Loving Each Other to Death with Food

“Oh come on, it’s just a little piece – have some.” 

“It’s a special occasion – loosen up and enjoy yourself.”

“Try this.  No, seriously, try it!”

“Are you sure you’ve had enough?”

Part of the obesity epidemic that is seldom discussed is the fact that we put enormous pressure on each other to overeat.  It may be the family member who expresses love through food or who wants company in shared overindulgence.  It may be the coworker who keeps bringing snack foods into the office.  It may be the neighbor who really likes to bake, and then gives the goodies to nearby friends so she won’t have overly tempting foods in her own home.   If you’re trying to keep your balance with food in this country, chances are you regularly encounter people who seem to be working actively to make you fail.

How could this be happening when so many of us are worried about our weight and health?  History offers important clues.  Our food practices of today have their origins in times of food scarcity and hunger.  In an environment of too little food, it makes perfect sense to fret over your loved ones not getting enough, to give food at every opportunity, and to elevate food to a role of primary personal and social importance. 

In today’s world, however, there is not only an abundance of food for many of us, but an incredible variety of non-nutritional foods from which to choose.  The food patterns we developed generations ago just don’t work now.  The unintended consequences are that where we wish to support and strengthen those we care about with food, we are actually undermining and weakening them, sometimes with deadly results.

The present-day motivations that keep food pressure in place cover a wide range.  Food may be insistently offered out of a sense of duty, fearing that to do less is to fail loved ones.  Some people greatly enjoy giving food, and therefore give a lot because they find it so satisfying to do so.  Shared food may increase a sense of group or family togetherness, which prompts some to try to get everyone to eat the same way regardless of individual need and preference.  Because food has become our primary means of socializing and bonding, many people have come to see near-constant eating as an essential element of getting together. 

On the darker side, food does sometimes get pushed in overtly negative ways.  It may be the expression of a relational power struggle or in more extreme cases, the food pusher may be using food to try to make his/her target fail; at this level, food can actually become a tool for causing emotional harm.  Finally, a food pusher may try to make others fail because as long as no one is managing to succeed, then no one in the group can be held responsible for trying.  It is sad but true: Misery does love company.  

Regardless of the motivation for food pressure, its impact on those of us who overeat is most often painful and destructive:

• When an overeater is offered food, it often creates an urge to eat that didn’t previously exist.  In an instant, we go from being at peace with food to struggling for self-control.  If we give in and eat, we feel shame at having compromised ourselves physically and emotionally.  If we resist, we worry about making a loved one feel rejected.  Either way, we lose.  This is surely more complex and problematic than most people ever consider when they pressure others to eat, but it is the reality.

• When we’ve said, “No, thank you,” and the cajoling continues, we have the frustration of seeing that our wishes are not respected.  In fact, it often goes a step further and we find ourselves being criticized for resisting pressure to eat more than we want.  What more basic personal freedom could there be than the right to choose what and when to eat, and why do we have to fight for it?   

• As overeaters, we are often working at managing our eating impulses anyway.  When someone comes along bearing food and good-natured pressure to eat, that extra push can make the difference between the success we may have had and the failure we end up with instead.  Again.  When someone manages to badger us into eating when we’ve tried to resist, they've left us with shame and regret, not enjoyment.

Those who pressure us to eat are seldom trying to cause us frustration and pain, but that is in fact, the most frequent outcome.  There are some basic guidelines we can all practice that will support the joyful sharing of food without these unintended and damaging consequences.   

To support the overeater in your life in a loving and healthy way, it boils down to this: Help us (the overeaters) maintain full control over what foods – and what quantity of those foods – end up in front us.  It’s that simple.  We don’t need you to do anything different with your own food practices and we certainly don’t need you to manage us.  All we need from you is the freedom to manage ourselves in the ways we see fit, without judgment or argument.  Toward that end, here are some very specific strategies that most of us who are trying to be healthier would deeply appreciate, and which may be some good talking points for family, friends, and coworkers:

1. Don’t put any food in front of us or near us that we haven’t requested.  Just let us know where it is so we can make our own decisions about whether to have any and how much to have.

2. Don’t assume we would like food gifts; please ask first.  If we say yes, please honor our request as to quantity.  If we say no, please understand that we love your generosity and intention, but just can’t deal with the tempting food.

3. Please don’t push your unwanted or excess food onto us to “keep it from going to waste.”  Doing so just sets many of us up for failure and regret. If you don’t want it in your space, we probably don’t want it in ours either, so please just dispose of it instead.

4. We’d mostly prefer it if you didn’t ask us whether we want something to eat.  We’re very good at figuring out how to get food when we’re hungry, so don’t worry, we won’t miss out on anything just because you stop offering.  It will also show us that you care a lot if you stop offering, because we know you like to be generous and that this will be a hard change for you.

5. If we say “no” to a food opportunity, please accept it the first time and move on to a new topic.  “No” really does mean “no.”  When you keep pressing anyway, it can give the appearance that you don’t care about our needs.

6. Please always put away food and its containers when you’re done with it.  Those of us with eating issues find the sight of tempting foods highly triggering, and there is no need for those foods to be sitting out in view anyway.

7. If we tell you we have trouble with food, please take us seriously.  Regardless of how you may judge our weight, you have no idea of the emotional torment many of us suffer.  Please don’t presume to know us better than we know ourselves, and don’t assume you’ll naturally know the best ways to support us either.  Please ask us about that, because we’d love to be able to tell you what actually helps us the most.

8. Finally, it would be great to spend more time together sharing activities other than simply eating.  There’s so much more we could share; food doesn’t have to be the main event.  Conveniently, sharing a wider variety of activities would also make it easier to stop thinking about food constantly -- that would be a big help.  We could be going for walks, enjoying local events, volunteering, playing games, going to shows, sharing home projects, and anything else we can imagine.  There are so many great memories to be made, but they won't happen if all we ever do together is eat. 


Copyright © 2010, Elizabeth Babcock, LCSW.  All rights reserved. 

An edited version of this article was published by the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette on November 6, 2011.


Some other articles you may find useful:

Are You a Compulsive Eater?  Test Yourself and See...

Compulsive Eating: Serious Health Issues
Essential Truths about Your Body
Fat: Important New Findings
Raising Kids to be Emotionally Balanced with Food 
Risk Management: The Overlooked Key to Finding Peace with Food

Your Weight May Not be the Problem

 When is It Time to Consider Psychotherapy? 

Depression Series, Part One: Depression -- Myths and Facts


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