This article exists as part of the online archive for HuffPost Australia, which closed in 2021.

You Are In A Relationship With The Food You Eat

Is your relationship healthy or abusive?
Cake is not bad or good. It's just cake. Your attitude dictates how you feel about the cake.  Think about it.
Cake is not bad or good. It's just cake. Your attitude dictates how you feel about the cake. Think about it.

We know the key to a functional relationship is communication. Communicating with a loved one helps you learn about boundaries and respect and you'll be happier as a result.

So when was the last time you stopped to assess your relationship with the foods you eat. Have you ever thought about it?

Taking a look at your relationship with food is the first step to understanding your habits. Sure, you might eat when you're hungry, but there's a whole host of other reasons why people eat.

"A lot of eating happens for reasons other than hunger. A lot of the time people are eating for a lot of different reasons that have absolutely nothing to do with hunger," Professor Eva Kemps from the Faculty Of Social and Behavioral Sciences at Flinders University told The Huffington Post Australia.

Not surprisingly, one of the main factors is environmental. We're not talking about climate change -- it's about what you see (and smell) everyday.

Look familiar?
Look familiar?

"There's all this food around us. Being exposed to food and cues that promote eating in itself is going to trigger people to engage in eating behaviours," Kemps said.

"You see food around you so much these days and you can't get away from it. It's not just in shops but also fast food outlets, vending machines, at the petrol station -- it's everywhere. And if that's not enough there's also the reminders of food such as advertising on television, buses, magazines and billboards. It's impossible to escape. We're living in an environment where food is so pervasive and seeing that all the time are cues. Of course it's always appetising food as well -- it's mostly not healthy and usually high calorie. You don't often see a bowl of broccoli advertised. So it's not surprising that people tend to reach for these foods."

Identifying if you're the type to be triggered by these cues is part of assessing your relationship with food.

"There are differences in the degree to which people react to these types of cues," Kemps said.

"Some people are much more externally driven in their food intake, so they tend to respond a lot more, whereas other people can be more internally driven -- so they tend to listen more to the signal that their body sends. They're listening to their body say 'I can see all these yummy foods out there but actually I'm not hungry, so I am not going to eat it'.

"But, a lot of people are driven by what they see. For many of us it's there and therefore we eat it."

Another main factor that contributes to eating when we're not hungry is emotions.

"It's what we call emotional eating, and it's not surprising that we do that because our culture is geared to associate emotions with eating behaviors," Kemps said.

"Just think about positive events we attend -- such as birthday parties, weddings, anniversaries -- they are all associated and celebrated with food. You don't go to a birthday party where there's no food. There's always birthday cake, lolly bags and other wonderful nibbles, so we learn this as kids.

"From a young age we learn to associate food with celebrations. It's a cultural thing -- we grow up with it and we learn to expect that if you go to an event that is emotionally driven, there's going to be food."

What's a kid's party without a food table?
What's a kid's party without a food table?

Celebrating happy events with food is part of life and that's fine as long as you have a healthy grasp on balance (more on that later), but it's important to note that negative emotions also fuel food cravings.

"If you think of funerals, afterwards people get together and there's food. Emotionally charged eating is something we grow up with. Comforting eating is another huge factor -- which is when you experience emotions not shared with other people at the same time," Kemps said.

"Think about when you've had a crap day at work -- you might go home and finish a pack of Tim Tams because it makes you feel better. Again, that's a learned behaviour. Because you would have had a bad day at school when you were young and your mum might have said "it's going to be okay, have a biscuit, it will make it all feel better", so we're kind of geared to deal with our emotions by eating."

"Food is being used as a way to overcome negative emotions so it's not surprising that when people feel stressed, anxious, depressed or lonely that they are likely to turn to food as a way of comforting themselves," Kemps said.

Recognising if you're an environmental or emotional eater is the first step to changing habits.

"Try and recognise why you're craving or reaching for the food. You'd need to do this at a time when you're not feeling the emotion," Kemps said.

"Learning to recognise within yourself if you're someone who tends to use food in these ways is a good place to start. Ask yourself this question -- if something bad happens or you're not feeling good about yourself, are you the type of person who would turn to food? People can answer that question for themselves. People know."

"It's an opportunity to take stock at a time when you're not in that emotion and prepare for the next time it happens. When you're in that emotion it's too hard to analysis -- you'll just do it because it is a behavior is automatically driven -- it's a habit," Kemps said.

Ask yourself why you're reaching for the doughnut. Be honest.
Ask yourself why you're reaching for the doughnut. Be honest.

"When you're not in that emotion set aside some time to reflect on your own eating behavior. The next step will be to do something different the next time that emotion or situation happens. You need to have the plan upfront and instead, do something else that brings you pleasure or comfort. It might be calling a friend, walking the dog, or watching your favourite TV show. Though it's important to note we're only talking about symptom management here, because obviously there's an underlying deeper issue that might need addressing. Recognising what the trigger is does help."

On the flip side, avoiding all 'naughty' food at all times isn't going to work either. After all, food is joy, pleasure and fun. Striking the ever elusive balance is key here and that comes down to training your own attitude.

"What people often tend to do is use black and white thinking, or an all or nothing approach," Kemps said.

"It's important to be healthy, of course, and eating a healthy diet is part of that, as is exercising regularly and getting good sleep. But, just because you have a healthy diet it doesn't mean it needs to be a puritan diet. It is totally fine to have an indulgence once in awhile -- and it's the 'once in awhile' that is the emphasis here."

"When it comes to treating yourself, if there's something there you want -- say at a party or a function -- just have it. Then, don't beat yourself up or feel guilty about it. By doing that you're destroying the pleasure you've just had," Kemps said.

If you're happy and you know it (and just want the burger for a treat), go for it.
If you're happy and you know it (and just want the burger for a treat), go for it.

"If you can manage to teach yourself to only have it once and a while, and when you do have it to just enjoy it, there is absolutely nothing wrong with that. Saying you're going to cut out all bad food always just doesn't work. You might be able to do it for a little while but the problem is by denying yourself, that's when cravings start developing and you fall off an imaginary wagon you've made for yourself."

Functioning in society and in an environment where there is food is part of life. Learning when to have a treat in these environments and striking the right balance is what it's all about.

"Recognising that some food isn't about fueling your body but is about joy or pleasure and then learning to enjoy those foods in the right balance is the aim. Your relationship with food doesn't need to view food as the enemy. It's not. It's about embracing tasty food, having a balanced diet and having treats in moderation," Kemps said.

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