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Finding Nourishment In Life As Well As In Food

Finding Nourishment In Life As Well As In Food

by Karen R. Koenig, LCSW, M.Ed.karen-koenig-2

When we think of nourishment, what comes to mind is likely food—nutrition and eating healthfully to feed and sustain ourselves. We imagine furnishing our cells with nutrients to fuel our bodies and keep them in good repair. But what about how we fuel our minds and hearts? What do they require for sustenance?

If you consider our universal emotional and mental needs, then you know that doughnuts, chicken wings, carrots, fudge, or even the most nutritious, non-GMO, pesticide-free, organically grown foods won’t do the trick. To feel emotionally nourished, we must first recognize what our emotional needs are, then find ways to feed them. Here are six emotional/mental essential needs that, when met effectively, will help you eat more “normally”:  pleasure/play, challenge, wonder/awe, authentic connection to ourselves, authentic connection to others, and creativity and passion or a reason for living.

  1. Pleasure/play

Many dysregulated eaters act as if pleasure or play are dirty words. These people feel good about themselves only when they’re productive. If they want to relax or slow down, they believe they’re being bad or lazy and spur themselves on. They expect nothing less than perfection in all they do and beat themselves up if they don’t reach it. No wonder they turn to food for a good time.

We have a universal need for play, which is engaging in an activity merely for pleasure, not to meet any other goal. Play involves being in the moment, with no thought to how things turn out. It is all about tuning in to now. In play, there is no judgment, only absorption in each perfect, pleasurable moment.

  1. Challenge

Alternately, humans require appropriate, realistic challenges. Think Goldilocks: not too easy and not too hard. We enjoy learning new things at our own pace—tap dancing, crocheting, Chinese, skiing, chess, or origami. Learning both activates our brains and gives us a sense of satisfaction. It provides us with knowledge and teaches us new skills.

Too often we grind ourselves down by doing the same things in the same ways over and over. This pattern causes us to feel as if the lifeblood is being drained out of us or that we are robots, set on automatic as we march on through time. One reason we think we want to eat is because we’ve stopped taking a big, fat, juicy bite out of life. Starved for stimulation, we wrongly believe that drive-through, fast food is where we’re going to find it.

Dysregulated eaters may find it difficult to feel nourished by challenge because they so badly want to succeed and so hugely fear failure. They’re constantly judging themselves and fearing they’ll be judged by others. They want to know how to do everything correctly yesterday. But, by looking at challenge as a gradual process, one to engage in at our own pace, then learning new things becomes exciting and keeps us growing. And isn’t that what nourishment is for:  to help us grow?

  1. Wonder/awe

Another way we fail to nourish ourselves is that we don’t wonder enough because we want to play it safe. Both wondering and experimentation are ways of taking care of ourselves as much as sticking to a routine is. Wonder is how we bring awe into our lives—about the universe, how a snake undulates, the way no two snowflakes are exactly the same, how people who lived thousands of years ago are both similar and dissimilar to us, or what technology will be like at the dawn of the next century.

We are nourished by awe because it both takes us outside of ourselves, and also because it helps us feel deeply a part of the amazing world around us. Awe breaks down boundaries and takes our breath away. There’s nothing like this kind of mind- blowing feeling of oneness that nourishes us even after the fact, when we’re only remembering how we felt.

  1. Authentic connection to ourselves

It is vital to be connected to ourselves physically and emotionally, but it is not enough if what we are hooking into is only the person we wish to be. We need to feel connected to who we really are—the good, the bad, and the ugly. It’s not sufficient to only attune to yourself when you are feeling strong or successful. It’s equally, or possibly more important, to feel okay about ourselves when we see ugliness in ourselves that upsets or disappoints us.

Dysregulated eaters often don’t feel nurtured by themselves because they are so busy being critical of what they see when they look inward—what they did or didn’t do, all their wrong actions and none of the right ones, their worst moments rather than their best. An authentic connection means accepting yourself as human, even when you wish to be better. It’s not enough to pick and choose only those qualities in yourself to which you like to connect —your talents, strengths, and special gifts. The richest type of nourishment is offering yourself kindness and compassion when you’re at a low point. That’s what raises you up in your own eyes and makes you feel whole.

  1. Authentic connection to others

Many dysregulated eaters are unhappy with themselves and, therefore, are uncomfortable with others. They are anxious about being judged and feel afraid to reveal their real selves. But think about the moments when you are your authentic self and make a connection to someone. Those moments are almost electric. When we bond with others, we feel warm and shiny inside and out. We are not meant to be alone. If we were, would there really be so many of us in the world?

Having authentic connections with others validates us and helps us see ourselves through new eyes. We get to see our strengths that we normally don’t recognize because we’re too busy zeroing in on our weaknesses. We get to see that we can laugh or cry, question or confront, or do a mediocre job or fail outright, and no one thinks the worst of us. Too often, dysregulated eaters go it alone and turn to food for comfort. This leaves them malnourished emotionally and generates craving for attachment that no amount of food will fill.

  1. Creativity, passion, or a reason for living

Not everyone can be wildly creative like John Lennon or Pablo Picasso. Some people feel fulfilled by going to their same job every day and doing a service. Maybe they are bus drivers, are EMTs, or are long distance truck drivers, teachers, or bank tellers. They know that what they do is of service to others and that this nourishes their sense of being valuable and valued. Others find their reason for living in dance, poetry, sculpture, films, or floral design. By making the world a better place through our creativity, we end up nourishing ourselves.

So many dysregulated eaters only feel excited by food—planning their next meal, hitting the snack machine mid-afternoon, zoning out on food at night when they’re lonely or bored. For others, their reason for living is to be 5 or 15 or 90 pounds thinner. Nothing matters but the number on the scale. Nothing makes them feel filled up like emptying themselves out violently or slowly slipping away pound by precious pound.

They could be putting their focus and energy into devoting themselves to a craft or doing good works. Instead of measuring life in terms of quality, life is all about quantity. Sometimes it’s acquisition and consumption of material goods. Sadly, because they’re never putting themselves out into the world in a meaningful way, they feel starved and empty inside.

Take time to consider what nourishes you emotionally. When you read over the above list, which are your strong suits and which are your weak ones? When you reach for food, which kind of nourishment are you really seeking? If you’re not hungry, it’s not food you want and you will need to figure out what will truly satisfy you. When you are fulfilled and know how to refuel and find fulfillment, you will no longer look to food or weight to enhance your life. You will know that there is more than one kind of way to feed yourself.

About the author –

Karen R. Koenig, LCSW, M.Ed., is a psychotherapist, educator, eating coach, national speaker, international author, and expert on the psychology of eating—the why and how, not the what, of it—with 30+ years of experience teaching chronic dieters and overeaters the skills that “normal” eaters use naturally to maintain a comfortable, healthy weight for life without dieting and food restriction.

She is the author of seven books:

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Outsmarting Overeating: Boost Your Life Skills, End Your Food Problems,Helping Patients Outsmart Overeating: Psychological Strategies for Doctors and Health Care Providers, Starting Monday—Seven Keys to a Permanent, Positive Relationship with Food, Nice Girls Finish Fat—Put Yourself First and Change Your Eating Forever, What Every Therapist Needs to Know About Treating Eating and Weight Issues, The Food and Feelings Workbook—A Full Course Meal on Emotional Health, and The Rules of “Normal” Eating—A Commonsense Approach for Dieters, Overeaters, Undereaters, Emotional Eaters, and Everyone in Between!  Ten foreign language editions are available among three of her books.

Her articles have appeared in Social Work Focus, Social Work Today, Eating Disorders Today, The Newsletter for the Society for Family Therapy and Research, The Boston Globe, The Boston Herald, and she has been quoted in, Ladies Home Journal, Berner Zeitung, The Wall Street Journal, Women’s Health, Self, Shape, Weight Watchers, Body and Soul, In Touch, and OK magazines, including a feature the Sarasota Herald-Tribune. Her TV interviews include ABC, FOX, WHDH, Brookline, MA cable, and SNN and she has done dozens of podcasts and scores of radio shows.

She is a founding member of the Greater Boston Collaborative for Body Image and Eating Disorders, has served on the Professional Advisory Board of the Massachusetts Eating Disorder Association, and has taught seminars for Simmons College School of Social Work, Boston University School of Social Work, Massachusetts School of Professional Psychology, the National Association of Social Work, the Massachusetts Dietetic Association, the National Organization for Women, the Multi-service Eating Disorder Association of Massachusetts, and the University of South Florida Department of Social Work.

A graduate of Simmons College School of Social Work, Ms. Koenig practices and teaches in Sarasota, Florida. Visit Karen’s website She blogs at, and moderates a message board at Follow her on,, and






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