Happy. That’s probably one of the first words that came to your mind. It’s an association that’s common, often automatic. The connection between food and happiness is often conscious and verbal, but it’s also visceral—a “gut-level” connection.
And, why not? Food is necessary, instinctually appetizing, appealing to the senses, and the concern of much human activity, including biological need, aesthetics, social bonding, and economics.
For many, the fill in is: Food makes me... happy, comforted, full, nourished, satisfied, warm, pleased, etc.
However, as vital as food is for survival, and despite its pleasant gratifications, food makes a lot of people sick.
There are millions who might admit: Food makes me... anxious, depressed, tempted, obsessed, conflicted, crazy, fat, bloated, allergic, tired, diseased, addicted...
How would you fill the empty space?
Food makes me...
As a psychologist, I study and work with people’s relationships and habits. I also develop, administer, and interpret tests. Sentence completion is an old-fashioned, projective assessment technique in which the examinee is asked to complete open-ended statements—such as, Food makes me...
The purpose of offering such open-ended statements is to obtain ideas (subjective and hypothetical, at best) about a person’s attitudes, preoccupations, biases, and emotions. Sentence completion measures are far from accurate or specific; rather, they attempt to encourage communication, self-awareness, and potential insight.
Though food and the ways we eat are important for overall health, I’m most attuned on this topic to the relationship people have with food. Relationships with food are foundational to self-image, self-control, self-confidence, and comfort with and acceptance of one’s own being.
I’m not a nutritionist or a “diet guru.” Though I’ve learned a lot about diet and nutrition over the years, I have neither nutritional agendas nor products to sell. I’ve discovered the seminal importance of what people eat in determining how they feel and function: the scientific correlation between foods and emotions (as well as psychiatric conditions) is well-documented.
The importance of food and eating habits notwithstanding, my mission is to help people become more comfortable with and accepting of themselves, more realistic about and adapted to challenge and compromise in the natural world, and essentially more able to live life on its own terms, rather than in manipulations or escapist fantasies.
As a neuropsychologist, I specialize in brain-behavior relationships. That is, I interpret behaviors (emotions, thoughts, and actions) as functions of nervous system and brain physiology. In this regard, I employ interventions and techniques to help people gain better control over their brains and physiologies—hence, better health, productivity, and happiness.
In a broader context—more developmental and philosophical—I am most interested in helping people become “friends with their brains and bodies.” This is a tall order. It’s an individualized journey that requires occasional treatment and/or mentoring, but always necessitates life experiences, learning, and validation.
We all have issues with ourselves. Some people hate and devalue themselves; others are too egotistical and self-inflated. Most people go through phases where they wish they were someone else. It’s very difficult to see oneself as in the perception of others. The balance between valuing and accepting oneself while coming to terms with (and some corrections of) one’s shortcomings can be elusive.
Your relationship with food is fundamental to becoming friends with your brain and body.
They say, “You are what you eat.” There’s a lot of truth in this statement: foods build us up, heal us, fortify us, but also can relentlessly erode health and cause disease. It’s no surprise.
Our culture is obsessed with appearance, specifically youthfulness and weight loss. While there is virtue in self-discipline and even (to a limited extent) in vanity, this obsession—personal and social—takes its toll on realistic self-appraisal and the common sense of developing long-term healthy habits and self-esteem.
We are fortunate to live in a civilization where food is abundant and varied. This, however, is a mixed blessing. The limitations of aging, metabolism, sedentary lifestyles, and the harmful effects of many foods are no match for persuasive marketing and advertising. Though foods are expensive, many who are not desperately impoverished can purchase and indulge in a wide variety of tempting, delectable, and high calorie items at will. The monetary costs, however, are coupled with far greater costs: immoderation, obesity, food addictions and obsessions, waste, ruptured self-control, and the development of ill health and diseases such as diabetes and cardiovascular problems.
It is quite difficult to achieve moderation and self-control in an environment of sensory appeal, abundance, and advertising. Yet, this is vital in developing control over one’s self-defeating propensities and to feel proud about your self-image. Having a normal, functional relationship with food is a benchmark in being friends with your brain and body.
In relation to food, obsessions, aberrations, and conflicts are common. Someone commented to me, “I’m not even finished with breakfast, but already I’m thinking about lunch and dinner.” This is sad. Ironically, preoccupations with food detract from and sully the enjoyment of one of the most pleasurable aspects of life!
Reflect upon the old saying, Do you eat to live, or live to eat? Perhaps a mixture of both is ideal. The absence of deprivation or gluttony makes it possible to have a decent relationship with food that is characterized by rational adaptive actions and behaviors as opposed to irrational maladaptive actions and behaviors (e.g., eating an entire gallon of ice cream while watching TV.).
In my interactions with people, both personal and professional, I keep in mind the following objectives:
Therefore, these principles predominate whether I am giving advice or treating people for food relationship issues.
In my professional practice, I help people with eating, food, and body problems through a combination of approaches:
In regard to the last point, the following is a very brief list of books about food and nutrition that have been helpful to me and my patients:
Salt Sugar Fat: How the Food Giants Fooled Us, by Michael Moss.
Primal Body, Primal Mind: Empower Your Total health the Way Nature Intended (and Didn’t), by Nora Gedgaudas.
Your Food is Fooling You: How Your Brain is Hijacked by Sugar, Fat, and Salt, by David Kessler, M.D.
The End of Overeating: Taking Control of the Insatiable American Appetite, by David Kessler, M.D.
(David Kessler, M.D., served as commissioner of the U.S. Food and Drug Administration under presidents George H. W. Bush and Bill Clinton. He is a pediatrician and has been the dean of the medical schools at Yale and the University of California, San Francisco.)
I’ve had issues with food for most of my life. I tried numerous diets and inventive strategies to lose weight and keep it under control. It remained a losing and deeply traumatizing battle for decades.
In my early forties, things changed. I had a gradual and lasting epiphany: I did not have to continue to eat food simply because it was there! This was revolutionary—and it wasn’t an idea or a plan or a cognitive trick. It simply happened and continued to be a normal part of my appetite, behavior, and attitudes about food and eating.
The notion that I could stop eating when I was no longer hungry was new and startling for me. And, it came from my brain and my body. I just grew into the habit of eating less because I became satisfied with less. So began my glutton-free diet.
For decades, I’d maintained the dietary habit of continuing to eat until I had satisfied the necessary threshold for hating myself, the cue that it was time to stop eating. Until that time in my life, my relationship with food had been dominated by an insatiable quest to get “enough” of delicious food (as if I were starving or verging on an environment of potential deprivation. I know, it doesn’t make any sense; but that’s what I did.) Much of my appetite and overeating was fueled by the foods I ate (that made me want more of them) and by the alcohol that deceived my true appetite and thresholds of satiation. My relationship with food bordered on a Bacchanalian quest, punctuated by bathroom breaks and work activities.
So, how did this change? I believe it was a confluence of factors. First and foremost, I trained my own brain with lots of EEG neurofeedback. This put me in touch with my own body and appetite centers. After a brief regimen of training, I discovered that I needed less—less alcohol, coffee, and food. Fractional amounts of my former intake suddenly satisfied me, and signaled to my brain that I had had enough.
Second, I used Voice Technology on myself to curb cravings and eliminate self-sabotaging behaviors. In addition to actual behavioral self-control, I felt empowered! My enslavement to food addictions took a positive turn.
Third, I began regular exercise (after a long sedentary hiatus from my athletic youth). Too lazy and leery of becoming a weekend warrior, I exercised moderately, but regularly. And I incorporated lots of mobility and stretching into my daily routine. This became a way of life. Exercise has multiple and synergizing benefits. Burning calories is necessary; but exercise stimulates metabolism to burn more calories even when not exercising. It reduces stress and helps sleep, which, in turn, defrays overeating. Exercise bestows motivation by its sobering reminders of cost/benefit for dietary overindulgence; and the difficulty of exercising on a full stomach lends a mindful control mechanism to ingestion.
Fourth, my aging metabolism slowed down. Becoming more self-regulated in my brain functioning helped me pay attention to my body’s signals and plan accordingly. “Eat it this week and wear it next week” gave way to realizing that going to bed on a full stomach was not something I could get away with any longer.
Fifth, I changed my diet. For much of my life—even before I ate a lot of fresh fish— I was on a seafood diet: I see food, and I eat it! After careful research and mentoring by respected colleagues, I systematically and gradually lowered my carbohydrate intake, avoided sugar, eliminated most processed foods, and began eating moderate amounts of good quality protein and fat (yes, fat. The brain needs fat. By eating good natural fat and avoiding carbs, I lost weight.) Eventually, I gave up alcohol, which made things a whole lot easier. For me, the hardest thing about giving up alcohol was lasagna! How can you enjoy lasagna without red wine? Well, I soon learned to do so, and later gave up the lasagna, too, for the most part. It was gradual and not too difficult.
Sixth, I employed my own savvy and professional training to modify my own behaviors. I discovered many “tricks.” For example, a handful of raw nuts (though high in calories and fat) is amazingly satisfying, and curbs my appetite for and indulgence in less wholesome but tempting foods. I continue to win the dessert battle most nights by detouring from the refrigerator to bed at the opportune time. Funny thing: while in the living room or kitchen, it’s hard to stop thinking about dessert. But once I undress, brush my teeth, and get into bed, I completely lose the desire to eat more or to eat sugary foods. Amazing and reliable! I also discovered (by avoiding eating late on typically busy long days) that going to bed on an empty stomach makes me feel wonderful the next morning. It’s a bit difficult and restless to go to sleep hungry (and humbling to realize how many people in the world live that way). I skip dinner about three times per month. It requires discipline, but it’s worth it. My stomach shrinks, my system resets, and I feel renewed.
Oh, I do love ice cream—I eat it every few months. But it’s hard for me to limit myself, the blood sugar roller coaster convicts me with every indulgence… and it’s just too much work to concentrate on and battle with moderation when it comes to sugar (that delicious poison). I found the same thing was true with alcohol: just too much work to be moderate, where sensibility and self-control took the fun out of drinking. So I quit.
That was fifty pounds ago. With more work to do, I still must be disciplined and vigilant, but it is so much easier now. My brain and body cooperate with me. Food is a joy and a privilege.
In a certain way, I am hard on myself. Though I can eat what I want and am fortunate to have enough money and resources to feed and treat myself, I have one steadfast rule: I set a standard that I don’t deserve to eat simply because it’s dinner time. I associate meals with working. I set a standard for earning my dinner by performing physical exercise and accomplishing necessary mental work. Unless I’ve worked physically and mentally, I don’t deserve dinner. That doesn’t mean I deprive myself ascetically. I simply don’t feel good about ingesting food when I haven’t sufficiently worked for it that day. This attitude keeps me on my toes, and keeps me active, humble, and thankful.
I view and treat food with reverence. I am so grateful to God for what he supplies, and for the intestinal fortitude to digest it happily. Food is a blessing!
There is wisdom in “You are what you eat.” However, there is greater wisdom in what Jesus explained to the Pharisees:
“Nothing outside a person can defile them by going into them. Rather, it is what comes out of a person that defiles them… Don’t you see that nothing that enters a person from the outside can defile them? For it doesn’t go into their heart but into their stomach, and then out of the body.” (In saying this, Jesus declared all foods clean.)… “What comes out of a person is what defiles them. For it is from within, out of a person’s heart that evil thoughts come—sexual immorality, theft, murder, adultery, greed, malice, deceit, lewdness, envy, slander, arrogance, and folly. All these evils come from inside and defile a person.”
To have a good relationship with food, we must also respect that people have different bodies, different needs, and different beliefs. We may guide and advise others, but they need to discover their own paths. One man’s meat is another man’s poison. Or, as in the French version: Chacun à son gout. (To each his own taste.)
The apostle Paul speaks to this spiritually in Romans:
Therefore let us stop passing judgment on one another. Instead, make up your mind not to put any stumbling block or obstacle in the way of a brother or sister. I am convinced, being fully persuaded in the Lord Jesus, that nothing is unclean in itself. But if anyone regards something as unclean, then for that person it is unclean. If your brother or sister is distressed because of what you eat, you are no longer acting in love. Do not by your eating destroy someone for whom Christ died… Let us therefore make every effort to do what leads to peace and mutual edification. Do not destroy the work of God for the sake of food. All food is clean, but it is wrong for a person to eat anything that causes someone else to stumble. It is better not to eat meat or drink wine or to do anything else that will cause your brother or sister to fall.
Food is basic, necessary, and powerful in our hearts, minds, and stomachs. So many people have a love-hate relationship with food, eating, and their bodies. Let’s be lighter, at least in mind and spirit. Some good belly laughs are helpful and welcome.
Interested readers who want to laugh out loud are invited to read my satirical story about food and my upbringing in my book, Confessions of a Maverick Mind. Here is an excerpt from one of the stories, Quelquechose Pour Rien:
One of his favorite pastimes was eating in restaurants. Dining out was a wonderful activity that suited several of his important needs. First, he loved to eat, and had a voracious appetite. He was an active, athletic adolescent who exercised vigorously. From his muscular body, you could never tell that he had a hollow leg until you saw how much he ate. Second, eating was something that had to be done regularly anyway, and there were many, many restaurants of every price, flavor, quality, and style in New York. Third, food had always been very important in his family and culture; appetites, attitudes, idiosyncrasies, and behaviors involving food had assumed the status of ritualistic fetish within the family. Fourth, food acquisition was a rather strategic operation for his parents, and these survival skills were passed along through the generations. His mother religiously devoted herself to the preparation of traditional foods, even those in which family members did not have much interest. There was never a shortage of protein or preservatives at her table. She bore a legendary reputation for winning arguments against butchers and grocers; her tongue was sharper than their knives. His father was a temperate man, imbued with the talent and experience of endurance eating. (Undoubtedly the family lineage contained adept hunters and gatherers; however, evolution produced interesting variants of this behavior in contemporary New York City.) The dentist was a master at the buffet table, blithely passing the initial salads, indifferently appraising the appetizers, jousting judiciously with the jello, haggling half-heartedly with potatoes or pasta, engaging numerous entreés, and always reserving room for dessert. Through years of festive celebrations, he studied his father’s techniques until he, too, could take whatever was dished out, slicing through the gauntlet of caloric opposition. Endurance eating was a manly sport of quiet and thrifty determination, requiring steadfast practice at resplendent feasts and mealtime leftovers alike.
Since antiquity, Jews have taken food very seriously. We have to lighten up (as well as lose weight):
A rabbi and priest met for lunch. The rabbi looked on as the priest enjoyed dishes with shrimp and pork—off limits for the rabbi. The priest gently cajoled the rabbi about just trying these foods. But the rabbi was steadfast in his refusal.
The priest tried again: “Rabbi, have an open mind: just try it, at least once. God will understand your curiosity.”
“Okay,” said the rabbi, I’ll tell you what: I’ll have a little taste of these things at your wedding.”
What about me? Food makes me… thankful, satisfied, nourished, strengthened, and wanting to share.