You might think that eating unhealthy is simply a matter of habit, reasoning that you probably learned it from your parents, and hence you were just unlucky that your parents didn’t teach you healthier eating habits.
What we learn to eat at home matters, but what matters even more is how and why we eat. If you have an unhealthy relationship to food, chances are that the adults in your life taught you to suppress emotions with food or to create emotional associations to certain foods, sometimes simply by virtue of example. While not all dysfunctional eating habits come from your parents, teachers or relatives, I’d like to share a few examples of how they might have unknowingly, and with the best of intentions screwed up your relationship to food:
Offering you comfort foods whenever you were feeling sad or lonely, or to make up for something “bad” that happened. Let’s say your friends made fun of you and excluded you from a game. To make you feel better, you mom makes your favorite food and let’s you eat ice cream for dessert. A healthier way to deal with the situation would have been to allow you to express your hurt and feeling of rejection, while being unconditionally present with you, giving love and validation to the way you are feeling.
Love & Belonging
Perhaps eating was the only time when the family came together and was present with each other emotionally, and actually paid attention to each other. This might cause you to associate food with feeling of belonging and connection. Later on you might find yourself eating every time you are feeling lonely or disconnected. Instead, your family could have given each other presence and attention always when they were together, regardless of whether there was food involved or not.
Maybe your parents rewarded you with sweets or junk food for good behavior, thus conveying recognition and appreciation with food, essentially saying “I love you if you behave like a good boy/girl”. This could cause you to later turn to food whenever you are feeling like a failure or simply for feeling lack of love or appreciation in your life. In my opinion, the trick is not to reward for good behavior, but rather to understand where the unwanted behavior is coming from (see the next point).
Some parents use food as a punishment, depriving you from treats when you misbehave, and thus causing you to later desperately cling to those foods whenever you feel emotionally deprived or rejected. Or you might even punish yourself with an overly controlling diet regime to avoid feeling like a failure, or because you believe you deserve it for being a bad person.
Instead, they could have connected to you emotionally, trying to understand what it is that you are feeling that causes you to act out in a certain way. Usually unwanted behavior is an expression of a need which the child hasn’t learned to communicate in other ways, usually emotional presence and validation. Or it could be a trauma based reaction to a trigger that is bringing up the emotionally painful memory.
Perhaps the adults in your life shamed you for eating too much, too little or for wanting to eat certain kinds of foods. This might cause you in your adult life to feel shame for eating in social situations, and later hide in you room to binge. It might cause you to overly regulate your eating in front of others in order to avoid any social judgment. In this case the adult should look into themselves to ask why they find certain eating behavior shameful. It is likely that they judge the part of themselves that (for example) wants to indulge and eat a lot, but as this part is heavily suppressed for being shamed, they now judge this behavior whenever they see it in others, especially in their children, who they perceive as extensions of themselves.
Can you see how easy it is to develop unhealthy eating habits? I would even argue that most people on this planet have dysfunctional relationship to food in one way or another. How do you know if you have a trauma based relationship to food? Just ask yourself, what happens if you go without food for a few hours longer than what you are used to? Or if you try to resist a craving? Do you have a compulsive need to eat sweets in the evening? Are you obsessed about counting calories? Do you ever feel uncomfortable eating in groups? Do you feel that there is no way on earth that you could ever live without a certain food (cheese, coffee, chocolate, hummus…)?
My coffee addiction
I was addicted to coffee for the last 13 years of my life (not sure when I started). When I was trying to quit, I realized that I had no physical symptoms whatsoever, but an incomprehensible craving that had no form. I came to realize that my addiction to coffee was in fact emotional. The smell of fresh coffee and the sound of a coffee maker remind me of a serene Saturday morning with no worries or concerns and the whole weekend ahead of me. Also, we used to gather around the coffee table with my family to enjoy a moment of presence and togetherness, the same that we still do with my whole extended family.
As a result, I learned to associate coffee with belonging, togetherness, and feeling peaceful and carefree. In that sweet coffee break there was nothing but that moment and the people who are with you. I am confident that my other family members share this very same unconscious association.
When I started being more connected to my emotions, I was slowly able to let go of my emotional clinging to coffee as a substitute for real human connectedness and internal peace. Now that I am aware of this, I can still sit in the coffee table with them and have the same experience of togetherness, while sipping on my herbal tea.
The way out
I want to emphasize that the adults in your life that screwed up your relationship to food, did so unknowingly and without the awareness of what they were doing. They simply did not know any other way to deal with emotional pain (either yours or their own) or to express appreciation and love directly. They never learned what it means to be emotionally present, let alone to validate unpleasant emotions. That is, to convey that it is OK to feel the way you or they themselves were feeling.
However, there is a way out and it is this: You can give yourself the emotional presence that you lacked as a child, and you can accept and honor all of your emotions.
So every time the evening craving arises, I suggest that you sit with that sensation, observe the craving and the feelings associated with it. Ask yourself what it is that the specific food makes you feel, and thus what it is that you are avoiding to feel right now. Then sit with that unpleasant emotion that you are avoiding to feel with full presence and acceptance, and tell yourself, that it is OK to feel that way. Afterward, if the craving is still there, you can still choose to indulge, but now with full awareness and the power of choice.