5 things I learned about the Psychology of Eating

I’ve just finished the coach certification course from the Institute for the Psychology of Eating. After eight months, 250 hours of online video lessons, hundreds of pages of notes, and reading so many books that I lost count, here are five important lessons I have learned about the psychology of eating.

1. Relaxation = Optimal Metabolism

Everybody who wants to lose weight wants a better metabolism. If we could do just ONE thing to improve our metabolism, it would be to slow down and relax while we are eating. Although metabolism is influenced by the type of foods that we eat, it’s also influenced by our state of being while eating. Eating under the state of stress creates a metabolic disadvantage. For example, stress increases the production of insulin and cortisol, which cause the body to store fat and to not build muscle.

We could be eating the healthiest food on the planet, but if we eat it while we are in stress physiology, we are not going to optimally digest and assimilate the nutrients that meal. Eating in a state of relaxation creates the optimal conditions for digestion, assimilation of nutrients, and calorie burning. We could be following an optimized diet, eating the highest quality organic ingredients, in all the optimal portions, making sure that our meal contains a complete balance of all the essential vitamins and minerals. But when we are eating that optimized meal under stress, our body is not in the state where it can receive the nutrients we are providing for it. Eating a high quality meal under stress is a great strategy for creating high quality waste products to flush down your toilet.

The stress we’re talking about here isn’t just coming from the demands of the outside world. Some of our stress is self-imposed. Negative thinking about the self creates stress chemistry in the body. Hating our healthy diet and hating our body turns on the stress response. If we’re thinking, “I can’t stand this diet, but I have to diet because I need to lose weight, I’m not loveable if I don’t lose weight,” we’re not receiving the full measure of the nutrients in our food. We’re putting ourselves into a position where our body cannot burn the calories from the food we’ve eaten. Take a deep breath. Relax, Food is meant to be enjoyed.

2. Our eating challenges are a doorway

When we think we have a problem with eating, we want some magic strategy that’s going to help us conquer our eating challenge. Maybe we overeat, or maybe we binge and purge, or maybe we chronically restrict our calories and experience the world from constant feeling of hunger and lack. We think the eating challenge is the problem, and if we could just conquer the eating challenge then the rest of our life would fall into place.

When we’re fighting our eating challenge, we’re fighting the problem where it isn’t. The eating challenge isn’t the problem. It’s a symptom of some deeper issue. Said another way, the eating challenge isn’t the cause of our distress, it’s the effect of our distress. It’s our job to figure out what the eating challenge is pointing to.

As an example, let’s consider a woman who is binge eating in the evenings. When she gets home in the evening after work, she opens the refrigerator and eats everything in sight. If we look only at the eating behavior, you might assume that she has Binge Eating Disorder. A diagnosis of Binge Eating Disorder, though, can mask the true cause of the behavior. When look past the eating behavior to a broader context, we can discover the root cause of the problem. Maybe this person is calorie restricting because she believes that skipping breakfast and lunch is going to help her lose weight. In this case the problem is not really binge eating, the problem is that she is HUNGRY from not having eaten all day. In another scenario, maybe this person is unfulfilled in her relationships, and when she comes home to an empty apartment with no one to love, she feels so lonely that it is unbearable. So she fills up the void with food. Food is often used as a symbolic substitute for other emotions. Attacking the symptom doesn’t solve the problem, and in many cases it may make the problem worse. Eating challenges are not a problem to be solved. They are symptoms to be explored.

3. The fitness and nutrition universe is overly masculine

Hang in there with me on this one. Everyone has qualities that can be described as being masculine or feminine. Whether you are a man or a woman, you posses some balance of qualities that are masculine and feminine. A well-balanced person can dip into the appropriate qualities when the situation calls for them.

When you are in your masculine nature, you’re single-mindedly focusing on achieving goals, you’re using the most direct path to get from point a to b, you measure your progress, and you have a well-defined “system” to get you where you’re going. When you are in your feminine nature, emotions and feelings take priority, and progress is determined more by how you feel than some objective measure. Pleasure is important, and progress towards your goal might be circular, in that you take one step forward and another step sideways.

Using this lens, it’s clear that the typical approach in the fitness and nutrition universe is hyper-masculine. Food and exercise are reduced to a mathematical formula for calories in-calories out. Measuring foods, counting calories, and knowing exactly how many grams of carbs you have left to eat today are common strategies in this approach. The masculine approach to exercise is about exercising for a certain number of minutes to burn a predetermined number of calories. The masculine approach is also evident with the popularity body monitoring devices, which allow you to measure how many steps you’ve taken, how many minutes you exercised in a particular heart rate zone, and how many times you moved while you were asleep. Exercise is often used as punishment, as something you have to do to burn off the calories from the bad things that you’ve eaten.

What does a feminine approach to diet and exercise look like? The feminine approach recognizes that humans are not simply input-output machines for food. A feminine approach to diet pays more attention to nourishment than calories. It recognizes that our eating and exercise is profoundly influenced by pleasure and enjoyment. When we make healthy food choices and feel pleasure while eating them, we’re more likely to feel nourished, and that means we can feel satisfied with less food. When we are moving our body in the world and enjoying the activities that we do, we want to move more. Following the feminine path, we can eat less, move more, and enjoy every minute of it.

4. Embodiment: You can’t drive a car if you don’t get in it

When you start to pay attention, you’ll see that we run a lot of our lives on autopilot. Unless we make an effort to stay centered in the present moment, we can spend a lot of our lives “checked out” of situations, and not fully present in our bodies. We sometimes use food as a tool to do this. For example, we often use caffeine to override and ignore the signals when our body is tired. We use sugar and junk foods to zone out and be less present in our bodies. We can get pretty good at living a halfway-present life.

But when we’re trying to make a change to our body, such as losing weight, being checked out doesn’t work. We need to actually be present in our body, to fully inhabit it, before we can change it. We have to be embodied, fully present in our body and sensitive to all of its pleasure and pain, before we can make sustainable changes to our body.

From this perspective, the prospect of losing weight is a lot like wanting to drive your car to Disney World. You know that you’re not happy right now, but you think that as soon as you get to Disney World you’ll be happy. To be able to drive your car Disney World, you have to get into the car. You have to sit in the driver’s seat, turn the key in the ignition, press the gas pedal, turn the steering wheel, and drive onto the highway. You might have to drive on the highway for a long time. But you can’t drive your car to Disney World unless you get INTO the car. Somebody else could come along and put your car on a flatbed truck, and they could drive your car to Disney World for you. But then your car would be there without you. Because you couldn’t get into the car, you would be back where you started… still unhappy and wishing you were at Disney World. To successfully lose weight, you have to get fully present in your body, and do the work.

5. Excess weight has a genius in it

I’ve often wondered how people who are otherwise brilliant and accomplished could seem so completely incompetent in their ability to mange their own eating and weight. Guess what- it’s not because we’re stupid or lack some kind of willpower and moral fortitude that allows us to avoid eating too much. The reason we are fat is because the weight is serving a brilliant purpose. That purpose just so happens to be a genius solution for some kind of pain and suffering in the person’s life. Blaming the overweight person for their “weight problem” completely misses the point of it. Excess weight has a genius in it. The real question is—if this weight has a purpose, if there’s a message in this weight—what is the weight trying to say? How can we listen better and uncover the genius in the weight? When we pour hate on the excess weight, the purpose and the genius of the weight is forced to go undercover. The more we hate on the weight, the harder it will be to figure out its purpose and ultimate message for us. When we love and respect the weight, its purpose and message can begin to be revealed.

I’ve been obese for my entire adult life, and I’ve been overweight since forever. I’ve often been told that “overweight people use their weight as protection.” Honestly, I thought that was a load of bunk. From my point of view, I’m being judged and attacked for being fat, so that sounds like a pretty stupid way of protecting myself. It’s not like I consciously said, “Hey, I know, I’ll put on a fat suit that everybody hates, and that will make people not judge and attack me. It’s genius.” No really, I can relate if you think this protection thing is the biggest lie you’ve ever heard. I thought so too… UNTIL I finally realized the finer nuances of how I was doing it. So yes, it turns out that I have used my weight as protection. I know that protection is not the only reason I am fat, but it’s one that I haven’t seriously considered before now. And it’s leading to a completely different solution than just “More Cardio.” If your excess weight has a message, what is it saying?

6. Bonus Lesson: Our relationship with food reflects our relationship with our mother

We can’t stop at 5 when there’s a chance to tie it all back to your mother. In psychology, why does it always have to come down to our mothers? Fortunately we don’t have to get our Freud on to understand this one.

We’re hard wired from infancy to associate food with nurturing. We’re hungry, we cry, and in most cases it’s our mother who shows up with the breast or the bottle to satisfy our hunger. While she’s feeding us, our mother holds us close and comforts us. When we’re a baby, we get set up in the relationship where food IS love; eating is a concrete demonstration of our mother’s love for us. The infant can’t tell a difference between food and love. Some of us can spend the rest of our lives exploring how the feelings of love are tangled up with the behavior of eating food. As an adult, we often use food as a symbolic substitute for the love we are craving from others.

When you look at your relationship with food, you can see echoes of your relationship with your mother. When you look at your relationship with your mother, you can see parallels to your relationship with food.

And this whole mother thing makes me wanna say…. Dangit.  I’ll explain more about this later.

 

I feel incredibly grateful for the opportunity to participate in this training. I want to thank Marc David and Emily Rosen, founders of the Institute, for their passion and dedication to helping people transform their issues around eating. I also want to thank my peer coaches and fellow students for their questions, insights, and openness to discuss whatever issue needed discussing for as long as it took for us to “get” it. I’m proud to be a member of this tribe.

6 Comments Permalink
6 comments on “5 things I learned about the Psychology of Eating
  1. You don’t write often, but when you do, you hit it out of the park. This is very good.

    I tend to speak in clichés on these points, but you explain those clichés in excellent term; #3 especially. I often say that the #1 cause of overeating at night is under eating during the day.

    The mother thing too, is dead-on.

    I still think that the arena of the psychology of eating is larger than the universe, and can never be fully explored or understood. It’s a place that poses 10 more question to every answer, and that math doesn’t add up.

    I’m glad you are doing this, and I M.A.Y. explore this academically myself. MAY.

    • Thank you again for your always kind comments. I agree that the #1 cause of overeating at night is undereating during the day, and to that I’d add that macronutrient balance can make a huge impact here. I know for me, if I load up on protein at breakfast, my level of hunger is dramatically different for the rest of the day. It’s remarkable how much difference it makes.
      As for the mother thing- well, there will be more on that soon. While it’s turning out to be true, there are times when I’m feeling exasperated about it. Like, “okay, enough with her already!” Yeah so there’s some more work to do here. Dangit.
      I also agree that the psych of eating universe is enormous, and it’s massively neglected area of study. What it boils down to is that people have a relationship with food, and the typical nutrition paradigm of “eat this, don’t eat that” isn’t sustainable for most people. I know that we cannot solve the issues raised by eating psychology by stuffing people’s heads full with a pile of facts and a bunch of numbers. The math doesn’t add up because we’re humans on a journey– we’re not just input-output machines for food. Everyone has their own personal relationship with food, and there are as many interpretations for that relationship as there are people. I feel like IPE at least gives us a framework to start that exploration. It’s not all the answers by any means, but it’s a good base to start from.
      If you want a book recommendation for dipping your toe in the water, check out Marc David’s Nourishing Wisdom.

  2. I enjoyed reading this, thank you!

    I have some thoughts on this. I do agree with most of it.

    It seems to me that eating under stress would be evolutionary supported as most animals have to eat that way. Of course, if we can take it back to the cave, then we might feel safe.

    Once our eating disorder becomes a habit, it would seem to have a life of its own, and even when we understand the why, we still have to deal with the habit.

    I think I have a feminine view of exercise, although I certainly do not enjoy every minute of eating and exercise.

    Our excess weight is saying that we have an eating addiction that needs to be addressed so we can eat less food. Developing habits can save us because habits can be stronger than addiction.

    The mother that forces food on the child and punishes them if they do not eat it can do a real number on the kid.

    • Thanks for sharing your thoughts. With respect to eating under stress: When we’re in a state a sympathetic dominance, our blood flow is shunted away from our digestive system. An animal can’t be using up vital energy digesting its breakfast while running from a predator. So the analogy with humans is that the stress response is activated when we perceive that we’re under attack, but we’re using our negative thoughts about self and food to attack ourselves while we are eating. When we do that, we’re not in a state when we can optimally digest the food we’ve eaten, assimilate the nutrients, and burn the calories from the food. If we want optimal digestion, assimilation, and calorie burning, parasympathetic dominance is the state to shoot for.

      I agree with your point of view that even when we understand the reason for our eating challenge, we still have to work on breaking habits. But I think that the habit will have less of a strong hold on us when we understand the deeper message of the eating behavior. So for our example with the woman who overeats in the evening: if the woman is binge eating because she is lonely, when she feels the compulsion to binge it could serve as a signal to her to stop and think, “Oh, maybe I want to eat because I’m lonely.” We create a gap between the urge and the behavior. By understanding the deeper reason for her eating, she gains the power to choose a different behavior in that situation. Instead of mindlessly eating, she could choose to call a friend. Or if she did choose to eat, she may still eat less because she’s eating in a state of consciousness, rather than coming from a state of being numbed out an unconscious.

      I don’t think it’s helpful to say that excess weight indicates an eating addiction. Saying that I have an eating addiction is like saying I’m addicted to my heart beating or to breathing. You might say that everyone is addicted to eating, because we need to eat in order to survive. Importantly, the idea of eating addiction or being a “food addict” reinforces the belief that there is something fundamentally wrong with the person who overeats. What if we assume that there isn’t anything wrong with the person, and instead proceed as if their eating behavior is a brilliant solution to some other pain in their life? Then it becomes our job to address the source of the discomfort, so that we don’t need the eating behavior to mange it. Part of the shift in thinking I’m trying to express here is that when a person is overeating and has excess weight, listening more deeply can begin to reveal the deeper motivation that is driving the eating behavior. Saying that the person is addicted to eating is a somewhat shallow answer to the question of why someone overeats. By shallow, I mean that it does not lead to further questioning or deeper understanding of the issue. In one sense it’s just another way of describing the fact that they eat too much.

  3. That you for your thoughtful responses!

    If you have the chance, look at David Kessler’s book, “The End Of Overeating.” I subscribe to his views on addiction.

    Even though I am a surgeon, I’ve studied as much psychiatry as I could. You may like the psychodynamic perspective. Regardless, every style has one goal, to get the patient to that point where they are willing to make a change. Because of this, I try to get the person to do the change while they are trying to figure it all out. Seems more efficient to me. I call it karma centered therapy.

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