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What Need Are You Trying to Fill by Eating?

A recent piece in the New York Times recommended eating chips. Not for any nutritional value, but because: “Eating these chips will rescue us, above all, from the very worst things on our screens, the cursed news of the outside world — escalating numbers, civic decay, gangs of elderly men behaving like children.”

And I get it. Even in pre-pandemic times, it’s tempting to eat for emotional reasons, as a means of distraction or a way to fill some need, or for some temporary pleasure.

As the author of the chips piece said: “The next few minutes of my life, at least, are going to be great.”

But I’d question how great those moments truly are. How much enjoyment are you getting if you’re eating without even noticing the chips (or any other comfort food) as they go by? How great is it when you know subconsciously that you’re eating because of something you’re trying to avoid in your life?

What makes eating chips, or anything else, even better is eating them because you’re hungry and you want that specific food, not because you’re trying to cram down other feelings.

To do that, though, you have to understand what need you’re trying to fill.

Seeking distraction?

This past year has been a difficult time all around, so it’s easy to understand wanting some distraction from it. But this has some problems.

When you eat to distract yourself, you’re almost certainly not eating mindfully. You’re much more likely to eat when you’re not hungry, or even if you’re initially hungry, your odds of overeating are much higher.

Additionally, distraction is only temporary. Once you stop whatever you’re doing to distract yourself, the issues will still be there.

If world events are getting you down, instead of turning to chips (or ice cream or brownies or your food of choice), look for what helps calm and relax you, so you can let go of the things outside your control. Then focus on what you can do that could help make a difference.

Looking for a way to celebrate?

Another challenge of the pandemic is that we can’t get together to celebrate. Admittedly, it may not always feel like there’s a lot to celebrate, but most of us like to mark birthdays, anniversaries, and other special days in some way.

Food usually factors into those celebrations, but recently, food might be the only thing you can do.

And there’s nothing wrong with wanting to have a special meal or dessert to make an occasion special. The key is to make sure it’s a food you really want, and that you eat it mindfully. After all, if you have something to celebrate, eating your meal or treat mindfully will make the day seem that much more special.

It helps, too, if you can include people who are important to you so it’s not only about the food. Even a short phone or video call can boost your spirits, or try looking over favorite photos, or whatever works for you.

Feeling sad, depressed, angry, or any other emotion?

I don’t know about you, but sometimes it’s been hard to tell exactly what I’m feeling these days. Often it’s a combination of things, like a bit lonely, sad, and worried. Other times, I just feel numb because there’s just too much going on for me to process.

In those situations, it’s very easy to turn to food. At least when you’re eating, you’re feeling something, and it’s usually pleasurable.

But in reality, it’s much more effective to give yourself an outlet of some kind, something else to focus your energy and attention on.

For example, I have friends who’ve started doing lots of jigsaw puzzles. (This wouldn’t work for me with my cats, but it sounds nice.) Maybe you want to start painting, drawing, knitting, or journaling

You could also learn something new, either with a class or by finding things online. I decided a few weeks ago to start learning more about trees, and it’s been a lot of fun so far.

I’ve learned that even though I live in the Pine Tree State, we have a lot more than just pines in the area. I’ve also discovered that trees, like people, need protein, carbohydrates, and fat to survive and grow, and that when some trees keep their dead leaves through the winter, it’s called marcescence.

I’ve found it to be very helpful to have something to think about other than world events, and it’s made me pay more attention during my walks to everything around me.

Look for different ways to fill needs

As tempting as it is to automatically reach for food to fill some need other than physical hunger, it’s worth pausing to consider how else to meet that need. If you decide to eat, try to eat mindfully, but if you experiment with other options, you’ll likely find them more satisfying in the long run.


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