culinary school, penn, light and flowers

Our relationship with food is often complex, so it takes time to develop a healthy relationship with eating. But I’d like to share a strategy that’s been really helpful to me throughout the years.

In college I used to turn to food when I was upset, bored, anxious or lonely. Which meant that I turned to food very, very often. (It also didn’t help that I thought dieting was the answer to my woes, and I spent some days pretty hungry.)

And after a while — a long while — I noticed that no amount of food would satisfy me. I could eat an entire box or bag of anything, and I’d still feel empty.

And I realized that food wasn’t what I really wanted or needed.

What I really wanted and needed was a good cry, a great book, support from a friend, a walk, a hug, rest or to learn to enjoy my own company.

Stuffing myself with foods I barely even tasted only contributed to my negative feelings — and left me severely unsatisfied. It also left me very disconnected from my body, and just confused altogether.

That’s why, today, if I start reaching for food when I’m not hungry, I immediately ask myself:

What do you really need? What are you really feeling? 

And then I consider how I can respond to that need or feeling.

If I’m anxious, would moving my body help more? If I’m lonely, do I want to chat with a friend? If I’m bored, do I want to read a book, watch a favorite TV show, write a poem or get some work done?

There are so many healthy, interesting, rejuvenating and soothing ways we can respond to our needs, wants and wishes. Ways that honor and respect our bodies and ourselves.

Food is certainly one option, but I’ve found that if you repeatedly turn to food for comfort, you start to blunt your feelings and numb yourself.  There’s no enjoyment or even awareness. Your needs go unmet, and you rarely feel better.

Food can be comforting sometimes, no doubt. Think of hot soup when you’re sick or when it’s cold out; a plate of pasta when your taste buds are craving Alfredo sauce and thick fettucine (my favorite); or farm fresh strawberries on a sweltering summer day.

But the difference here is that food is nourishing — and it’s responding to a genuine need or want. We’re tasting our meal, savoring it and enjoying ourselves.

But food can’t meet all our needs.

So the next time you find yourself using food for comfort, ask instead what activities, people or things will really nourish you.

What will really feed you in this moment better than this food?

It’s empowering to be able to name what you need and then respond to it. It’s probably the best gift we can give ourselves.

What is your favorite way to nourish your needs?