Hunger, Nutrition, and Mental Health

by Jennifer Barzey, LCSW

​Despite having studied nutrition and having developed an understanding of the impact that food can have on our physical and mental health, I still love chocolate. After a stressful experience or difficult day, I still sometimes find myself more enticed by chips or sweets. There are many reasons for this. I grew up associating food with both a way to feel better when sad and a way to celebrate when happy. Turning down food prepared for me was rude and having more was seen as a compliment to the chef. When I didn’t yet have the skills needed to cope with my feelings, food was there.

​Our relationship with food can be quite complicated!

I think it’s safe to say that most of us eat for many reasons other than nutrition. Some people eat in an attempt to experience a sense of comfort and nurture or to manage emotions like sadness or anger. Others may eat to manage the discomfort of boredom or loneliness.  Others still, to procrastinate doing something that needs to be done, but they’re dreading doing.  To say, it’s important to have a meal or snack to nourish myself can be a way to justify the avoidance of facing a different fear or duty.

There are many reasons we might eat when we’re not eating to nourish our actual hunger. When it becomes a problem is when eating (or restricting) becomes the primary way we cope. In Eating in the Light of the Moon, Anita Johnson, PHD, writes that we get into trouble we begin to interpret all hunger as a hunger for food.

Letting go of an unhealthy relationship is not easy and an unhealthy relationship with food is no exception. Unlike alcohol or cigarettes, we cannot go “cold turkey” or completely abstain from food. Instead we must redefine the relationship. In this way, moving towards health involves understanding what the real hunger is that you are trying to feed. Only then can you nourish yourself with what is truly needed and feel satisfied. Only then can your body become a place to inhabit and enjoy rather than something to endure or escape.

As we enter the new year, the stores are stocked with various supplements and advertisements for weight loss programs abound. It is easy to get pulled into diet culture and societal pressures of how we should look. But perhaps a better question to ask is what is my relationship with food and what am I truly hungry for?

Jennifer Barzey is a Licensed Clinical Social Worker in California.  During the time she wrote this article she was employed at Inspired Life Counseling.  She has since left our office to start her own private practice and hang her shingle.  We are grateful for her contribution to our office.  If you are looking for a session with Jennifer, you can learn more about her by clicking the button below: