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Stop Dieting, Start Feeding Yourself

Becca Clegg

If you have ever done work around emotional eating, you have probably come across the idea that people eat emotionally as a way to compensate for not getting other “needs” met in their life. 

I talk about this idea with clients a lot.  It’s a pretty frequent occurrence when a client looks at me and asks, “What do you mean by needs?” 

It’s not that they don’t understand the definition of the word, of course, but when put in the context of looking at their own life, the thought of there being basic needs that they deserve to have met is a foreign one. So – I wanted to devote a blog post to talking about our needs, specifically how the act of feeding oneself is one of the most basic and primary needs of being human, and how this relates to disordered eating and “food issues.” 

In order to set the stage here I’m going to get a little clinical for a minute.  (Don’t worry, it won’t get boring!) 

I want to explain a little theory as to why feeding ourselves is so primary and perhaps shed some light on why dieting and the diet mindset (constantly depriving yourself of the right to eat) is making you so miserable!

Abraham Maslow, a psychologist and (in my opinion) a pretty smart guy, theorized that we have levels of needs that all humans try to meet.  Some needs take precedence over others.  (See below)

The important piece of this is just to understand that eating is a basic need, like water, air, etc… It is considered “bottom-tier.”

In Maslow’s theory (which if you haven’t deduced by now, I happen to believe is entirely accurate), if we don’t have the basic needs met (bottom-tier) it is hard, if not impossible, for us to focus on the needs above them. 

In other words, if we don’t have food or water, we won’t be able to focus on whether or not we feel we “belong.”

SO – back to the idea of basic needs.  FOOD is one of the most primary needs we have. 

When a baby is born it needs very little, but it does need food.  Or it will die.  BASIC.

We are born needing to eat and it remains a basic, life providing function throughout our entire existence on this planet.

With that being said, what do you think about the fact that most women in our society spend most of their adult life in conflict with how they feed themselves? 

Women across the globe spend years trying to feed themselves as little as possible and feeling immense guilt for the times when they feed themselves too much or “bad” food.

For many women, the act of feeding themselves has become something laden with shame and conflict.  It has become a task – something to be controlled – something to be conquered or perfected. 

Many women wish they could just ignore this need, and many try to. 

Both in and out of my office, I have heard many versions of the following statement, “Wouldn’t life be so much easier if you just never had to eat?”  Eating has become enemy number one.

Once we get the basic needs met, we are free to focus on the “higher order” needs. (Like being happy, fulfilled, content – yes, all the things you want in your life!)

What if, in constantly denying yourself the right to eat, you are stuck in the most basic tier, unable to move up?  What if your denial of the basic need to feed yourself (not literally, but psychologically), keeps you stuck focusing on that need?

The flip-side of this is that oftentimes, people who are afraid to focus on their “higher” needs, or who don’t feel they are worthy of them, will turn to food as a way of compensating.  For example, if you are needing respect, but don’t know how to ask for it, you might find yourself bingeing late at night, unconsciously trying to fill the void of the unmet need.

Either side of the coin, it doesn’t work.   

Where we go with all of this is to begin to see food as a primary need.  It is not the enemy. 

It is kind to feed yourself.  It is self-care.  It doesn’t mean you are weak or in any way broken or bad. 

Even if you find yourself on the other side of the coin, eating too much, this same logic will apply.  The more we can create an acceptance of our physical hunger we can then move on to hearing the call of our other “hungers.”  This will eventually calm the insatiable need to eat or binge.

Our needs want to be met.  When they are denied, the hunger and yearning for them becomes louder and louder.  We can try and avoid, or deny them.  We can try to compensate with food or other things.  But the easiest way to quiet the hunger is to own them, and nurture them.