Is It Really a Need?

"I am feeling pretty tense. I NEED a dog biscuit."

What do you believe to be true about your needs?  What is a “need” anyway?  I just looked up the definition and here is what I found:  “need – a condition requiring relief.”  Hmmm . . . “REQUIRING relief.”  That sounds urgent.  It is also an interesting description when applied to food.

It is clear that physical hunger requires relief.  There are clear physical signals that let us know we NEED to eat, such as light-headedness, a growling stomach, or general weakness.  Who wouldn’t want relief from that?  What if we aren’t physically hungry but feel a “need” to eat something?  Is that really a need?

I would agree that, according to the definition, there is a need.  That need may not truly be for food, but there is no question that it can feel like relief is the goal.  This gets tricky, because food actually can appear to meet the need at hand, whatever it is, even if it is only temporary relief.  Who has never felt the way that sugary foods can cause stress to melt?!  Too bad it’s usually temporary.  Brain chemistry provides explanations for food choices that seem to make no sense on the surface.

In this case, we are looking for relief from a feeling of general discomfort, an emotional “need.”  There is no question that there can be physical sensations associated with the need, but it is more of a perceived need than a biological need.  I believe that is why food seldom seems to really solve this kind of problem.  Still, the body can sure make it feel like food is exactly what we need.

Here are some interesting questions to consider?  What would happen if you did not eat at that time?  (Would you die?  Would you lose your life savings?  Would you lose someone you love?)  Would you still choose to eat if someone held  a gun to your head?  What is they only demanded payment?  What would be the amount you would be willing to pay?  $1?  $10?  $1000?  (At what point would the penalty be greater than the relief you expect?)

Often what we see as a food need is a habit we have developed without being aware of it.  If you find yourself always reaching for food when stressed (or bored, or sad, or . . . ), and you feel unable to stop (ie. you NEED it), there are habits in place that are at least partially responsible for the cravings.

Again, it makes sense, and you are not crazy!  Think about it for a moment.  Let’s say you are a stress eater.  At some point in your life, you made the connection between the stress and the stress relief that food provides.  Over time, this became an easy habit to establish, because food is relatively cheap, available (arguably OVER-available), and it tastes good.  Meanwhile, it is unlikely that you are thinking to yourself, “I am stressed.  I know that brownies made me relax last time, so I will eat some now.”

If you were that aware of this, you would be well on your way to at least considering other options.  A clearer picture would come into view.  You would realize that eating does not really remove the source of your stress, whatever it is.  The logic of this is not available if you space out, which is exactly what usually happens.

Past experiences, particularly ones that repeat themselves often (habits) affect our beliefs about ourselves.  With a repeating mindless pattern such as the one just described, it is easy to see why I hear so many people comment on their perceived lack of control:  “I cannot eat sweets at all.  Once I start, I won’t stop until they are gone.”

Is that really true?  I don’t know, but I believe that whatever you believe about yourself has a tendency to play itself out.  In order to start a new habit, a healthier way of dealing with emotional eating, I think there has to be a fresh and mindful look at ourselves.  It can only start with what is happening now, perhaps with some fear about what we will do, but with an openness to consider the question:  “What if it isn’t true that . . . .?”  (ie.  “What if it isn’t true that I cannot stop eating now?” or “What if it isn’t true that I NEED that right now?”)

We all get stuck in our beliefs.  It is not just a dilemma for people who want to improve their eating – it is a human challenge that affects every area of life.  “What if the limits I put on myself are not real?  What if they are only in my head?”  It’s something for all of us to think about.  I know I am.

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