Are you Feeding Your Anxiety?

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Losing weight is one of the most common struggles among Americans. According to the 2012 Gallup pole, 36.1% of Americans are overweight and 4% are considered morbidly obese.  Weight gain is not simply calories in and calories used.  Hormones, stress levels, metabolism, detoxification pathways, and behavioral health all play vital roles in weight management. Ultimately with food, how and why we consume it, in addition to calories, is a driving influence for the number on the scale.

The question to ponder is why do humans eat? Animals eat for survival but humans also eat for pleasure. We all have rituals of preparing our food to develop flavors and then sharing the prepared food with others. The complexity of the rituals surrounding food can stem deep from our minds. Humans, with our large brains and established frontal lobes, have more complex emotions than our animal counterparts. Dealing with these emotions can be difficult, causing us to resort to external sources in order to cope. 

Many find enjoyment in preparing and consuming food. But when consuming food is a reaction to external or internal stress, emotional eating can occur. Emotional eating is a common behavior that includes binging, purging, or constant snacking due to some type of stress. Humans consume food in various ways in order to improve energy levels, to improve or change a mood, or simply to relieve boredom.

A study published in the Journal of American Dietetic Association investigated the meaning of food in a population of parental nutrition-dependent adults. The goal was to obtain a deeper understanding of how stress related to food intake and how eating influenced the perception of quality of life.  Interviews with the patient population in this study revealed three main topics with food consumption: eating for survival, eating for health benefits, and eating for socialization.

The researchers noted that being able to eat and enjoy food was regarded as an important aspect for quality of life. Patients who were merely eating to consume calories rated themselves as having poorer quality of life. In addition, the social and emotional context of food and mealtime was found to be an important component for the quality of life.[i] Food is a way to feel connected with other people. As a stress response, for people who have an inadequate support network, food can be a viable option. Many times, helping a patient find alternate ways to react to stress can replace the negative association they make with food.

On another hand, the study also reinforced what we learned when we were toddlers, if we don’t like it, we won’t eat it. We must like what we eat. Developing a taste for unusual or new foods takes time. Food largely has a cultural basis and people often eat what is easy to find. Our first palate is developed largely from what others feed us, namely parents and school lunch programs. Prepared foods offer ease and time-efficiency with cooking, and thus have become popular in many cultures, especially in the Unites States. Fast food has inundated our culture. McDonald’s has come to be known as a universal word associated with American globalization.

 McDonald’s spends more money on marketing and advertising than any other corporation in the Unites States. A survey found that 96% of American children could positively identify Ronald McDonald. The only fictional character with a higher degree of recognition was Santa Claus. It is clear that the behavioral shaping for developing a taste for fast food begins long before people often have awareness for health concerns.

For working families, the consumption of fast food is the result of the perception of saving time, saving money, and the perception that fast food tastes good. There are several studies that report a positive correlation between fast food consumption and rates of obesity in populations.  Specifically, in a 2004 study researchers found “a correlational relationship between both the number of residents per fast food restaurant and the square miles per fast food restaurants with state-level obesity prevalence.”

That leads us to another important question, how can we change negative eating behaviors associated with a poor diet? Guiding a patient to better health means assessing their own fears surrounding changing their current eating rituals. Instead of just looking at what foods to eliminate, we must look at the ritual surrounding the consumption of that particular food. We must help the individual rate the joy surrounding food or understand what purpose the food may be giving that person.

When managing a patient’s diet, their biggest fear may be giving up the food or the food ritual that they most enjoy. Behavior change may not be successful if your patient feels deprived. It is important when making dietary changes to make sure that the change equally provides what the original food/behavior provided. Only then can an individual enjoy alternate food or alternate food rituals in a beneficial way. Feelings of deprivation may sabotage attempts at breaking unhealthy habits. The focus becomes less on breaking unhealthy habits, but adding beneficial replacements. The goal is to teach the patient to readily embrace the newer, healthier behavior.

Addressing the feelings surrounding eating patterns takes a little bit of soul searching.  If the patient can dig down deep and find that connection with food and feelings, they may find the key to change. When a patient finds the balance of food, behaviors, and emotions, they may find a way to achieve emotional balance in a healthier way. Therefore, feeding the soul through hobbies, living your dreams, and non-food oriented social contexts are a few methods that change diets that don’t merely rely on will power. So go ahead, work up an appetite doing something you love, don’t let your appetite work you!