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posted: 6/20/2013 11:33 AM

How our eating habits reflect our self-concept

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"If you're good, we'll stop and get an ice cream cone on the way home."

Smart parenting, right? Well, maybe not.

Most of us have sort of a love/hate relationship with food. Eating is more than just taking in various vitamins, minerals, proteins and carbohydrates because our body needs them. Eating has emotional and social implications as well.

My "smart parenting" above is a good example. In that situation, eating ice cream has gotten a lot of positive connections. It is more than taking in food. It is a special time with Mom or Dad in which we feel praised and rewarded.

Sometimes our eating can become associated with relaxation. Usually meal time is a break in the day when we put aside our tasks momentarily and take a break. Food, then, can become connected with feeling calm and in control.

At the same time, eating can give us something enjoyable to do. Planning, preparing and sitting down to a big meal can provide us with an interesting, rewarding activity.

Our eating habits also reflect our overall feelings about ourselves -- our self-concept. When we feel good about ourselves, we tend to eat healthily. We are proud of the way we look (our self-image) and eat so as to enhance our appearance.

Eating is a "mixer." We regularly use meals as a way of easing the strain of meeting new people, business contacts, dates, or prospective friends. It gives us something to do and talk about.

There is even a growing body of evidence that our bodies crave certain foods -- those high in sugar, simple carbohydrates, or salt -- when we are under stress. We use these foods, then, as stress reduction "drugs."

Clearly there is some danger in these emotional and social implications of eating. Many of our struggles with things like being overweight, having high cholesterol, being at risk of diabetes, struggling with high blood pressure, and so on, can be related at least to some extent to our eating habits.

Part of this dynamic can be that eating has taken on one or more powerful emotional or social connections in our lives.

For example, "reward" eating can easily become our way of dealing with defeat or depression. Feeling down about ourselves or our lives, we eat to recapture those "good boy" or "good girl" feelings we had when we were rewarded with food as children.

"Relaxation" eating can likewise become our primary stress management technique. Feeling tense, nervous, overwhelmed, we eat to slow down, to gain control, to take a break.

Many of us eat simply because we are bored. We involve ourselves in creating complex calorie-laden meals, or continually snack just to give ourselves something to do.

The other side of eating healthy because we feel good about ourselves is eating unhealthily because we have a poor self-concept. Struggling with our image of ourselves, we eat to live down to our expectations. Our self-defeating behavior simply adds to our poor self-image.

Our reliance on eating to help us get through socially awkward moments can also backfire. We can feel as though we have to eat in order to be comfortable with others.

Finally, despite its short-term benefits, stress eating usually leads to conditions that actually create more stress.

There are some things we can do to begin to break the feeling/feeding connections I've suggested. The fact is almost all these connections are learned as we grow and develop. We can learn new connections and behaviors with a little effort.

For instance, we can talk out our feelings of defeat and depression rather than trying to eat them away. Or we can find other "reward" activities such as reading a good book, taking in a movie, even going shopping.

We can learn stress management techniques that don't involve food. Some of these might even include exercise, an excellent way to handle stress and a bonus for our weight-control efforts.

Boredom also can be countered without resorting to eating. We can develop a variety of interests and hobbies in which we can became so absorbed that we are not tempted to overeat. Or we can change our focus and get into health food.

Eating to live down to our poor self-concept is more difficult to change. It usually involves using counseling of some sort to help us identify and change our negative self-image.

And excessive social eating also can be changed with a little work. We can develop a list of other things that help to "break the ice." We might explore attending museums, movies or sports events as activities that can help us in beginning interactions. We also might work on our conversational skills so as to feel more confident and at ease.

All of these suggestions depend on our awareness of how we are missing food in our lives. That's difficult. Many of us will pointlessly pursue each new fad diet, or jump into one exercise routine after the other, trying to deal with our overeating problems. The possible emotional implications of our food fetish are often the last avenue we explore.

There are some groups that now recognize the possible feeling/feeding connections we've discussed. If you are interested in such groups, do some online research and try out the ones that sound like they might fit for you.

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