Food as an emotional substitute

18. November 2022.

People can be addicted to food, alcohol, nicotine, drugs, shopping, work, gambling, smartphones, internet, sex tapes, video games, extreme sports…. – anything that can temporarily suppress negative emotions and, therefore, give us a sense of peace, control, and calmness.

If a healthy person is addicted to overeating, the solution generally is not just to abstain from food, but to understand why overconsumption of food is taking place at first place.

Food can become a substitute, when we lack emotional nourishment. When we feel that we do not exercise real power over our lives, we move towards whatever offers us a sense of safety and protection (even if that protection comes in the form of extra fat depots surrounding our body). When obesity becomes an emotional armor, major weight loss can be perceived as sexually or physically threatening, despite its objective health benefits.

But why are we seeking emotional protection?

From the moment we are born, we have an innate need to connect with others. If the bond provided by our parents, caregivers and surroundings is strong, safe, stable and protective, we are naturally able to trust and connect with ourselves and others in healthy ways. However, if we are neglected and isolated, and do not experience secure attachment, we tend to struggle with trust issues. Later in life, we are usually unable to bond, and will constantly seek for relief from our feelings of lack of acceptance, connection and protection.

How many of us compensate for our perceived lack of value by becoming work-a-holics? How many of us for our sense of being unwanted by becoming sex-a-holics? How often do we suppress our true selves and become people pleasers, in order to cover feelings of not being accepted and valued for exactly who we are?

And so, a self-destructive cycle is triggered: by suppressing our feelings, we become de-pressed. Under extreme tension and with no one to share it with, we tend to become hyper-tensive. Living life with a lack of “ease” makes many of us “ob-esed” and “dis-eased”.

Food as an emotional substitute

You get my point: overeating, just as any other addiction, is not a problem itself, it is only a marker for other, pre-existing problems. It is a coping mechanism that attempts to suppress the emotional discomfort we experience, generally because of unresolved trauma suffered earlier in life.

Developing healthy interpersonal connections as part of our recovery and healing is not easy. Overcoming our lack of trust and connection, often rooted in early life experience, requires self-awareness, forgiveness, and patience. In order to truly heal and learn to trust and connect with our surroundings, we first have to create a sense of safety, trust and connection within ourselves. For this, we have to make peace with our past, accept the reality of our present, and then harness our power to shape a future that honors our bodies, our souls and the truly miraculous beings we are.