Wednesday, June 27, 2012

Food and Mood: What is the Relationship?

By: Khara Bennett, Therapist at Williamsburg Place

When we talk about mental health, an area that can be overlooked is the link between food and mood. Unless we notice someone with an eating disorder or some type of other disordered eating behavior, we tend to disregard the connection between the two. Food and Mood issues may extend to eating disorders, but are not limited to it. It is more about examining the relationship between a person, their food choices and the emotions being experienced while eating.

For example, does a person tend to overeat when experiencing high anxiety, or do they tend to restrict? Do the food choices or amounts of food change with the emotion being experienced? One way that we can look at this is by beginning to look at food as symbolism. In other words, what other needs does food satisfy? Within hours of birth we begin to connect food with an emotion. In breastfeeding the child is typically held and nurtured, giving a feeling of protection and safety in the feeding process. As kids, when we needed a shot at the doctors we received a lollipop, beginning to teach us that sugar or candy can make the pain go away; a form of positive reinforcement of food. If you grew up in a home where the “clean your plate club” was the way, you may develop anxiety or fear if you don’t eat everything on your plate. Some of those who restrict find a source of power and confidence in their ability to refrain from eating and translate this into power and self-confidence in other aspects of their life. In this way food becomes more than just something you eat, it becomes an emotional event. 

An example that I often use with my clients is that when I was sad as a child my mother always brought me dessert or gave me some chocolate to “feel better.” Over time I began to equate that the way to feel better was through eating chocolate cake or Reese’s peanut butter cups. This became a primary coping strategy to deal with whatever pain, hurt or difficult emotion I was experiencing.  We can begin to see how this can become a problem in times of distress.

If a person begins to experience persistent loneliness or emptiness, they may begin to use food as a sort of companion or friend, letting food fill the empty space inside. If a person is experiencing anxiety or depression, they may begin to use food as a calming mechanism, a way to relax.  Physiologically, food offers warmth: as enzymes enter the body to break down foods, a warming sensation gives the feeling of contentment, relaxation and calm.  When we starve our body we become focused on finding nutrition and fighting hunger, which prevent us from noticing our feelings and learning how to deal with our feelings in a healthy way. Falling into these behaviors once or twice doesn’t make it an issue of concern. However, if these behaviors become a person’s only way of coping then they begin to be problematic.

When we become dependent on food (or a lack of food) as a means of self medication or solution to problems, and are unwilling to develop additional coping skills, then we are placing ourselves in dangerous territory of getting caught in a vicious cycle. An individual caught in this cycle may start to identify any emotion as hunger (or lack of hunger), as opposed to what the feeling actually is. The negative outcome from this is we become unable to identify what is physical hunger versus emotional hunger. 

Added to this inability to cope is how quickly our society moves. The mentality to have things completed yesterday reminds us that we shouldn’t be preoccupied with what’s going on inside ourselves, but more what’s going on outside of ourselves.  If the world around me is telling me not to feel or deal with emotions and I know that food (or lack of) can help me hide from my emotions… well let’s just say it doesn’t make the healthiest equation does it? 

So one question we need to ask ourselves is ‘What am I really hungry for? Is it love, acceptance, understanding? Companionship? Friendship? What am I beginning to find in food that comforts me? The other question may be ‘What am I starving for?’ What I am finding helpful in my restriction of food? Is it power or control? Inner strength? Or just a different pathway to find companionship and friendship? Or am I using food for pure nutrition and sustenance? When we begin to ask ourselves these questions, we begin to develop insight into our own relationship with food and mood.

For More Information:
Book: Anita Johnson, Eating in the Light of the Moon. Gurze books, 2006.
Workbooks: The Food and Feelings Workbook: A Full Course Meal on Emotional Health; Karen Koenig, LCSW M.Ed.

If you are concerned about yourself or others that may be struggling with an eating disorder and are looking for a therapist go to

Khara Bennett is a National Certified Counselor and Certified Substance Abuse Counselor in the State of Virginia. She graduated from William and Mary with a Master’s degree in Addictions Counseling.  Khara is a counselor at the Farley Center at Williamsburg Place, a facility providing addiction treatment opportunities for individuals and families. Khara runs the Food and Mood group at the facility and specializes in understanding and working with eating disorders. She continues to hold an interest in the field and continues to work on educating herself and others on eating disorders.