The 3 Psychological Needs of Food


When many of us talk about, think about or engage in the task of eating, we become concerned with meeting certain ‘needs’.

Often this involves assessing whether what we are eating meets certain nutritional ‘requirements’ or standards, whether that be the amount of Calories, fat, carbs, protein that a certain snack or meal contains. In this context, we relate to food and the way we eat in terms of what we can gain in terms of pure nutrition and fuel.

But what if there are more needs to fulfil with food than just this? What if there is a whole other way of thinking and feeling about food that so many of us are missing to the detriment of our wellbeing? Well, answering these questions is going to be the mission of this blog post, and I know that it will be just as insightful and eye opening as it has been since positively transforming my own relationship with food.

We know that there is more to food than just fuel and nutrition - especially when we take the approach of compassion-eating (which I have discussed in many other blog posts as well as my book).

With compassion-eating, we realise that there are many needs to fulfil when it comes to food, and not all of our food choices or activities need to revolve around fuel and nutrition.

Ok, so some of you might be feeling a bit uncomfortable with that statement. How on earth can food be more than what our bodies need to function and thrive? This might especially be the case if you are already used to tracking what you eat, monitoring your weight or using food to alter your appearance, fitness or even self-esteem.

To make things a bit clearer, I like to think of each food and eating occasion as an opportunity to meet one or several different needs. Because we are such complex social beings, who don’t just eat for fuel, this can involve meeting needs for:

1) Social and cultural connections

This can involve going out for a meal with a partner, eating cake to celebrate a birthday or wedding, socialising over coffee and your favourite sweet treats in a cafe with friends, or eating in line with certain traditions during christmas, new year or other festivities depending on where and in which culture you live. Food without any social or cultural connection feels lifeless and unfulfilling - leading us to feel deficient in a way distinct from any physical nutritional inadequacy.

2) Nostalgia and memories

What we eat isn’t just a passive occasion. We associate food with memories of our childhood, family upbringing and significant times in our lives. Sometimes it can be really soothing to eat something because it reminds us of who we are, and our background, and how we have felt (both positively and negatively) at key points in our lives. Would you rather walk along the beach with freshly fried chip shop chips (just like you did with your grandparents on holiday), or a cold leafy salad? …

Perhaps you remember choosing pic n mix sweets as a child with your friends, or going out with your family to get a selection of freshly baked pastries and cream cakes from your local bakery on the weekend. We need to remember that food connects us with place, space, time and our identities as human beings in order to bring meaning and more joy into our lives.

3) Emotional

We can’t escape the fact that many of us choose to eat certain foods that tie in with how we are feeling. Whether that be chocolate or ice cream to soothe feelings of pain, stress and neglect, or eating crunchy salty foods in an aggressive manner as a way to let out our suppressed anger.

Whether we notice it or not, eating is associated with the way we have learned to cope with our emotions throughout life. Perhaps this stemmed from being soothed with sweets by your parents when feeling upset as a child, unwell, or uplifting your mood with your favourite treats when feeling under pressure or broken hearted.

Alternatively, some individuals turn to not eating or binge eating as a way to cope with intense negative emotions and stress, usually as a way of dampening down the intensity of how they feel and distracting themselves.

Sometimes we may use food to reward ourselves when experiencing positive emotions, such as when we have achieved a certain goal. Emotional eating isn’t distinctly negative, but simply a well know way we have learned to associate food with how it can positively manipulate how we feel.

Other needs to be met when eating inevitably involve the need for energy (carbohydrates, fats and proteins) to function, as well as nourishment in the form of vitamins, minerals and phyto-chemicals that we need in order to aid the complex metabolic processes going on inside of us 24/7.

These needs can’t be overlooked, but they also can’t remain distinct and thought about as completely separate from the psychological needs we have just mentioned.

In order to optimally nourish ourselves (both mind and body) and thrive as human beings, it is essential to honour the mind / body connection, and accept that it is ok that food can be consumed just for psychological needs, and not just physical ones.

For me, in line with the concept of compassion eating, as long as you are meeting your physical needs for fuel and nutrition over the course of several days or a week, then it is completely acceptable - essential even - to bear in mind whether your food routine allows you the ability to take care of your psychological food needs. This means taking a more holistic insight to each eating occasion, and thinking about how your food can fuel your mind and not just the body ...

For individuals who have ever experienced an eating disorder, or a less than loving relationship with food, this can be difficult to grasp. For so many individuals living in our modern culture, it is so common for food choices to revolve around fuel and nutrition, usually with some aim to attain a ‘better’ or more attractive body and optimal health. Similarly, there are some individuals who feel so fearful around their choices, with the worry that their diet needs to be ‘cleaner’ healthier and as nutritious as possible.

Let me reassure you though, that your food choices don’t simply need to revolve around physical needs. Alternatively, each food situation can be embraced as a way of assessing what diverse needs can be met at certain time points in your day or life in general.

This might simply involve saying yes to going out to a cafe and eating a croissant with your friend, or saying yes to a meal out in somewhere that doesn’t offer the ‘healthiest of options. It might also be saying yes to your favourite childhood sweets, or reliving fond memories of going to the cinema with a bag of popcorn.

Whatever lights you up, or enables you to feel more free, liberated and positively connected with food, you can eat whatever and whenever you like. This might sound controversial to typical health messages, and at first you might fear that doing this will lead to over-eating and becoming ‘unhealthy’.

However, in the long run, meeting your psychological needs with food allows you to gain a happy balance with what and how much you eat. You’ll probably find that you will say goodbye to feelings of guilt and shame around food (even when over-eating) because you can realise that this is just a natural part of living and balancing your life (we know that rigidity and dieting rules around food only leads to more distress and negative health outcomes overall).

The key to compassion eating and fulfilling more needs than fuel and nutrition is in realising that you were born for a much greater purpose on this planet to meet your basic needs of eating. Yes, eating energises us, but its purpose is to help us find our way into living a meaningful life where we are no longer caught up in fear associated with survival.

The more you embrace your psychological needs with food, the more you can flourish as a person who has unlimited potential to find their purpose, live the life they are passionate about, and ultimately help the world to become a better place.

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