Copyright © 2016, Liz Currin, Ph.D.
Sure, that seems like a silly question, right? Of course, we need food to sustain life and to provide energy for daily activities.
But food represents so much more than that in our lives. From the moment we enter the world, food begins to reflect our relationships with people and the world in general. Think of a newborn baby, either being put to his mother's breast or given a bottle of formula. Think of the baby's gaze at the mother's face as he takes nourishment. In that moment, he is also learning about his mother as a person—her level of attention to him, her moods, etc.
As the child develops and begins feeding himself, he learns that food is something he has a fair measure of control over. His parents may be the ones who prepare and offer the food, but the child may resist or refuse to eat it. He may also whine and beg for dessert or other treats. Without necessarily being highly aware of it, he exercises a fair amount of control over his parents through what he accepts and rejects at the table.
Eating disorders, such as anorexia nervosa or bulimia, also reflect a highly dysfunctional relationship to something that our bodies require. The anorexic, for example—often a teenage girl—may feel that much of her life is beyond her control—social relationships, relationships with her parents and other family members, her changing body and dissatisfaction with her body image. But severely restricting her caloric intake may give her a distorted sense of control over what she sees in the mirror, as well as how she interacts with others. Because of the severity of the disorder and its high mortality rate, parents of an anorexic child often feel desperate and will go to great lengths to obtain professional help. This may involve getting the child into psychotherapy, nutritional counseling, psychotropic medication, or even extremely expensive residential treatment.
Over the past few decades, obesity has become a serious public health concern. Recent estimates indicate that more than one-third of adults in this country are considered obese, as measured by body mass index. Estimates for childhood obesity are similar, with almost one-third of children age 2 to 19 considered either overweight or obese.
The causes for this epidemic are complex, but include a more sedentary lifestyle. More and more of us work at a computer for most of the day, and then spend the evening in front of a TV set. Many school systems have done away with recess and phys ed classes for students. Our children, too, spend hours each day with one digital device or another. Food portion sizes have increased significantly over the years. Many Americans eat more and more of their meals out, often while driving or sitting at work. With less food being prepared and consumed at home, we have less and less control over ingredients, such as fat sugar, and sodium.
More and more of our recreational events are associated with snacking, regardless of hunger. This includes sporting events, concerts and festivals, as well as shopping. Weekends spent at the mall often involve a trip to the food court. The same is true for watching TV, with people mindlessly snacking, even after a full dinner.
In my psychotherapy practice, it's not uncommon to see individuals who eat for comfort or out of boredom. These “emotional eaters” may even have lost touch with true hunger cues and substitute food for companionship or involvement in a meaningful activity.
In spite of sociocultural trends, it is possible to regain some measure of control over our food intake and our bodies. Whenever possible, cooking at home and sharing a meal with family is a healthy (both physically and emotionally) alternative to eating out. It leads to more “intentional” eating, in the sense that cooking requires planning and shopping for ingredients. Here's where menu making and preparing a grocery list are invaluable. It also allows all members of a family to express food preferences and to participate in making a meal.
It goes without saying that some form of exercise is always beneficial, especially if you work at a sedentary job. Even ten minutes a day of brisk walking eventually adds up! A home treadmill makes it possible to combine two activities, whether you read, watch the news, or listen to music while you're walking. Or you may prefer the variety of equipment available at a gym. The trick is to make sure you actually get there. Some people find it helpful to head to the gym before heading home after work. And keeping a gym bag with exercise attire and shoes in your car means you're prepared for it.
If you or a family member is struggling with a true eating disorder, it's essential that you seek professional help. Anorexia has the highest mortality rate of any mental illness. While there are numerous difficulties in obtaining reliable data, it has been estimated that anorexics have a death rate that is six times higher than that in the general population. Anorexia often presents as a chronic condition, as well, with patients making some progress in treatment, but then relapsing into full-blown illness. The effects of anorexia on bodily systems can be devastating. This disorder must be taken extremely seriously and may require a team approach to treatment, with input from psychologists, psychiatrists, and nutritionists, among others.
So, while food is a necessary and pleasurable part of life, it's not hard to see how both individual and cultural factors can contribute to developing an unhealthy relationship to eating.