Do You Eat to Live, or Live to Eat?

Mmm, food.

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Use the Healthy Food Preference List and Indulgence Frequency Questionnaire to determine how you can strike the right balance between Eating to Live, and Living to Eat.

When you ask this question to someone, it can definitely elicit a reaction. They usually pick a side and talk about what food means to them (fuel or comfort or family). Or they will talk about how they started on one side of the statement and switched to the other. Or they discuss how they are trying to manage balancing both sides of the question. In the end, it’s the same three words, “to”, “Live” and “Eat”, but the order and perception of those words creates vastly different meaning to people, and likely to you.

Those who “Live to Eat” view food as something more in their life than just fuel. It can mean comfort, family, friends, happiness, lifestyle or stress release. When food takes on greater meaning than its nutrients, we start running into conflicting desires, commitments and priorities. What drives our subconscious to make decisions? Emotions, desires and internalized commitments. That’s why those who “Live to Eat” may find making healthy, positive eating changes very challenging. To you, it’s more than just food…it’s about what food means to you. When it comes to making positive eating changes, fear of change can significantly impact those who “Live to Eat”, especially in two cases:

Foodies – When Food is a Lifestyle

When foodies are asked to make healthy eating changes, they may immediately think that they can no longer enjoy cooking, eating or socializing with their friends. They imagine a shackle being wrapped around the tasting menu at their favorite restaurant or a steel cage surrounding their favorite piece of chocolate cake. And then they imagine that they can no longer go to eat with their foodie friends because they need to eat “grass” or “rabbit food” or any other derogatory term that can be created for fruits, veggies and whole grains. By asking a foodie to make changes, they feel that their lifestyle is under attack and of course, when someone feels under attack, they get defensive and resist change.

However, making positive changes to eating and physical activity does not have to mean giving up eating well or tastefully. It means understanding how healthier foods can fit into your lifestyle rather than making your lifestyle fit into the demand for healthier foods. Try cooking with some new spices rather than butter or oil. Discover new flavor profiles by adding a new fruit or vegetable to a dish. Start splitting scrumptious meals when you go out to eat…then you and your friends can discuss the same foods and each eat less of them. And when you do want to indulge, do so without guilt and enjoy it. Go out with your friends once or twice a week and have fun! In the end, one or two meals do not make or break a healthy lifestyle. It’s the meals we eat on a regular basis that dictate our lifestyle.

Emotional Eating – When Food is a source of Control or Feelings

Call it stress eating or emotional eating, but in the end, those who turn to food to cope with challenges, changes and feelings will find that they very thing they turn to when times get tough may no longer available to them. For others, people who have very hectic or demanding routines (work, family, etc.) may view food as the last bit of control that they have in their day. So they will choose what they want…and “to hell with” what anyone else may want them to do or eat. They rebel with food. On the other hand, sometimes we eat because it is a joyous occasion such as a party or a wedding. What happens is, we no longer listen to our intuitive (aka natural) hunger and satiety systems and instead override them to a point where we feel ravenously hungry or exceedingly full. Over time, we lose a sense of these systems and we start turning to our feelings and emotions to dictate our eating habits rather than our bodies. As Fat Bastard eloquently said in the Austin Powers movie: “I eat because I’m unhappy, and I’m unhappy because I eat.”

In essence, food has become a dependency, equally as strong as drugs for addicts, cigarettes for smokers or booze for alcoholics. Research shows (Farley, A. C. et al. – 2012) that when people quit smoking, they tend to gain weight. It can be partially attributed to the fact that nicotine is an appetite suppressant, but also consider whether food becomes the new “coping mechanism”. When someone who smoked used to get stressed, what would they do? Smoke! Now that the cigarettes are no longer there, they need to find a new coping mechanism. While there are positive ones out there such as exercise, yoga and meditation, a more convenient one may be food. Hence the weight gain.

Also consider this: What is one of the main ingredients in preferred “comfort foods”: sugar or carbs. Carbs, particularly high doses of sugar can have an impact on the brain, stimulating dopamine and opioid receptors: our brain’s “feel good” chemicals. The stimulation has been compared to drug addiction (Hoebel, B. G. et al – 2009), including cocaine or marijuana use. But of course, after a while, the effects wear off and we need to look for the next hit if we did not solve our original source of emotion or stress.

For people who deal with emotional eating, the best thing to do is consider alternate ways of coping with stress or feelings of lack of control. Brainstorming and solving any existing sources of stress is a great first start. Next, it’s about finding other ways of stress management that you can feel comfortable turning to during tough times, especially during challenges you face in the health, fitness or weight change process. Exercise, yoga, meditation, knitting, cooking, favorite hobbies and sleeping are just a few, but you are more than welcome to determine your own. When you are able to start turning to other activities to handle stress, we can become better tuned to our body’s natural hunger and satiety (feeling full) systems and eat when we are actually hungry, rather than when we are happy, sad, mad, etc.

***Note: In the end, we are all somewhere in this continuum between Eating to Live and Living to Eat. The key is striking the balance that allows us to enjoy food when we want while being mindful of and listening to our natural hunger and satiety signals. We choose nourishing, healthy foods whenever we can because we know there will be special occasions when we will choose not to and instead will indulge and enjoy it. It’s not about restriction…it’s about balance.

What About those Who Eat to Live? Attention All Those Who Want to Gain Weight

Those who “Eat to Live” typically view food as fuel to nourish their body and keep it running strong. However, there is one notable exception, and that is those who view food as an inconvenience to their lifestyle and only choose to eat because they know they will pass out otherwise. In this case, you are likely facing weight gain issues, because when you get stressed or challenged the last thing on your mind is eating. But if you are trying to gain weight, and you stop eating (and exercising…or increase exercising without maintaining your eating), guess what will happen to your weight? Yep, back down to where it started.

The keys to overcoming this situation are similar to emotional eating, except the actions are reversed:

  • 1. Make a personal commitment to food, eating consistently and maintaining adequate physical activity, particularly strength training.
  • 2. Determine ways to handle stress or challenges that allow you to maintain your focus on eating more (or maintaining the amount needed for weight gain) and being active.

Do You Eat to Live or Live to Eat? How do you strike a balance?  Comment below or share on Twitter (@JMachowskyRDFit) or Facebook (JMWellness)!

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  1. Until recently, I would say I fell into the “living to eat” category but with a simple mindset change, I have good control of my diet. Your tips in here should definitely help those that need to gain control.

    • Hi Keegan, checked out your website, good stuff. Noticed you’re in Fresno – I was out in the Central Valley for my Dietetic Internship a few years ago. Thanks for the compliment. I enjoy my fair share of good eating – and cooking – as well. And as your blog describes, eating well doesn’t mean stuffing your face, it’s about enjoying flavorful foods (which may or may not be rich) in portions that get you the results you want. May I ask how your mindset change came about, and what created it? It’s all about striking the right balance!

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