Quite some time ago, I read a book written by health guru Dr. Andrew Weil. In the beginning of the book, he talks about stomping through some jungle somewhere and stopping for the evening. He heated a pot of water, and dumped in a packet of hot chocolate mix, the sort that you can buy in markets anywhere which is made of chemicals, cocoa, and dehydrated milk. He said that there was something very comforting about the familiar experience of drinking this sort of concoction, even though he knew that it wasn't good for him.
For those who don't know, Dr. Weil has written books about integrative medicine and also talks about things like "energy medicine" and eating whole foods. He was talking about avoiding processed foods long before it became the "in" thing to do. He advocates preventative medicine and natural healing where possible, but encourages radical medical intervention and treatment where necessary. He nicely straddles the divide between science and looking to nature for cures.
As one might imagine, Dr. Weil doesn't recommend that we eat things like processed foods or chemical additives like artificial sweeteners. That being said, even he understands the emotional and cultural connections that we have to the non-nutritive or potentially damaging foods we grow up with. That's why he included the passage about drinking the powdered chocolate in the jungle.
Today, I sampled a fragment of a Ruffles potato chip that my husband had leftover from his lunch and I was reminded of Dr. Weil's experience. It thought it tasted strange and not particularly good. Frankly, it was awful to me. That being said, I did find it familiar and emotionally sustaining at the same time. There was something about the weird oily texture and the flavor which must only come from Ruffles fry vats. I could easily see eating more and deriving comfort from them, not because I was savoring every bite as I do when eating mindfully, but because I could enjoy the crunchiness and the known chemical flavors. The pleasure could not come from the tasting, but from the act of shoveling one after another into my mouth. They felt like something which is not meant to be savored, but to provide a sensory companionship of sorts. The longer the companionship, the more comfort one could have.
Part of the reason I no longer find the taste of this sort of food attractive is that I haven't eaten it for awhile. That's not to say that I don't eat any non-nutritious food, far from it. I have pretzels, chocolate, cookies, and rice crackers all of the time. They're just not made in the same way, particularly in terms of the deep fried aspects. I've never been a fan of deep-fried food, so I wouldn't turn to such things naturally anyway.
The experience of tasting that chip gave me a stronger sense of the difference between compulsive eating (which is done for psychological comfort) and eating for pleasure. I could definitely see why people eat certain foods by the handful without even spending long tasting them. Though I had no desire to eat them compulsively (one fragment was enough), I could imagine doing so and extracting some pleasure from doing so. In fact, I could imagine enjoying it more if I did it more because renewed familiarity would bring about more comfort.
Fortunately, I don't feel drawn to such things anymore and was not tempted on a sensory level. I wasn't tempted on an emotional one either, but I could definitely imagine being so. It's rather like understanding how someone might want to go bungie jumping for the thrill and sense of floating free or bouncing, but never wanting to do so myself.
Perhaps mindful eating practices broke me of the joy of compulsive eating, or perhaps practicing calorie counting and portion control did it. Maybe it is just a habit I got out of and don't feel compelled to get back into. I was going to say at this point that I'm not emotionally different than I was a little over a year ago, but that's not actually true. The stress and environment I live in is the same, but the way in which I use (or abuse) food has changed. It's not something I turn to for comfort, though I can still use it for pleasure. I can remember wanting to and being able to gain comfort from compulsive eating, and I hope not to forget that so I can maintain empathy for others.
I think that understanding that we approach the food we use for compulsive eating as opposed to the food we actually enjoy differently is of some value. Perhaps knowing the difference will allow us to try to focus on those specific foods or the manner in which we eat those foods which provide comfort and how we deal with them. It can create awareness which can lead to altering our relationship with such foods, and hopefully end compulsive eating.