Do we self-medicate with food?
We are all familiar with the idea of drowning your sorrows with alcohol and we would recognise when someone close to us was using alcohol to numb their feelings. So why are less quick to recognise when people are 'feeding their feelings' instead of experiencing them?
What does self-medicating with food mean?
Think about when you use painkillers like paracetamol or ibuprofen to numb a headache. You will have had times had times when you didn't look after yourself as well as you should. Imagine a situation when you didn't get enough sleep, you didn't drink enough water and you over-caffeinated to keep yourself going.
- Understandably, you get a headache.
- It hurts and it's slowing you down so you take some paracetamol.
- As soon as you've taken the paracetamol you feel better and all is right with the world again.
- But when it wears off you feel cranky and reach for the paracetamol again.
After a while you will probably recognise that the headache isn't going away until you sleep well, hydrate properly and slow down.
People use food to self-medicate in the same way and it explains why people struggle to stick to diets:
- You use food to 'self-medicate' and make yourself feel better when you feel emotional/stressed etc
- But you aren't happy with how you look so you start a diet
- By removing your usual foods from your diet you have removed your 'medication'
- Because you are no longer self-medicating with food the feelings that drove you to over-eat or reach for those foods come back
- You eventually ditch the diet because of the need to medicate those feelings
Just like with the paracetamol/headache example, the cycle will repeat itself until the cause of the problem is addressed.
So why don't we talk about 'feeding your feelings'?
First of all, people assume that only binge eaters do this. We have an idea in our heads of an 'emotional eater' and we think that only very overweight people have this problem. However, we all do it. Think about your last stressful week. Did you get to Friday and reach for the wine? Or maybe you ordered a takeaway.
Of course, it's perfectly natural to sit down with a slice of cake along with a cup of tea, it's long established way of self-soothing and a perfectly harmless one if done in moderation. However, when eating becomes what we do to calm down when we’re stressed or feel better when we’re feeling down, it can have serious consequences. Foods start to be a “substance” that we use, or rather misuse, to feel better quickly. Unfortunately, when we become dependent on something outside of ourselves to regulate our moods, to take emotional pain away, we fail to pay attention to what those emotions are trying to tell us.
If you've noticed yourself falling into these habits on a regular basis, chances are you distracting yourself from some feeling you're trying avoid. It doesn't have to be a big thing. It can simply be a lingering sense of dissatisfaction, but until the feeling goes away the need to self-medicate will persist.
Another explanation is that it's socially acceptable to overeat. Food and drink are everywhere and everyone likes to overindulge from time to time so we don't want to judge. But just imagine how people would react if every time you felt sad you reached for drugs or alcohol. After a while as it started to affect your life and your looks those, around you would start to show their concern. However, when we eat to manage emotions people don't say a word, in fact, they often positively encourage you and sometimes they even join in! It's common for people to encourage others to drown their sorrows in food with them. Most of us usually oblige.
If you have slipped into habits that you don't want, perhaps it's time to explore what you're using food for in those situations. If you sign-up for my guide you get a series of tools to help you do exactly that.
Over to you
What do you think? Do you recognise this idea of using food to self-medicate?
Why do you think we don't really talk about it?
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