The Underlying "Purpose" of Food and Body Angst 


Those who suffer with eating problems do not enjoy living in their body. The solution offered is to lose weight and tone up, suggesting that, then, you will finally be comfortable. But in my 30-plus years of working with those who have eating problems, I have not found this to be true.

If weight loss could make us happy, our happiness would increase in direct proportion to weight loss. As you are well aware, no weight loss program ever promised that if you lost 50% of the weight you want to lose, you will be 50% happier.

No, only when you get to your ever elusive goal weight will you be happy! But it does not work that way.  

I have come to believe that food issues (even a more casual belief that "I MUST eat healthy") and chronic dissatisfaction with the body, is actually symbolic of a greater discontent. I was first introduced to this idea in 1984 when reading Geneen Roth's book, Breaking Free from Emotional Eating. I began to view eating and weight related issues as symbolic, and eventually learned to "decode" food and body angst, always finding a deeper issue that had nothing to do with food or body size.

I decided to pursue a PhD in Symbolic Anthropology* to investigate this concept. Sure enough, my dissertation showed that eating and weight concerns can be “decoded” to find the issue that underlies and exacerbates them. And the women I studied did not have eating disorders!

Let's look at an example of decoding.

Decoding "Can't Say No to Food"

Let’s take a situation most of us have dealt with; for instance, having difficulty saying “no” to food when you are full. You want to quit eating, but can't. You blame yourself that you are weak-willed and ramp up your control. Or try to avoid these situations.

When you clamp down to become more in control of your food, you miss the opportunity to learn about yourself, as well as to transform your relationship with food. Instead, you can decode the situation. 

If you have a hard time saying “no” to food when your body has had enough, chances are you also find it difficult to say no in life. You may be afraid of hurting someone else’s feelings, or afraid of the repercussions. You find yourself saying, “Sure I can make something for the bake sale,” or “No problem, I’ll take care of that,” or “Of course I’ll do that for you,” when you do not have the time or energy. 

If you are unable to say, for instance, "No, I won't be able to stay late tonight," or “I’m so sorry, but I won’t be able to do that,” or "No, I can't help you with that now, I've scheduled some downtime for myself," you become depleted. In this depleted state, as your body seeks rest and replenishment, a deep "hungering" may arise as a normal consequence.

It is easy to confuse this hungering for physical hunger. But because food is not what you are actually hungry for, no amount of food will be enough, despite your efforts to care for yourself by eating.

And so, of course, you will not feel "full."

If you try to stick to an eating plan, you may miss the opportunity to explore underlying issues, which can also make it more difficult to heal emotional eating. These underlying issues can persist and, as in the example above, mimic physical hungers, making it harder to control your eating. 

Therefore, the work of detecting and responding to physical hunger or fullness must include tuning in to your unmet needs on an emotional and spiritual level. Food and body angst is a signal that something off balance in your life. In the situation above, you may find you need to tend to your needs—with strong boundaries and mutually respectful "nos" to others and "yeses" to yourself. An eating plan may distract you, but your needs are still there.

When you are able to avoid mental, emotional, physical or spiritual depletion by saying "no" in life, it becomes much easier to say: "No thank you, I don’t want more food, I’m satisfied.” And then it becomes easier to walk away from food when you are done.  


Food and body angst is a signal that something is off balance in your life, and can always be decoded! When you do decode it, you will find it much easier to reach your eating and weight related goals. 

When you learn to decode food and body angst, you will discover that your discontent is actually a beacon guiding you to learn more about yourself. A way of discovering more about yourself. Decoding is a wonderful tool to help you stay on target in your life. 

Ask me about decoding food and body angst!

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* What is Symbolic Anthropology?

My PhD studies in symbolic anthropology changed my approach to nutrition counseling. Symbolic anthropology is the study of how people create meaning out of their experiences or construct their own concept of reality through the use of shared cultural symbols, such as myths or body language. A culture's unique combination of cultural symbols — and their meanings — creates meaning for the individual, which in turn prompts that individual to react in culturally specific ways to symbolic behavior and communication.