Why Do We Run to Food?

Food was a struggle for me. Why then, was food my first choice in times of stress, boredom, anger, unhappiness, happiness or nervousness? At the end of a long day I’d hold an opened carton of Breyer’s ice cream in one hand and a spoon in the other, shoveling the ice cream in right from the carton. One time, John caught me standing in our dining room, reaching my hand into the recesses of the buffet drawer, pulling out my secret stash of Dove chocolate. He said, “I was looking for you.” I said, “Want a chocolate?”

Why did I want a chocolate, or ice cream, or chips in the first place if my weight was such a source of anguish for me? You would think that I would have shunned fattening food rather than welcoming it like an old friend. Logically that makes sense doesn’t it? If something in your life causes you pain, don’t you normally take steps to avoid the pain? For example, if your old car continually breaks down, don’t you begin the process of replacing the old clunker with something more reliable? If your best friend betrays you time after time do you still beg her to be your friend? I wouldn’t think so.  Yet we who struggle with the love and addiction of food do that very thing. We turn to food as a soother for any emotion we feel, thus adding to our weight problem.

I have yet to speak with someone who struggles with their weight who doesn’t experience this phenomena. Time after time I talk to people who express their frustration over their inability to stop using food to sooth emotions. I hear the frustration in their voices because I too felt that frustration. Learning to break the cycle of running to food wasn’t easy, but it was a key component to my success.

During the year that I lost 158 pounds, I learned a lot about myself. I learned that I didn’t just love food, I craved food. I realized I treated food in a way that was similar to the way alcoholics treat alcohol. The difference with food is however, is that we need food. As hard as breaking an alcohol addiction is, at least you don’t need alcohol to survive. Food is essential, vital,  and necessary for life.  There were three things I did to help me break my bad food habits.

Preparation – I knew food was a problem for me, so when I started following my Fit to the Finish plan, I prepared for the inevitable times of running to food. I got rid of all the “happy, fattening” food in the house. Gone were the chips, high fat crackers, secret chocolate stashes and full fat ice cream. In their place came crunchy veggies, baked chips, frozen yogurt, hard candy, gum (lots of gum), and hot drinks. I liken it to a breakup of a relationship. Before I was married, and would part ways with a boyfriend, I rid my life of any reminder of him. Even if I still cared emotionally for that person, I knew that part of my life was over and got rid of any reminders. That’s what I did with food too, I broke up with food. I still loved food, but I knew that certain types of food weren’t good for me, so I replaced the bad food with good. That took preparation.

Practice- It didn’t always work to be prepared. There was still the issue of overeating good food. After all, even a whole bag of baked chips has a lot of calories, and will definitely cause a weight gain if the whole bag is eaten on a daily basis. So I practiced making right choices by consciously choosing better, healthier foods. Portions were measured and memorized, and when I made a mistake I tried to figure out what had gone wrong, and moved on to the next opportunity to make a better choice. Over time the mistakes became less frequent, and the results became more visible.

Persistence- Sometimes its easy to get complacent once you have seen some success on the scale. It took about 50 pounds for me to really be able to tell that my body was starting to change. In the past, it would have been at this point (or sooner) that I would have said, “Oh, I’ve got this eating plan down. I can relax now.” NO. Don’t relax, don’t let down your guard, instead persist and persevere and point your mind towards your final goal, not the intermediate ones. By doing this I was able to keep the weight loss going through the ups and downs of life’s challenges, and ultimately reach my goal weight.

Do you feel frustrated sometimes when you run to the very thing that caused your weight issues? How do you handle this?  Diane

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  1. That last P is the kicker huh?
    When I was a trainer and with friends and in my own life it seemed that with food so many of us get tripped up when we begin to relax a bit and slowly and ACCIDENTALLY sliiiiide back into old habits.

    Its interesting to me as, I believe, food can ENTIRELY be an addiction and yet unlike others where you can completely cut it out (drinking gambling etc) with food you can not.

    As a result unlike those other addictions its easy to add some back in without realizing…unlike, say drinking :)
    .-= Miz´s last blog ..I’m off and… =-.

  2. I think of it as food and non-food.

    Food is in its natural state and has one basic ingredient (veggies, whole grain, etc)

    Non-Food has a long list of ingredients and is processed.

    I eat food and I stay away from non-food.

    It took me a full year of solid effort to teach myself to eat at meal time (only), to eat balanced, to eat portions, to eat FOOD. A full year of SOLID effort.

    I ate many small meals a day – so the next meal was always right around the corner.

    I cried a lot that year.

    Sat (stared at the wall or sat in the bathtub until I could control myself – time outs) and bawled like a two year old who is being taught to control impulsive thoughts.

    And felt the feelings.

    Still learning to feel the feelings.
    .-= vickie´s last blog ..A very unusual, social Sunday (and this is the one with Youth Hostels in comments) =-.

  3. You are on to me with this one! When I’m prepared I am all over my healthy eating plan. When I’m not…watch out…I have a hard time being persistent!
    .-= Joanna Sutter´s last blog ..You Might Not Have Worked Out If… =-.

  4. Perseverance!

    That is what I need to work on! Never give up! Which I don’t in the long run but sometimes I do short-term.

  5. The biggest reason people run to food for comfort is a complex chemical reason. Anything the body perceives as a pleasurable thing is the result of a production of dopamine- the feel good chemical in the body. It seems that a high level of refined carbohydrates brings on this reaction- which is why you will always hear about eating a bag of chips or ice cream and never eating a bushel of apples.The body, when imbalanced, desperately needs this chemical reaction when it is hit with emotional stress.While eliminating all of the “bad” foods is one important move, supplying the body with the nutrients it needs in the quantity it needs is an even more important step.If you eat nutritionally dense foods , your body is less likely to fall into an episode of emotional based eating.
    .-= Diane´s last blog ..Uggh =-.

  6. Excellent advice and well said! I love the idea of breaking up with certain foods – I think I need to divorce peanut butter! :-)
    .-= Amy´s last blog ..The Lay of the Land =-.

  7. Great advice…
    .-= Trish @IamSucceeding´s last blog ..Days Are Getting Easier =-.

  8. I just saw a segment about this issue on tv this week. The report mentioned that the foods that we run to the most are ones that release “feel good” chemicals (seratonin). It’s no wonder that we rely on these foods when we are stressed.

    It’s so important to find strategies for coping when we are in times of stress. Your plan of eliminating the junk food from your home is the most sensible place to start. Why torture yourself by having the foods around. (Great analogy about a relationship breaking up. That makes so much sense!)
    .-= karen@fitnessjourney´s last blog ..Infomercial Fitness Programs: Should You Buy Them? =-.

  9. Oh Diane – you speak to my heart! Yes, food is an addiction that is difficult to move away from because of not being able to give it up entirely. HOWEVER, I am beginning to look at it as the foods I am addicted to, I can give up. The problem isn’t being addicted to food, its certain types of food, just like you can become addicted to certain behaviors. I could go on and on! Thank you once again for your advice. It seems to be what I really need right now
    .-= Jules – Big Girl Bombshell´s last blog ..Getting the Lead Out =-.

  10. Excellent as always Diane! This makes me think of how people often try to redo a past unhealthy relationship with a similar person, only to relive the same problems over and over. Starting in a new place is really the only answer, difficult as it can be.

  11. After 9 weeks on my healthy journey, and almost 8 lbs lighter, my mind has started telling me that soon I can relax and not be as vigilant. But I keep reminding myself that I have made a lifelong change in my eating habits and behaviors. I am never going back.

    I think also we beat ourselves up for being addicted to certain foods, when the reality is that these foods are purposely made so that people will eat a lot of it and not be able to stop. Many years ago I used to smoke, and it was a lot easier to quit cigarettes than it has been to quit eating junk food!
    .-= Carla´s last blog ..My goals for March =-.

  12. I recently read about a study that found food can act like a drug in our brains. It hits the same pleasure centers, and it’s just as hard to quit. It’s no wonder we look to it when we’re feeling down or stressed or bored. It’s like getting an instant “high.” I fall into the trap of eating when I’m stressed or upset, but it helps not to have snack-type food around the house. My husband is really bad at this. He’ll have a bad day and stand in the kitchen eating everything in sight. Your last paragraph is the best—it’s not an instant change. Nothing is!

  13. Thank you. This spot on advice for any goal you want to reach, not just a weight goal. I’m working on running my own business now, and it’s nice to be reminded that while I’ve had some success, I need to keep pushing to that final goal!

  14. Why do *I* run to food…?

    Because I am an addict and addicts always run to their substance of choice when it comes to managing life…the ups, the downs…

    My substance of choice was the highly processed mostly highly refined carbohydrate types of supposed food-like substances.

    For me preparation, planning and persistence consisted of:

    1) maintaining a “clean” household with none of the old trigger foods which I knew I could not control.

    2) bulking up on lots of easily accessible fruits and veggies.

    3) building a supportive network both at home and virtually by joining SparkPeople.com. I could turn to these both for support and accountability.

    Keep your SPARK everyone! :-)


  15. I would say my biggest issue is #3, I need to be more vigilant sometimes because my food issues are definitely not gone!
    .-= Lauren @ Eater not a runner´s last blog ..Back to the Grind =-.

  16. I think Practice is probably what comes to mind first — weight loss and maintenance is about finding what works for YOU. People hear through the grapevine this or that and think if it works for someone else, it will also work for them, and that’s just usually not the case. There’s many ways to skin a cat and I think practice and trial and error are the best ways to find out what works!
    .-= Nicole, RD´s last blog ..Happy National Nutrition Month! =-.

  17. Saw the title of your post in a blog roll and I’m very glad I clicked over, it’s great!
    .-= RunToTheFinish´s last blog ..Opinions Wanted Friday: Open Doors =-.

  18. This is an excellent post. Very helpful. Thank you for sharing how you broke the habits. I like the part where you said you still cared for the food but had to break up with it and removed reminders of it.

  19. “So I practiced making right choices by consciously choosing better, healthier foods.”

    What a stellar sentence and concept; that improving choices takes practice. I love this sentence!!!!

    Very nic e post!!
    .-= Emergefit´s last blog ..Peeling back the layers of success… =-.

  20. I’ve often had the same thought you mention about food addiction – that with alcohol or tobacco, you can just go cold turkey, but with food, you have to keep eating. However, I think viewing food as fuel for your body, and working on cutting the emotional ties to it, is vital to shifting your mindset.
    .-= Chad´s last blog ..Variety: Spice of Life, and Key to Healthy Living =-.

  21. *I broke up with food.* I like that expression and it is so true since you have to break up with the majority of foods that got you to that overweight point in the first place.
    .-= ‘Drea´s last blog ..Clunker No More =-.

  22. It can be very hard to deal with. I make sure to plan ahead, and surround myself with healthy foods. And when I am emotional and want to run to food, I make myself stop (or take a walk if possible but that’s not always an option). I make myself Stay Away from the kitchen till my emotions are under control. It’s not easy for me to do, but it seems to get easier with practice.
    .-= Brenda´s last blog ..March numbers =-.

  23. My answer is yes, and I don’t know yet. :)
    .-= Lisa´s last blog ..Fat = Depression =-.

  24. Oh Diane, thank you so much for this post!

    You see, food and I had a long withstanding relationship before I made changes. I would eat it, imagine it, crave it and live my life around it. It was an unhealthy relationship at best.

    I recognize my triggers now. But STILL, I would be foolishly lying to myself if I told you that I am cured. I have to work at it. And there have been a couple of times where I ran to food to solve my problems. The difference between then and now is that now, I know what I did. I took full accountability for it and made the choice to change it for next time.

    For me, being prepared and writing down what I put into my mouth goes A LONG way to helping me not turn to food.

    .-= The Chubby Girl Diaries´s last blog ..Being fat takes up a lot of personal resources =-.

  25. You nailed the 3 points perfectly! The thing that encompasses all three are time!! Changes won’t be made over night but healthy choices made each and every day will make a huge change in time. Food can definitely be an addiction like alcohol. I turned to it again and again when down and emotional. It was like my escape. But my escape was killing me. Food isn’t your best friend when you put on weight and lose confidence..etc. Your best friend is you. Prepare…practice…stay persistance..and you will be on your way to a much happier and healthier you! Great post Diane!
    .-= Jen-JensFitnessTips.com´s last blog ..Olympic Special #10: Curling Crescent Lunge =-.

  26. Great post!! I especially feel you on that last one – persistence! That’s always where I fall off the wagon. I’ll do great for 3 months or so, then figure I’ve got it down… and wham! Back on pile the pounds. This time I’m hyper aware of it though, so I figure, when I think I can start slacking on my tracking, instead, I’ll track EVEN BETTER! No letting my brain trick me into complacency!
    .-= Katie´s last blog ..Finished Week 6!! =-.

  27. What a great post Diane & so true! It take patience & yes persistence & just taking steps to change our behaviors. Replacing bad habits with better habits one step at a time.
    .-= Jody – Fit at 52´s last blog ..Treadmill Challenge; Towel Giveaway Winner! =-.

  28. Food does not judge.

    Unfortunately, when you take away food, and not treat why, you can turn to other things.
    .-= Jen´s last blog ..Wednesday Wonders =-.

  29. Absolutely spot on. For me, its breaking an old habit. I didn’t realize I was a stress eater until I NOTICED myself doing this. I didn’t even realize i was doing it because I was living in such auto pilot.

    Got to keep my eye on the GOAL. Celebrate the little milestones but keep shooting toward the goals.
    .-= Lola´s last blog ..Tuesday =-.

  30. I’m learning to make myself stop when the hand reaches in the pantry or for a snack on the counter and check in with my body to see if I’m truly hungry or just bored. It’s not easy, but doable.

    I’m really still working on breaking that addiction to food, but it’s working.

    This is a wonderful post! Thanks, Diane!

  31. I just found your blog from Prevention RD. I am so inspired by your About Me post, thanks for sharing. I agree with your three P, especially Preparation. Having a prepared mind is the first step for behavior change! have a lovely weekend : )
    .-= Rachel@CoconutCrumbs´s last blog ..Take Your Pick: Cookware Giveaway! =-.

  32. I love that you said you had to break up with food. That’s what I really have had to do. I would love certain foods but I know that they cause me pain so they aren’t a part of my life any more.
    .-= Cynthia (It All Changes)´s last blog ..Microsurgery =-.

  33. There are some great tips there under your three Ps, great post! It’s true, giving up bad food really is like a break up and you can feel so empowered when you get rid of all the bad stuff that went along with it.

  34. Persistance is SO important. You’re right, the last thing you want to do when you see success on the scale is to relax a little, as that’s when the weight usually comes back!! Jeez, that’s like the story of 20 lbs for me. I went up and down all through university because I would lose it, and think I was in the clear and go back into my old habits. Even now in maintenance, I see myself creeping back into old habits, thinking certain behaviours are “okay.” I catch myself all the time losing control around certain foods (ahem, cookies!!) and I have to pull myself back and say “this is not acceptable.” I’ve always got to be on my toes when it comes to food!
    .-= Susan´s last blog ..Flashback Friday: Fitness Edition =-.

  35. It hit me today that it’s all about habits. Making the good habits brainless helps. My go to mindless stress eating snacks now are baby carrots, pistachios, and jerky instead of chips, candy, or the like. I suppose it doesn’t solve the habit itself, but it’s nice to think, hmmm, I’m munchy, I should grab some carrots.