Editor’s Note: This story reflects sensitive memories of one writer’s experience with a complicated relationship with food. If you find yourself in need of support for a related issue, please call the National Eating Disorders Association Helpline at 1-800-931-2237.
I started seeking comfort from food in grad school. There I was, in my late twenties, overwrought and maxed out, working full-time while hustling through a journalism program. When the days ended—or when I stopped working, which was sometimes at 3 am—I booked it to the market or my kitchen to grab the most carb-laden thing I could find and scarf it down. Afterward, I felt empty. How can I fill this hole inside me? I wondered. To attempt to answer this, I grabbed another piece of cake—or pizza or pie—again and again. My insatiable hunger was an unfillable void.
This roller coaster continued into my thirties. I danced a dangerous dance of seeking comfort from food on some days, followed by intense restriction (and often, other expressions of disordered eating) on others. It was my self-inflicted purgatory. Thankfully, I found sound counsel that eventually helped me navigate this challenge. But it wasn’t until more recently, when I started reading and listening to the work of Adrienne Youdim, M.D. that I felt seen. Dr. Youdim’s work revealed the deeper layers of my insatiable hunger.
Featured image by Michelle Nash.
An Expert Addresses Mindful Weight Loss
A board-certified internist specializing in mindful weight loss and nutrition, Dr. Youdim posits that hunger is a barometer for another longing. Of course, our bodies have a physiological need to eat. But so often, our needs warrant a different nourishment. “Our relationship with food is symbolic of deeper contemplations and our relationship with ourselves,” she writes in her edifying book, Hungry For More: Stories and Science to Inspire Weight Loss from the Inside Out. Hunger is emotional, spiritual, and universal, believes Dr. Youdim. So many of us are craving to feel seen, heard, loved, inspired, autonomous—and so much more.
Of course, our bodies have a physiological need to eat. But so often, our needs warrant a different nourishment.
We’re also seeking a need to feel grounded and connected to ourselves. As Dr. Youdim outlines in Hungry For More, we may reach for food when we’re yearning for better sleep, ritual, or even greater self-acceptance.
Such was the case for my grad-school self. To honor her, and to dig deeper into this revelatory look at hunger, I spoke with Dr. Youdim over Zoom. She showed me how honoring our hunger can be one of the greatest gifts to ourselves.
You say that when we look to food for comfort, it can offer the same dopamine hit as community and connection. What’s important to know about this?
I love talking about comfort food because it’s a misnomer. The physiology of it is when we eat palatable foods—foods high in fat, sugar, salt—it elicits that dopamine response, which gives us a sense of pleasure and reward. But dopamine is also about the chase. We focus on pleasure and reward, but dopamine is also the thing that makes us run after the thing. It’s causing the chase, and the chase never ends.
The other thing is when we use food for comfort or to soothe, say when you’re lonely or disconnected or angry or whatever the case may be, it doesn’t scratch the itch. So that sets you up for more desire to go back and re-recreate that feeling, all with the wish that underlying hunger gets addressed.
Also, if you think about when you’ve ingested something heavy when a true physiologic hunger for food was not at play, there’s a sugar crash. You get tired, irritable, and lethargic. This is not to vilify certain foods, but this is to be mindful of how we’re using them. If we’re using them to comfort, the question is: Is it making you comfortable? And the answer is: probably not.
But dopamine is also about the chase. It’s causing the chase, and the chase never ends.
What is driving that desire for comfort?
When we experience difficult emotions, our hunger hormones go up. So there is this physiologic drive to eat. But what’s important is to take a step back and think, What gave me that impetus? What is driving this? That then becomes an opportunity. It’s a chance to realize, Wow I’m unfulfilled in my work or my relationship, or I’m not offering myself enough self-love or self-care, or I’m disconnected and lonely.
“Our hunger can be our greatest teacher and friend if we really listen.”
What are you seeing in your practice in terms of what people are hungry for?
I see it all, all the time. Because of this, I divided my book into different hungers, with each chapter starting with the patient vignettes. Some examples are:
- A hunger for autonomy. You’re in a job in which you don’t feel fulfilled, have a sense of agency, or feel that you’re able to create impact.
- A hunger for belonging. I share my own story of growing up in Texas, as a child of immigrants, and always feeling different and outside the group. I started using foods to soothe my desire for connection and belonging.
- A hunger for sleep. There are simpler, unmet psychological needs like this. How many of us sat up scrolling Netflix during the pandemic? It’s a habit many of us still haven’t gotten rid of. Sleep deprivation itself will trigger hunger hormones.
So there’s the full gamut of unmet needs, whether they’re physiological needs, psychological, spiritual, or emotional. And we need to think: What am I not getting right now as I sit here and munch on these chips?
How do we begin to discover these unmet needs?
First, get support. That may mean a therapist, a life coach, or reaching out to your best friend or a family member. We get comfort through connection and being seen and validated. So gather your people.
Secondly, I believe we need a good dose of expectation management in our society. Instant gratification is a fallacy. It does not get us to a deep connection or meaning that helps us uncover our suffering. We must learn to be okay with being uncomfortable. You are not going to break if you feel uncomfortable. Acknowledging that life is uncomfortable at times and we don’t need to instantly gratify ourselves or gloss over it.
And thirdly, many great practices allow us to slow down and become attuned to ourselves. These include:
- Breathing practices
- Meditative practices
- Writing—which is my favorite. I journal every day. It’s a way to process my thoughts and get out my feelings.
Allow yourself to use one of these practices—and allow yourself to slowly evolve and honor your hunger and what it offers.