Eating For Nourishment Or Comfort?
The sensation of hunger is a curious thing.
As babies we have no concept of what hunger actually is. All a baby knows is that it has bodily discomfort and it cries. The parent or carer doesn’t know exactly what a newborn’s cries are about, any more than the baby does. But an educated guess based on time since the last feed and perhaps the tone and pitch of the cry may lead to bringing the baby to the breast or bottle to see if hunger is the problem. In time, the baby starts to recognise that certain uncomfortable sensations are relieved by milk, whilst others are not. This takes time to learn and is her first true understanding of hunger based on bodily sensations: ie, sometimes when her stomach hurts the pain is relieved by milk.
Of course it’s not quite as simple as that. A baby that feeds does more than just drink milk. She has a physical and emotional connection with the one who is feeding her. So it doesn’t take long before the relief of discomfort that milk provides is associated with this additional emotional comfort. And with time, these associations become hard-wired in the child’s brain. That is, food becomes associated with nurturing, attention, love as well as relief from hunger.
This emotional and social connection to food doesn’t stop as we grow up. In fact for many of us, it becomes stronger. Food is rarely just about refuelling. It’s also an opportunity to enjoy oral textures and flavours. After all, we evolved the sense of taste to help us identify and discern between food items that were high in nutrition and calories or potentially poisonous. Our taste buds evolved so that the higher the energy provided by the food, the more we enjoyed it.
This made sense when food was scarce and finding a source of energy dense foods like honey or animal fat would help sustain us till the next meal, whenever that might be. But in our modern world where most of us enjoy easy access to a huge variety of foods, we have not yet de-evolved this behaviour. And it now works against us. We still prefer sweet and fatty foods, and may have difficulty in resisting these. In fact, food technologists have discovered that the “bliss point” of maximum food enjoyment for many people lies in the ratio of 50/50 fat to sugar, a ratio that is never found in nature, and one that plays havoc with the liver.
In addition to providing fuel and happy taste buds, food has become a way of self-soothing. Many babies discover that if the breast or bottle is unavailable, emotional comfort can come from a thumb or a pacifier. Freud called this oral gratification and suggested that some dysfunctional behaviour later in life, such as overeating, drinking and smoking may stem from this infant behaviour. So when we eat foods that are high in calories, not only do we enjoy them, but they may soothe us emotionally. This is what many call “comfort eating”. Living a highly stressed life may increase your vulnerability to this form of over-eating or drinking.
Then there’s the social aspect of eating. As social animals, eating together is hugely important. We sit around tables and “break bread” together, we “go out for coffee”, socialise with family and friends over meals. We connect food with all major milestones in our lives: birthdays, graduations, weddings, even death. Do you want to celebrate something, show someone you love them? Cook a meal, open a bottle of wine or go out for dinner. We’ve even made eating a form of entertainment, with TV shows about growing, preparing and eating food, even travelling with the purpose of experiencing culinary and cultural food experiences across the globe.
So it’s pretty clear that by the time we realise there’s a problem habit we want to change, the neural networks supporting that habit are well embedded. This is why it’s so hard to stick to a diet. Dieting means denying ourselves so much more than just food. And diets rarely take into account all those complex realities around why we eat.
But here’s the thing.
Your brain is plastic and you can change those recalcitrant neural networks by going back to how the networks first formed. We go back to the body.
We return to the physical signs of hunger and we learn to deal with them differently. We learn how to reconnect with the feeling of needing food (hunger), as opposed to wanting entertainment (boredom), comfort (stress), to feel more energetic (tired) or less energetic (anxious).
We learn how to connect with the taste buds to truly savour every mouthful. And to eat slowly to give your brain time to register satiety. We start to rewire the brain to recognise the difference between hunger, thirst, boredom, stress, etc, and then to pause.
We pause in order to experience each of those different sensations. And we do this to learn that none of them are life threatening. Can you be with the sensation of mild to moderate hunger without judging and trying to withdraw from the sensation? Can you be OK with the physical discomfort of boredom without feeding it? Can you recognise the difference between hunger and stress and in so doing find alternative responses to comfort eating?
This is not a diet. It’s developing a new relationship with food and drink.
Mindfulness teaches us all this and more. Mindfulness is a tool to help you rewire your brain. And mindfulness practice can bring a new source of joy as we become empowered to stop fighting our bad habits, and to rewire them instead.
However, when habits have been ingrained for a very long time, it can take perseverance to learn tis new way of being. When we feel stressed, it’s hard to persevere with uncomfortable sensations. This is where hypnosis can provide the kick-start to shift your perspective and help you see possibilities for a new way of being.Back to Blog menu