emotional and binge eaters that I’ve realized that living with these cycles of restrict and release isn’t working and is negatively impacting my health and happiness.
SO I stopped. I stopped restricting and started living with the idea that no food is good or bad, I can eat anything I want (literally, I’m adult with the disposable income and transportation available, which allows me to eat whatever I want at any time). Giving myself this permission changed something fundamental in my relationship with food. I know that while I can eat anything that I want, I can’t eat everything that I want every time that I want it. Now that I’ve given myself permission, I’m so much more able to decide if food is what I actually want. To start listening to whether I’m hungry or if I’m looking for something else from the food.
I work with a number of clients when binge eat and with many who rely on food to cope with their emotions (sadness, shame, loneliness, boredom, anxiety – food seems to work on all of them). As a country we seem to rely on food to numb out and feel better. When clients come in they often tell me how hopeless it is that they could lose weight or stop binge eating because they just really love food. The thing is, for most of them, when I ask them what it tastes like after the second bite, they really don’t know. They really also don’t know when they’re physically full or physically hungry. Sad, lonely, bored – they all merge together to feel like hungry.
SO, going back to my food is love premise. My husband and I love milkshakes from a certain fast-food restaurant. It’s open until 10PM and a few years ago it started to be that every night at 9:30PM, I would start to crave a cookies and cream milkshake. My husband was always happy to go get it for me. To leave behind whatever he was doing – usually working in his office or watching baseball or whatever, to go get it and then we’d sit together on the couch and happily slurp down our 10,000 calories. I was telling my therapist (yes, of course I have one) about this habit and she asked me what feeling I get in my body when I drink that milkshake. I realized it was safety and connection to my husband. Two things that have NOTHING to do with the milkshake. What else gives you that feeling? A HUG.
I realized during that session that what I actually wanted was a sign that my husband loves me and some time with him. I was asking for the milkshake instead of just asking for him to come hang out with me and give me a hug. Once I started asking for that, I found that I didn’t actually crave the milkshakes anymore.
This doesn’t meant that sometimes a craving for a milkshake isn’t just a craving for a milkshake because they’re delicious and wonderful. They so are. It does mean that we need to start paying attention to ourselves and our urges for food that go beyond using it as fuel. If what we really want is love, we need to ask for love rather than relying on food to approximate it. It requires curiosity about our cravings and a willingness to question our urges.
But sometimes, we really do just want that mickey bar. And, because we’re adults, we can actually have one any damn time we want. This is one of the reasons I look forward to going to Disney World – I know that I’ll get to have a Mickey Bar even though what I’m really craving is a link to childhood and a sense of vacation and relaxation. I still have one, even knowing it’s not about the hunger – because those times when I’m on vacation I give myself permission to eat more than I normally would – to soak up that joy and love that come with food and also from time with family. But when I come home, it’s back to making sure that I’m meeting my actual needs and not using food as a drug to ignore them.
So I guess food is love, but it can’t be the only love we offer ourselves. It should be one out of many methods for giving and receiving affection and care to and from others. It should be a sign of love, an offshoot of fun, rather than a poor substitute for the real emotions.