As a Chef and human, my relationship with food is complex and varied. In one instance, food is my instrument. As a kind of artist, food feeds my professional and inspirational needs and as such must remain a little elusive, revealing itself part by part and always a bit discoverable. As a human, I receive food best when it is fully understood as an ingredient, as fuel or as nourishment. Lately, I have been feeling a sense of moderation and acceptance that seems, fortunately, to extend to all branches of life - including of course to food.
So, after weeks of feeling this equanimity of appetite and having relegated 'Muse Food’ to its rightful place and 'Purposeful Food’ to its role, I was recently surprised. I returned home from a disconcerting experience feeling ravenous. It wasn’t until after a few forkfuls that I realized I was eating, not because of any real hunger, but because I was upset. With the absence of anyone to talk to about my sudden destabilization, I had turned to food.
More and more, we are embracing the idea of food as medicine. We step lightly doing research, reading informative blogs and exchanging information. We are cautious. We are hopeful. We are prepared. But food as medication? Here, we act recklessly and largely alone. Why do we eat to tranquilize our strife? What is the underlying drive that motivates us to use this alternative to properly metabolizing our emotions?
John Covey says in his book, Food, Morals and Meaning: The Pleasure and Anxiety of Eating1, that centuries of learned behavior equating food with sin is the cause. As with the Ancient Greeks or early Christian crusaders, the idea developed that the pleasures derived from food - as with those from sex - undermine a more rational and reasoned approach2. This philosophy gave food a bit of a prohibitive element. And we certainly don’t need the Ancient Greeks - helpful though they may have been in building the foundations of modern government and public markets - to tell us that rendering anything forbidden makes it all the more compelling.
Biran Wansink purports that we have entrenched a behavior that responds to difficult feelings with food.3 If, for example, we continually give a child candy when he is sad, he learns to push that feeling out of the way and be soothed by the candy. He never learns to confront the sadness. All these theories combine to form a reasonably sound explanation of emotional eating. Giving food a seat of power in the middle of our primitive 'id’ selves clouds our way to truly experiencing food for its rightful objectives: pleasure, community and medicine.
Linda Spangle, author of Life is Hard; Food is Easy4 has a particular view of emotional eating and believes it can be categorized. Head hunger, she says, stems from an intellectual source such as a feeling of frustration or stress. Those folks, she claims, crave chewy or crunchy food; food that requires the heavy participation of teeth and crunching down. So, as it turns out, a nut is never just a nut. It’s a powerhouse of vitamin B and manganese.
Or, it’s your boss’s head anthropomorphized and embedded in your chocolate-walnut brownie. You thought you just wanted dessert. But really, you were feeling intensely misunderstood and needed to dissolve those feelings in an assertive, jaw-engaging, tooth-mobilizing act of vindication of self!
Spangle sites another example of a specific channel of emotional eating. While 'head hunger’ is noetic in origin, 'heart hunger’ is poetic in origin. The head hungry know what they need to do - redirect frustration to a bag of potato chips. The heart hungry, on the other hand, are sad, lonely or depressed. They don’t have as clear a sense of what they need, says, Spangle. They just know something is missing. Enter: comfort food. Food that is associated with simpler times takes center stage and center stomach. Filling that abyss of whatever we are missing with food of a hearty, heavy, dense nature becomes an urgent and singular objective.