When Food Becomes the Enemy

For many people, when food becomes the enemy, it affects all aspects of the self; physical, emotional, mental and spiritual.  It assaults the body through diseases such as anorexia nervosa, bulimia, and compulsive overeating.  From an emotional standpoint, eating disorders produce feelings of shame, guilt, anger, frustration, sadness and isolation.

This enemy can be cunning, baffling and powerful, affecting us mentally.  Logically, one should be able to restrict calories and lose weight, but the body doesn't understand this logic.  All it knows is that the food supply has dried up, and so confuses us by holding on to fat stores and becoming even more obsessed with food.

And so, when we're damaging our bodies, destroying our self-worth with feelings of guilt and shame, and struggling with confusion, we ultimately have the makings of a spiritual crisis.

So how have we developed such an antagonistic relationship with one of the three most important elements of life, the others being air and water?  Just think about this miraculous body that we've been given.  It's actually quite a self-regulating system, all things considered.   As any child knows who has tried to hold his breath, we breathe the air that we need involuntarily.  If we haven't had water for some time, our body signals us that it's time to drink.  So why do we have this problem with the food-regulating system in our bodies?

For billions of years, living organisms have thrived without diets, exercise regimens, personal trainers or diet drugs.  It is only in recent times, as we've domesticated (and therefore ensured) our food supply, that we have begun to see the "fattening of the planet."  This greater ease of acquiring food has brought with it a related dependence on food for more than just physical sustenance.  That dependence can be seen as four different levels of involvement and is at the center of how we disconnect from normal appetite regulation.

First, we use food for social bonding, such as holidays and rituals.  This is an evolutionary strategy and usually creates only mild dependence on food.  Next comes parental conditioning in the form of admonitions such as "clean your plate."  This is a training program for instilling family values and is a moderately important dependence mechanism.  The third level involves misconceptions about ourselves and our relationship to food.  These can be about feeling unattractive or weak and usually create a more intense dependence that's less about comfort than about basic instincts.  It is at the fourth level, the level of "medication," that the most powerful dependence can be found.  This is often about relieving feelings of intense fear, loneliness or grief, and can become a highly effective coping strategy and one that's extremely difficult, but not impossible, to change.

The significant gain or loss of weight, except in cases of serious physical disease, represents a dramatic loss of connection to our bodies.  We can try to manage and control food all we want, but statistics show that most people consistently fail unless they are able to reestablish the connection that signals the need to "fuel up," as well as when the "tank is full."  Willpower is rarely a match for the combined physiological and psychological forces that drive starving people to eat.  Studies have shown that whether food restriction is involuntary (POW), voluntary (dieting), or emotional (anorexia), comparable behaviors can be seen.  These behaviors include focusing obsessively on food (collecting recipes, food-related careers) and becoming irritable and easily upset, lethargic and disinterested in sex.  The deliberate training to ignore hunger cues creates other problems, such as binge eating and eating as a reaction to the use of alcohol or emotional upset.

So what can be done about this issue and how do we begin?  Self-acceptance is an important first step.  However, more is required than just cultivating an attitude of self-acceptance.  Action is needed, which means doing those things that demonstrate acceptance of our body as it is; things like staying off the scales whenever possible, and buying clothes that are attractive and comfortable, whatever the size.
Next, it becomes important to reestablish the connection to the body's regulatory system.  This requires surrendering to the innate capacity of the body to regulate itself.  Letting our mind tell us what, when and how to eat continues to disconnect us from our body.  What needs to happen instead is to remove any unreasonable restrictions regarding what and how we eat, except in cases where certain foods detract from the quality of life or health (such as sugar for a diabetic, or caffeine if it makes you jumpy).  Lifting the restrictions reduces the tendency to binge eat, allowing one to notice real physical hunger as well as the emotional triggers that cause eating.  Keeping a diary for a week or so, documenting when you eat, what's going on, and how you're feeling, allows the collecting of data that helps in understanding emotional triggers.  What to do with emotional hunger once it is identified is an individual decision.  Some people learn techniques to deal with it; others may want to do some therapeutic work to resolve the emotional reactions that are causing difficulty.  This is where hypnotherapy can be helpful.

It can be a bit scary at first to go against all we've ever learned about how to handle this enemy.  However, the irony is that once we stop denying ourselves food, the cravings seem to just go away.  What remains is a new power of choice that was not available to us before and that allows us to start the process of choosing both foods that are healthy and foods that bring pleasure.  In time it becomes second nature to eat a wide variety of foods in moderation.

No discussion about food and our relationship to it would be complete without a few words about nutrition and exercise.  It can be valuable to learn the basics of good nutrition, and there are numerous websites on the Internet that contain reliable information about food categories and how they affect the body.   Just be careful not to fall back into old attitudes about diet and weight control that may also be found on these sites.  If they haven't worked before, there's probably little chance they'll work now, even when they appear on a well-respected website.

Exercise, which actually has less to do with weight management than the other steps I've laid out, is still very important in keeping all parts of our body in good working condition: bones, muscles, organs, hormones, etc.  For this reason it's important to find enjoyable ways to get the body moving on a regular basis.  Expanding the definition of exercise to include physical activities that are fun, such as gardening, hiking, biking, skiing and swimming, can make fitness activities more enjoyable.

I can't stress enough how dealing with the body's disconnection from it's own regulatory system is the single most important step to becoming liberated from the obsession with food.  The program outlined in this article is not a quick fix and it takes time, but there is real freedom in being connected to this natural system that handles our body's need for fuel, automatically and effortlessly.

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