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Why do we turn to food?

By Michelle May, M.D.

Recently I asked you to share your two biggest challenges when it comes to managing your eating. We got hundreds of responses on our Am I Hungry? blog, our public Am I Hungry? Facebook page, and by email. Thank you! As I read every one of the struggles you shared, I felt such incredible compassion for each of you because I’ve been there too. And even though we are each in different places along this journey, I believe that the Mindful Eating Cycle will address each and every challenge you shared.

First, I want to share a little more about my story, and how I came to ask the question, “Why do we turn to food?”

As I mentioned in the video, I noticed that some people naturally follow a pattern that I call the Instinctive Eating Cycle. For me, it is my children and my husband.

Am-I-Hungry-Instinctive-Eating-Cycle

Basically, they typically eat when they’re hungry, they eat what they want, they eat with purpose, they usually stop when they are satisfied, and they use their energy to live their life without thinking about food all the time. Who do you know who eats this way?

Well back then, it sure wasn’t me!

As I explored my own eating, it became crystal clear that why I was eating drove every decision that followed. (More about that in the next video.)

So what about you? Why do you keep turning to food?

Think about one of your challenges with eating and see if you can start to make your own connections between why you eat, when you eat, and what you eat. Please leave a comment below about anything you’ve noticed about your own patterns. I’ll be checking in to see how I can help. (Don’t worry if you don’t see your comment right away! We have to approve them to prevent spam.)

You’ll use your work in my next video when I share a simple script that will help you decode mindless and emotional eating and understand what is really driving your cycle. More important, this script will help you figure out what to do instead of eating!

(Need help? Check out our vibrant Mindful Eating Support Community!)

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About the author

Michelle May, M.D. is a recovered yo-yo dieter and the founder of the Am I Hungry?® Mindful Eating Programs and Training. She is the award-winning author of Eat What You Love, Love What You Eat: A Mindful Eating Program to Break Your Eat-Repent-Repeat Cycle , winner of seven publishing awards. She is also the author of Eat What You Love, Love What You Eat with Diabetes, Eat What You Love, Love What You Eat for Binge Eating, and Am I Hungry? Mindful Eating for Bariatric Surgery. Michelle shares her compelling message and constructive keynotes with audiences around the country, offers workplace wellness programs, and has trained and licensed hundreds of health professionals to facilitate Am I Hungry?® Mindful Eating Programs worldwide. She has been featured on Dr. Oz, the Discovery Health Channel, and Oprah Radio, and quoted in Diabetic Living, Fitness, Health, Huffington Post, Parents, Self, USA Weekend, US News & World Report, WebMD and many others. Her personal success story was published in Chicken Soup for the Dieter's Soul. Michelle cherishes her relationships with her husband, Owen and grown children, Tyler and Elyse. She regularly enjoys practicing yoga and hiking near her home in Phoenix, Arizona. She and Owen, a professional chef, share a passion for gourmet and healthful cooking, wine tasting, photography, and traveling.

46 Comments

  1. Ann Marie says:

    Wow! Michelle I am thrilled to see your new video and look forward to the next one. Can I say It’s about time?! Your delivery is so soothing and friendly, and you look happy. I’m happy for you and the AIH team – you are giving everyone hope – the hope I was blessed to get by knowing you personally, and it is time for the world to get to know you too. Best wishes for the success you so deserve. Hugs!

  2. Gemma says:

    I eat because I’m so fearful that I will miss out and when I feel like eating the food will be gone. I have been aware for a while that I eat to recreate how I felt when I was poorly when I was little. To overeat on sugar and process foods give me the sick headache that I experienced as an epileptic child.

    • What powerful awareness Gemma! A lot of us tend to eat out of fear… it is a scarcity mindset. We feel there isn’t enough (but of what??? The reality is that there is plenty of food!)

      Your second connection is really interesting to me. Obviously you don’t really want to feel poorly so the real question may be: What did you get out of being a sick child that you need now as an adult?

  3. Becky says:

    After two strokes, my husband continues to change. He’s very quiet, has memory/cognitive problems, etc. I find myself eating comfort food (e.g., pizza, chocolate) to make up for the companionship he’s no longer able to provide. I love him and will always be there for him …in sickness and in health. I have lots of friends/family, however, I miss our husband-wife relationship.

    • I’m sorry Becky! That must be so difficult. It makes sense that you would look for comfort, and food can do that for us – temporarily. I’m glad you have other people you can connect with. Are there additional ways you can comfort yourself?

      • Becky says:

        I have a hard time thinking of other things for “comfort”. I work full time and am tired by time I get home. I just want to get in comfy clothes, read or watch TV and EAT. =(

        • Becky, I totally get that food is comforting, until we eat to the point of discomfort – then it’s not!

          Is it possible to make a great meal part of your relaxation routine in the evening, just not such a big part? In other words, enjoy a nice meal at the table, with your husband if possible, then wind down with a self-care ritual that feels good – then early to bed!

          You can explore additional ways of relaxing – a hot bath or shower, meditation, needlework. Or maybe since you are tired, you’ll want to experiment with activities that energize you – like inviting a friend or neighbor to walk with you in the evenings, getting a puppy, or taking up a new hobby.

          And be compassionate with yourself! Things are challenging right now. You deserve to take care of yourself in ways other than just eating.

  4. Bronwyn Hawkins says:

    I eat after tea for every other reason than hunger; habit, stress, boredom, frustration for being overweight. I eat anything I can find; icecream and topping, chocolate, biscuits, fruitcake.

    • Bronwyn, your awareness of the triggers and the foods you choose is a great start. Exploring the needs you are attempting to meet with food may help you discover other ways to get a little sweetness into your life! I’ll talk about that in the next video but in the meantime, see if you can start to see what you are (really) wanting in the moment you want food.

  5. Maria says:

    Wonderful video Michelle! I eat for so many reasons. In fact, I’m so discouraged that after 20 years of focusing on why I eat I’m still struggling with this issue. I”m the queen of anti-diet weight loss programs. But on to your question – one big reason for me to continue overeating is that I’m used to it. It doesn’t feel like me to not eat. Also, I’m afraid of failure. Will this be one more program I will eventually fail at? So I’m having a hard time starting it despite the fact that you answer so many questions I’ve had for so many years (someday I will write you an email about this). Other big reasons are fatigue and a lack of passion in my life.

    • I hear you Maria! It is scary to take a risk when nothing else has worked. My problem was that I just kept doing the same thing over and over, expecting different results. (Insanity, right?) Besides, eating does feel familiar – and easy! Change is uncomfortable at first.

      However, I never said you couldn’t eat! One of the most powerful things that I’ve experienced, and that many people tell me, is that this way of eating brings more enjoyment and pleasure to eating because you don’t feel so physically and emotionally uncomfortable afterward!

      Now the fatigue and lack of passion sound like opportunities to me! What would you do if you had more energy and could find something you feel more passionate about than eating?

  6. Ashisha says:

    I truly have the sensation that in this video “I am talking to me!” You have the gift of synthesizing all the loose threads, the torn seams, the holes, the stains (from shed tears) of my eating history.

    Since I can feel myself when you are talking, I know the real possibility of reaching a state of instinctive eating… the challenges along the way or not mysterious, impossible or permanent. The appreciation I feel for “happening” onto you and your ideas(answered prayers?) is tremendous. Eager for the next video to keep me focused and curious. I seem to struggle with not being that creative with the foods that I have available some days, going for the familiar, and stuck in shame… I do better when I put a voice to what is happening inside, i.e. “I could eat it ALL, but I know I would not feel good after.”

    I am also aware that I track what everyone else is eating around me and I want to do what they can do… or do “better” than them…or make sure I get the good stuff (the treats)…

    • Ashisha, your continued openness and curiosity about this process inspire me! I can hear your “self-care voice” through your words. Our self-talk is so incredibly powerful; we can choose to listen to the compassionate voice or the judging critical voice. Yours is guiding you toward compassion and trust. Just listen…

  7. Kinga says:

    I find that one of the reasons mentioned above applies to me as well, and that is overcompensating for a time when I was in my teens and left by my mother for a period of time (without access to healthy food). Unfortunately I overfeed my children for the same reason-luckily 2 of the 3 only eat what they need, and then burn the rest off easily. My eldest is already suffering from being overweight….I understand that I need to break this vicious cycle and I need to do it as soon as possible. The other thought I had was that I am a very giving and loving mother, it almost seems to me that I think that if I am bigger there is more of me to give. I came to this realization after a lot of soul searching, it may seem ridiculous, but for me it’s a sad fact. Thank you for your sobering approach to treating obesity Dr. May. I wholeheartedly agree that if you don’t treat the emotional reason nothing else will work in long-term weight management.

    • Wow Kinga! Those are amazing insights! You are willing to look beyond the superficial triggers for overeating, and yes, fear of scarcity is a strong one. In my case, I’ve uncovered three main causes for my scarcity beliefs when it came to food: We didn’t have a lot of money so I heard a lot of “clean-your-plate” kind of messages. Also, my brother ate anything that wasn’t nailed down so I was in constant fear of not getting my share (which happened a lot). And the biggest one was dieting, which I started around 12 or 13.

      I love mindful eating because I have come to believe that there is more than enough – not just of food but of love and other important things. And YOU are already more than enough!

  8. Caitlin says:

    I overeat to punish myself when I think I have been bad, ungrateful, or imperfect. I overeat to make myself feel badly physically bc I feel badly emotionally.

    • That’s rough Caitlin since we are all perfectly imperfect! We can be our harshest judge and jury yet extend compassion and understanding to our fellow imperfect human beings (and judge ourselves when we don’t!). Would you be willing to pause and step outside of yourself for a moment and ask, “If I were talking to a friend or a child who felt she was ‘bad,’ ‘ungrateful,’ or ‘imperfect,’ what would I say to them right now?”

  9. Jen says:

    I eat to cover up any uncomfortable feeling, from being tired, feeling anxious about a social event , feeling lonely, feeling bored, sad, feeling lack of bonding with my husband, feeling lost around how to manage my teenage children, feeling overwhelmed with housework or with my job, the list is very long!

    • Yes Jen; the list of uncomfortable emotions is VERY long! I used to try to push down discomfort with food (and work, and perfectionism…) but it always comes back. Learning to “watch” the discomfort – knowing that it will come and go – is a powerful skill worth developing.

  10. Kay says:

    I believe I turn to food because I was taught/learned this growing up. It started with “a fat baby is a healthy baby” that was prevalent at the time. Breast feeding was not popular so shove a bottle in the mouth. Add to that being raised on a farm ~ “eat like a horse work like a horse”. And of course the ever present emotions; figuring out that fat laden foods felt like love when everyone was too busy to show their love……

    • Hi Kay. Your comment makes a really good point: We sometimes continue to recreate the past and live out old beliefs and messages that no longer apply but continue to strongly influence the present and therefore the future! (Take a look at my reply to Kinga about my old beliefs about scarcity.)

      One of the benefits of mindful eating using the Mindful Eating Cycle as a decision making tool is that we learn to become aware of those old thoughts, feelings, and beliefs, but we also learn how to choose new thoughts, feelings, and beliefs that serve us better today! You are on the right track by recognizing that these are old messages. The question is, do you choose to continue to repeat them even though they aren’t working for you?

  11. Cindy Ray says:

    I think much of my eating has to do with emotional eating, and it comes from people always telling me that everything wrong with me is because I’m fat. And at the holidays it is because I am trying to recreate a memory. I realized this on Christmas Eve and was able to not eat too much, but lately every doctor I go to says that my problems are all because I need to lose weight. Mostly they existed when my weight was not this high. I am starting to feel like I am going to just mindlessly eat as a push back, but I have enough sense to know that this is not the answer. I think the training I couldn’t finish and the webinar and retreat I have attended have helped me to recognize the problems; I still don’t feel ready to just stop.

    • Cindy, as you well know, the prevailing message these days is that obesity is the cause of all problems and that if you lose weight, all of your problems will be solved. That is simply a distraction. Besides, you can’t change your weight in the present moment; only the choices you make.

      You can’t control what other people say or think, though you can choose to surround yourself with more people who support your intention to live a more mindful, joyful life. However, you CAN control what you say to yourself. Be on your own side! I am!

  12. Janie B. says:

    I think about food all of the time. I subscribe to Taste of Home, Eating Well, Southern Living etc etc etc. I can never get away from thinking about food because I have to figure out what I am going to fix that night for supper…and the next night…and the next night…… I love to try new recipes. I grew up with my family showing love by cooking someone’s favorite dishes for special occasions. Holiday dinners are a big deal but that takes lots of recipe reviews and planning. Food is everywhere! My eyes are usually bigger than my stomach when I fill my plate and then I feel guilty if I don’t try to eat it because wasting food is not o.k. to do. I feel like I am being sucked down by a food vortex.

    • Janie, you may know this already, but I too am a real foodie! My husband is a professional chef and my parents own three Mexican Food restaurants! My grandmothers were both amazing cooks and made their living cooking for others. I totally understand when you talk about your focus on food and the enjoyment you get from planning and preparing meals for your family.

      And that enjoyment probably isn’t the problem. The problem comes when our lives get out of balance and overly focused on one area – in your case, food. Mindful eating is great but what is really great about it is that it frees up your energy and attention so you can live a bigger, more vibrant life! Then the food you love so much will fuel that life and bring you more pleasure without all of the side effects that come from over-focusing on it!

  13. Cindy Marlow says:

    The very first chapter of your book gave me such an “Aha!” moment. I find myself reluctant, though, to even take the time to reflect on why, when, and what I eat. It really is painful. Off the top of my head, 23 years of military life taught me that while I was great at my job, the fact that I always struggled with my weight and physical training made me ineligible for promotion. Therefore, I retired at least 2 grades less than I could have had I not had those issues. Before my military career began, I was a single mother with three children and dependent on temporary aid from the welfare system. The only constant that I could depend on was food stamps. I think this was when I started to eat so much…I knew I had the means at the time but what would next month bring? Another thought I have is that I eat and remain obese because this gives me a reason if people reject me…they are rejecting the fatness; not my central being. I’m tired…actually sick and tired, of feeling like I’m less than I can be because I’m, well, more than I should be. I am finding it difficult to even imagine a life that doesn’t obsess about food.

    As for what I eat, I crave starches and fats almost any time of day. I will eat nothing until about 1 pm then I start to eat everything and this continues until I drag myself to bed about 11pm or midnight. Sweetened cereal with heavy cream, hot biscuits slathered with honey butter, scrambled eggs with cream cheese and/or butter, toast, berries with cream. My favorite thing to do is go out to eat. Everytime I get in the car, I go to a restaurant or fast food joint. The thought of food consumes me from about noon until bedtime.

    (For someone who stated she didn’t want to explore feelings and foods, I think I made a start!)

    • Yes Cindy, you’ve made a fantastic start! And like most people we work with, you have a complex array of challenges to unravel. But you’ve taken the most important step right here by looking beyond the food and the weight to become curious about the “why?”

      Now keep going! I am confident that we can work through all of this and that you can have that big life you crave!

  14. Jessica says:

    Every night, my boyfriend and I sit down to watch a movie together, and that’s when I want the sweets. I always want to eat a little (ok, it’s really not that little) dessert when I curl up at the end of a long day; I guess I associate it with unwinding now. I’ve even found myself manipulating when I eat earlier in the day so that I’m more likely to feel physically hungry for the dessert, and therefore can eat it without feeling uncomfortably full afterwards — for example, feeling excited if I eat an early dinner, or let down if I’m not hungry until 6:30 or 7 because I know I’ll never be hungry again in time for the movie. (I used to justify that as “mindful eating” because I was paying attention to my hunger cues, but I’ve since realized that it’s anything but.)

    • Actually Jessica, it sounds like you are being very mindful! Mindful eating is simply about awareness – since that is the starting point for understanding and change if desired. Noticing that you have this pattern, noticing that you are uncomfortably full if you eat this dessert when you aren’t hungry, then planning to be hungry for the dessert is a great example of how to use mindfulness! If you were just trying to use mindfulness to try to resist the dessert, then it would be a diet instead!

  15. Cindy Ray says:

    I am thrilled to be participating in this. I kind of feel I am too dependent, but it is a grand supplement to the books, and it helps me keep the importance of mindful eating in mind. I know I will make it further down the road than I have already. Thank you, Michelle.

  16. Jean C says:

    Food has not always been a problem for me, but has become more challenging in the last 10 years. My biggest downfall is chocolate & sweets which I crave most of the day. I believe this craving is partially due to stress,anxiety,& depression which I am addressing with professional help. After a satisfying meal, I do not feel it is complete unless I have chocolate or something sweet. My goal is to have one small cookie,but I am never able to stop there. The more chocolate I consume, the more I want & the vicious cycle continues. It is rare for me to feel satisfied , regardless of the amount of sweets I eat. This is so frustrating & is something that I desperately want to change.

    • I’m glad you are working with a counselor Jean! That shows your commitment to feeling better. Lots of people want something sweet after a meal. Is it possible that thinking you shouldn’t have it (or even want it) could be making the cravings even stronger and causing you to overeat that food instead of just eat that food?

      I’ll post a video about this but many of the people we work with have given food so much power! Have you heard the saying, “What we resist, persists”? I know it is really scary to “let” yourself eat what you love, but I promise, you will be absolutely amazed at how you take your own power back. (There is a process we teach called Fearless Eating that shows you exactly how to do this!)

  17. Ilze says:

    For all my adult life I have been working hard to excell and get financially better job. When I finally had one it turned out to be a very hard one, too, unfortunately (low recognition, lots of unfriendly colleagues (or at least I perceive them that way), huge expectations from me (probably lots of them coming from myself, and so on…). I can now afford what I could not before but I have no fun nor energy to enjoy it. When I come home I am too exhausted to cook, and I just grab something out of the fridge. Or I sit with the plate in front of the TV. And I do not remember what I eat and how comes that it is already over. And I do not feel full so I might continue eating or take something sweet, then switch back to savory or spicy without having had any satisfaction. Often I finish only when I am lcompletely overeaten.
    At work I would think all the time where I would go for a lunch. And again I often eat far too much that I feel heavy and no energy at all to go back to work.
    To the contrary when I am having a business lunch or with someone at restaurant I would eat just a tiny piece, not enough at all. Generally when I am nervous I would skip eating. Then when it is over I would overeat. And so I goes it circles…

    • You sound so frustrated… How often we seek outside measures of success: make money, lose weight, get a partner, and so on! But happiness is an inside job. And, as you’ve obviously realized, food can’t make us happy either–it can only provide a little temporary pleasure and distraction then steal the energy we need to discover what will really make us happy.

      Please know that you are not alone–and that it doesn’t have to be like this! Be sure to watch the next video for one way to start uncovering what you really need then write back to share what you discovered.

  18. Rachel says:

    Why do I eat? Well, I eat fine when I’m with my husband or other people. And I usually eat foods that they will think are good foods. Though at times I do eat what I want especially when my husband is not around. he is a firm believer that there are certain foods I should not ever eat. So I eat them when he is not around and then I go overboard. Sometimes I eat them when he is around to show him that I can eat only what I need. But then he asks me if I should be eating that. Each time he goes away, I tell myself, I’m going to eat mindfully the instinctive way since he is not around. But instead, I just eat everything until I’m too full to even enjoy it. I just finished almost all the Christmas cookies. I did ask him to read the first chapter of the Eat what you Love book. He agreed but has not read it.
    He is much better about not bringing up my weight issues these days but still I feel this pressure when he is around not to eat what I really love. I think it has gone on too long. I know this is the right method. I just don’t know why I can’t get any further along. I am a Christian as well and I’ve been asking God to show me the way as well.
    Thanks for all of your wisdom Dr. May! I’m praying for a breakthrough!

  19. Jean says:

    Food is my friend. It comforts me and is always there for me. I’ve always had low self esteem and sought out external things and relationships that made me feel better. When I didn’t have a person, I always had food. My self talk says ” you shouldn’t eat junk food, you should go for a walk” but then the negative talk takes over and says “you’re not worth it, who really cares if I’m fat or not”. But I really do care. I just can;t seem to get motivated to try yet another thing to lose weight. Yo yo dieting is the story of my life.

    • You described this vicious cycle perfectly! Since food can’t really meet your underlying needs (maybe connection, acceptance, comfort, worthiness), it provides only temporary relief then you have to re-dose yourself.

      Maybe focusing on losing weight underscores the feeling of unworthiness. Perhaps doing some work on accepting yourself as you are right now would relieve some of that pressure.

      Although it may seem counter-intuitive, self-acceptance is the starting line for change. After all, we only care for the things we care about.

  20. Nancy says:

    I eat to get energy especially in the evenings when no one is home. It always seems ridiculous to go to bed at 7:00 so I start eating and will continue until its 10:00 and time to go to bed. I usually eat sweets or cereal and when no one is home I eat a lot, like binge eating. The rest of the time I eat well. I would like to understand this cycle better and change it.

  21. Dee says:

    Why, what and when? Hmm…As for when, it’s really when i have unstructured time, especially btwn ‘activities’, whether it be after work (8PM) to bedtime (10PM or so) during the week or workout to shower or after errands to before evening plans on the weekend. As for what, I note a progression of healthy (leftovers, cold cuts, fruit) to not healthy (cheese, crackers, sweets) as i get increasingly full and lost in the ‘trance.’ Why is the most difficult to identify…tired and in need of reward, angry/frustrated and in need of escape, guilty for procrastinating, lonely/bored and in need of fulfillment…some of all of the above.

    Intellectually, i know i need to incorporate activities into my routine that give me pleasure AND structure. i have identified activities that i’d like to pursue, but i can’t seem to find the energy/enthusiasm to actualize those plans or break free of obsessive behavior around food.

    I struggled with eating disorders as a young adult and was ‘in remission’ for a number of years. I ‘relapsed’ 2-3 yrs ago triggered by career-related disappointments, have been in therapy for the last 9 mos and working at it, but fearful whether i will be able to feel ‘normal’ again.

    • Thanks for writing Dee. You seem to have hit on a number of important drivers of this “transitional” eating you are struggling with. I agree that activities that provide pleasure and structure may be a good replacement for meeting the needs that the food isn’t meeting very well (or it wouldn’t take so much of it!).

      Your comments remind me that one step that we often skip is the A in our FEAST strategy (found in chapter 3): Accept. Rather than immediately trying to DO something to fill that time, soothe those emotions, or meet those needs, we can pause and acknowledge that those feelings and needs are there and accept them as they are without trying to change them or push them away! In other words, sometimes we don’t need to DO anything (eat or soothe or whatever), these feeling just need to be acknowledged.

      (Sort of like when you are talking to a friend or your partner and all you need them to say is, “Wow! That sounds like it is really hard for you!” without trying to fix anything.)

      Perhaps instead of just having an intellectual knowing about what to do, developing a very simple ritual, like doing a Body-Mind-Heart Scan to notice and feel what is there, would open the door to just letting the feelings be there without having to push them away.

      I’m glad you are working with your therapist again. And by the way, you are already “normal” – just struggling with it a bit!

  22. Debbie says:

    At work I eat to take a break from stressful tasks. At home I snack when I read. I loved to read as a child, and would be allowed to eat and read at the same time, however, if I was just reading I might be pulled away to do something else. If I was still eating, I could still read. I also sometimes have minor binges, when I eat a snack I “shouldn’t” have while my hubby is out of the room or away from the house. I finish before he comes back so I don’t get “caught”.

    • Debbie, your awareness of your patterns and your curiosity about how they developed are important first steps to changing those old habits that no longer serve you. Your experience of secret eating is also quite common. These are exactly the sort of issues we work on in our programs. Have you considered joining our Mindful Eating Support Community to work on these and other challenges? Here’s more info: https://amihungry.com/mindful-eating-support-community (The opportunity to join closed a few days ago, but if you are really interested, please contact us and we will welcome you into the community!)

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