Reward and Punishment
Human relationships are built around shared pleasurable experiences. Eating together is the principal bond among people. Compulsive eating often emerges in early childhood as a dysfunctional pattern. Dysfunctional eating patterns tend to persist into adult life with bulimia or obesity as one of the many consequences
The gratification or reward of eating is unmistakable. The prototype of all human desires is hunger. Pleasure has a great deal to do with satisfying hunger. Eating patterns are important social determinants. Eating etiquette governs table behavior and supersedes the biological needs of any individual. Discrimination, inspired by different food preferences, is an important social fact. Eating together indicates social acceptance and tends to cement social relationships. By accepting food from another, you are accepting the other person, his or her values, beliefs, hopes and fears. By refusing the food offered to you are rejecting the other person.
Intimate relationships often begin with dinner invitations; "the way to a man's heart is through his stomach." Many food-related transactions preoccupy family groups on a daily basis. Implicit food contracts often reflect reward and punishment strategies. Shared food preferences and eating rituals are important to the pleasure bond that keeps couples and families together. The eating patterns of couples and families are defended and one person undergoing dietary revision to correct illness often throws his or her family into a crisis.
Underlying the social level of eating practice are the organismic determinants and constraints. Eating and sexuality are closely linked. Licking, biting, and chewing are as familiar in sexual metaphor as they are at the dinner table. Odors influence the selection of food as much as the selection of a mate. A person deprived of physical intimacy and affection will often turn to food as a source of gratification. Compulsive over-eating may be a displacement behavior, manifesting the lack of affection and sexual gratification. The hunger for sensual experience is readily displaced from one appetitive goal to another. The control of appetite is not consciously determined.
The experience of men and women are clearly divergent. The numbers of overweight men and women are about the same but the numbers of women seeking help with weight loss exceeds the numbers of men. Women are more motivated by body image and the desire to be slimmer. Men often wait until they have a major health problem before they seek help. Often, emotional states are consequences and not causes of food problems and disordered eating patterns.
The Alpha Nutrition Program text discusses the emotional and behavioral dimensions of diet revision. You need to know about eigenstates, cravings, compulsive eating and the emotional responses to change. Also, consider that some of your emotions such as anger, sadness, or despair may be symptoms of an underlying physical disorder just as a headache is a symptom.
While the cause and effect sequences of emotions, eating, and weight gain may be difficult to sort out, the important idea is that complete, lasting change in your eating habits requires you to change at all levels. Your attempts to change will bring up emotional issues, and you will acquire new insights into how it all fits together.
You are likely to eat too much food when you are short of love and affection, when you feel oppressed, or depressed. Often conflicting feelings and confused motivations capture a person in a vicious cycle of overeating. The basic remedy is to stick with safe foods that do not trigger cravings and compulsive eating. The next step is to get busy and address needs that are not being met. Some women, for example, feel trapped at home, living a socially impoverished and constrained life with few immediate rewards and turn to food for solace.
Food pleasures may feel illicit. Some women attempt to hide their indulgences or go to extreme lengths to conceal evidence of over-eating (especially weight gain) by inducing vomiting, purging, or exercising in a fanatical manner. A host of desires, fears, frustrations, and inhibitions tend to get focused on food and body image. Food can become a comforter and saboteur at the same time.
Men also eat and drink to satisfy deep but unfilled desires, but tend not to speak about it. Men's denial tends to be more complete and they seldom admit to feeling guilty. Men tend to become angry and withdrawn whenever their eating and drinking habits are challenged. Anger replaces guilt. Some men can turn their anger into an eating or drinking binge and feel totally justified. They are less motivated by body image, but often want to be associated with an athletic image and many overweight men identify strongly with sports. Even the most overweight, out-of-shape man can still imagine himself on the football field, calling the plays. With a can of beer in one hand and hot dog in the other, a man will protest loudly when the quarterback fumbles the ball. This is an athletic point-of-view that requires no physical fitness. There is a disconnection here between his hidden self-image (the athlete that once was, or could be any minute now) and the reality of the overweight man whose main concern is his supply of beer and snack foods. Men as well as women often need to get in touch with themselves and break through mental blocks that resist change. It is just as difficult for an overweight, unfit man to confront himself bare-naked in a full-length mirror. He has to acknowledge what he has become, and think deeply about whom he wants to be.
Aging is not kind to any of us, but some age-related deterioration and suffering is optional. You can feel better. You can function better. You can aspire to better things in your life.