Symbolic Meaning of Food

Rédigé par : Matej Tušak, Ph.D.

Satisfying the physical need to eat is one of the basic human needs. Apparently food plays an important role in our lives, not only in physiological, but also in psychological sense. Emotions are also closely connected to our eating habits.

Food or eating itself can have a symbolic meaning. Through food we many times compensate temporary or chronical emotional lacks, we could also say that we try to satisfy needs that we weren't able to fulfill.

Our relationship with food many times reflects our neurotic attitude, which also changes through times. There are periods of time when we don't show any neurotic symptoms and other periods, usually when we are stressed, that can cause more such symptoms limiting our everyday life.

Neurosis can also be recognized through different attitude patterns like hand-washing obsession or obsession with certain food, eating schedules or way of eating.

We can describe a neurotic symptomatic as something that brings us short term benefit, because it seems beneficial for the moment, but on the long term it is a problem that limits us. E. g. when we have to take an exam we are not completely ready for, we get a headache and have to stay at home. At the moment it seems like a good solution, because we don't have to take the exam. Long term it becomes a problem because actually we failed (and usually keep failing) in coping with a stressful situation and the task remains unfinished.

Most professionals agree that eating in moderation and following some basic health principles are essential for one's development. But extreme regulations of eating habits, resulting in eating disorders are neurotic attitude patterns. In such a case following our strict eating rules gives us a fake feeling of having control over our own life. We think: "If I am able to follow the eating schedule – which I honestly believe is unconditionally correct and necessary – then I am able to be in charge of my own life."

Obviously such artificial need of control appears when something gets out of our hands, usually due to too high stress strain or lack of emotional satisfaction.

The problem of neurotic mechanisms is that people are unaware of having them. It's like a cycle of acting in accordance of defense mechanism and a feeling of surreal control. But in reality they are running away from real problems, although they are really persuasive in their manners, so much so that even people around them believe in importance and correctness of their behavior. To keep the faith they would also only accept opinions similar to theirs and refuse opposite ones.

This illusory feeling of control can be maintained as long as the food obsessions, denial, selection or eating rituals become really strict. Even so much that they endanger one's life. For example, bulimic or anorexic patients cannot realize their pathology even when being hospitalized for not being capable of basic life functions due to too low weight.

Most food obsessions can be classified as an addiction and should be treated (or cured) as such.

Self-image is very important in these situations, but we have to treat eating disorders as any other diseases of addiction, which means that curing can take a long time and is often unsuccessful. More can be done by prevention than curation.

Food Has a Strong Symbolic Meaning in One's Life

We say that we eat something up or swallow something down, our stomach doesn't handle some food well and we have to throw up what is stuck in our stomach.

These sayings confirm the importance of food and eating. Also a way to one's heart is through their stomach. Actually, many dates include dinner.

If we can keep a healthy attitude towards food it also means that we have a healthy approach to life. It means that we will be able to use our energy for our daily tasks instead of spending major share of it on food or keeping control of basic emotional problems.