Monday, February 06, 2023

Food is not the enemy

by Bill Rutherford
| June 30, 2010 9:00 PM

"I just ate a radish and feel so fat," a 14-year-old girl shyly declares to herself as she looks into the mirror at her skinny, naked body.

"Do these jeans make by b-u-t-t look big" a wife asks her husband as if the inanimate britches have the option of creating fat and increasing the size of one's derrire.

"Sure, I'll have another slice of cake; my diet starts tomorrow for sure," the overweight man proudly states to his teaching peers in the break room while uncontrollably scarfing the last piece of German chocolate cake while some with empty plates look in astonishment and dismay, missing their dessert and pitying the round man in the corner.

"Stop telling me what to do and what do eat; you don't own me," cries a 16-year-old cheerleader trying to control her over-controlled life.

"I don't care how fat I am or how I look - no one cares," the morbidly obese man mumbles to his cat as he sadly and slowly eases into his La-Z-Boy recliner with three double Whoppers and an equal accompaniment of fries.

Food is not the enemy. How we think about food is. The battle begins.

We all have a story. I eat all day, I eat too much, too often, I eat when I'm sad, when I'm depressed, when I'm happy, when people control me, when I see food, when I feel hungry and I feel hungry all of the time; when I feel shaky, when I see people eating, when I smell food, I can't stop, I love food and I love to eat. Why one eats is as important as what one eats. Let's examine the what and address the why.

Food has a purpose - to nourish our body. This purpose also creates a psychological dilemma - food keeps us alive but in today's world, food is more choice than survival. From prehistoric time to today, beautifully ripened sweet berries, colorful vegetables and healthy, fully fattened animals are overabundant in late summer. Why? As an organism, we need to nourish ourselves and prepare for the barren winter months to come - think hibernating bear. Food is in excess in early autumn to ensure we fatten up for the coming winter when fat and sugar filled food is absent and activity limited. Humans desire sweet, fat food in autumn to ensure survival.

I eat a huge Thanksgiving meal and feel comfortably fat - I'm allowed this plump feeling because it's a holiday and I'm celebrating. A few extra pounds gained by celebrating the delicious home-cooked Thanksgiving meal to the end of the year and I'm simply adding insulation to keep me warm for the winter months. Then 10 extra pounds for warmth turn to 20 and I lose my breath while walking up the stairs at work. I park close to the entrance of the grocery store to avoid "slipping on the ice" and can't shovel the snow from the sidewalk because my heart begins to hurt when I breathe hard.

I'm becoming fat because my predestine existence declares the need for extra weight to survive a long winter outdoors when reality offers hunting at my local grocery and building a fire by turning in the furnace. Psychologically I'm prepared for a rugged, self-sufficient winter while biologically, my winter is sheltered from external forces. My weightgain is in vain.

Last week I offered the psychological reasons for weightgain and unhealthy eating. This week I explain my behavioral and cognitive thoughts to change those unhealthy habits.

Emotional eaters. In order to change from emotionally eating unhealthy food to making healthy food choices, one needs to pair new healthy foods with positive memories. To do this it is important to create a positive relationship with food. I offer three ways to form this positive relationship.

1. Get to know the food you eat. Eat freshly harvested, locally produced food when possible and when not possible do not eat fast food or prepackaged, multi-ingredient foods. Learn to cook and prepare food in your kitchen - become a home chef.

2. Eat food with family and friends at the dinner table. Create positive memories connected with the new healthy food you're creating. If no one is home, treat yourself to a set table, candles and music. Food eaten quickly while watching television is forgettable and forms an unhealthy relationship with food.

3. Become a foodie. Look for new, adventurous foods and create and eat food not eaten before. Visit farms, ranches, wineries and orchards. Read cookbooks and magazines that focus on healthy eating. Talk to restaurant servers and chefs. Ask for their favorite healthy menu item and order it, even if you're skeptical.

Some people eat unhealthy because they are depressed or have low self-esteem. Depression has many roots and causes. If feeling sad, lonely and struggling to find joy or happiness in one's life for more than two weeks, schedule a visit with your family doctor to rule out depression or an organic or chemical issue. Being clinically depressed is serious and demands immediate attention. Depressive eating can cause a depressed mind.

Some overeat to punish themselves or gain control of an out of control life. If this is you, it's time to regain control. Many who have been abused, molested or controlled, punish or control themselves with the one thing they own - their eating.

To regain control one must look internally then externally. Take a hard look at things that are out of control then look externally at who controls those things. Can control be regained? Did one give the control away and are playing the role of a victim? Has one psychologically and emotionally worked through the pain of the abuse? These issues can be too great to overcome without a strong support system or psychotherapy.

Some behaviorally overeat because they simply are used to overeating - unhealthy eating has become habit. Breaking the habit is more mental than physical. Drinking alcohol and smoking cigarettes can cause physical addiction resulting in withdrawal symptoms when one decides to quit. Humans can't quit eating but can alter the intake of food to make an unhealthy behavior healthy. The difficulty with behaviorally overeating is the willpower to change. Change will not happen until one is committed to change which leads us to the last reason for eating unhealthy foods.

Some eat for instant gratification. To break the need to be constantly gratified one must feel the success of delayed gratification. This behavioral change rewards the eater for eating healthy food only when hungry and consequently, losing weight. The reward might be monetary, symbolic - placing a pair of jeans one wishes to fit into on the nightstand as a symbol of their weightloss goal or a weekly weigh-in chart on the bathroom wall. The idea is to eventually eat healthy foods, not for an extrinsic reward but to be rewarded intrinsically - because it feels good on the inside.

Eating healthy is a change of thought - a life change. Dieting to lose weight only confuses the body and the mind. Changing one's personal meaning of food and eating for joy, celebration, with friends and families, for nourishment and health creates a healthy, happy human.

Bill Rutherford is a psychotherapist, public speaker, elementary school counselor, adjunct college psychology instructor and executive chef, and owner of Rutherford Education Group. Please e-mail him at and check out

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