Food as a Love Language: How to Nourish the Body and Soul — Without Overeating

when food is love

Is food your love language? Do you love baking or preparing a home cooked meal to show people that you care?

Or do you struggle with the opposite problem where the people in your life use food as their love language, and you feel obligated to eat even when you aren’t hungry? While there is no problem with using food as a love language, it can pose a problem when boundaries are crossed.

Where do we draw the line between celebrating with food and becoming overreliant on food for emotional needs? Let’s delve into this deliciously complex topic, guided by the wisdom of Gary Chapman, the pioneer of the five love languages.

Understanding Food as a Love Language

there are 5 “official” love languages — let’s call food the unofficial 6th

Many of us have used food as a love language — whether we’re aware of it or not. Maybe you cook your loved one a nourishing meal after they’ve had a hard day, or you buy your best friend a sweet treat just to let them know they were on your mind.

When food is used as a love language, food acts as a vehicle to communicate love, support, and thoughtfulness. You don’t even need a reason to use food as a love language. Some people just really love food and enjoy using it to spread joy and forge connection.

When food becomes a love language, it’s not merely about sharing food but about the heartfelt intention behind your actions: to show and share love.

Now, let’s connect this to Gary Chapman’s insightful work on love languages. Chapman’s groundbreaking work helps us understand that people give and receive love in different ways, and recognizing these differences can enhance our relationships. Chapman identified five love languages in his work:

  • Quality Time: Spending meaningful time together, giving your undivided attention to your loved one.
  • Words of Affirmation: Using words to affirm, appreciate, and express affection. Think of heartfelt compliments or verbal expressions of love.
  • Physical Touch: Expressing love through physical closeness and touch, like hugs, kisses, and cuddling.
  • Acts of Service: Doing something for your loved one that you know they would appreciate, like cooking a meal, running an errand, or doing chores.
  • Receiving Gifts: Giving thoughtful presents that make your loved one feel acknowledged and cherished.

While Chapman might not have explicitly listed food among his five love languages, the essence of his theory aligns with the concept of expressing affection through food. When food is used as a love language, it intersects most directly with Acts of Service, but it can also blend with other languages.

The time spent cooking and eating together can be Quality Time, and the meal itself can be a Gift. Even Words of Affirmation can play a role, in the compliments exchanged over a delicious dish. Food, in its essence, becomes a versatile medium in the language of love. 

The Thin Line – When Food as Love Becomes Compulsive Eating

people pleasers may struggle with the boundary between food and love

If neither you nor your loved one struggles with compulsive eating, continuing to use food as a love language can be perfectly healthy and enjoyable. After all, food is an essential and delightful part of life, meant to be savored and celebrated!

Things take a frustrating turn, however, when compulsive eating makes it difficult to honor your body and your boundaries in situations where food is an expression of love. I’ve seen this both in myself and my coaching clients. It’s so hard not to feel obligated to eat when your family members or significant other is the person who gifted the delicious treat.

How do you say no when your grandfather, who you rarely get to see, buys you a special treat from the bakery? You don’t want to turn away the rare act of love. Or how do you say no when your partner has prepared a delicious cake for your birthday — even though you’re already full from your special birthday dinner?

I understand the struggle! On one hand, you really want to honor your body and master how to stop eating when full. Yet, on the other hand, you want to enjoy this special moment and bask in the feeling of love! This is especially challenging for “people pleasers,” who bend over backwards to make other people happy, even if it’s at the expense of their own health.

If you’re a people pleaser, you may know the struggle from first-hand experience, like eating donuts even when you aren’t hungry because your partner took the time to bring them home and you don’t want to miss out on the shared experience. There’s always a good reason to eat a donut, especially when food is your love language.

Psychologically, we tend to prioritize the emotional comfort of others over our own physical wellbeing.

People pleasing is a hard habit to break. I even found an incredible study illustrating that people are more likely to eat high-calorie foods (think: special treats as a love language!) in order to evoke feelings of comfort and pleasure in others.[1] The research doesn’t stop there, either.

Three decades of clinical evidence shows that are we are inclined to eat more when we’re around other people (family, friends) than when we’re alone.[2], [3], [4] It’s called the “social facilitation of eating” and it overlaps with patterns of using food as a love language.

How to Enjoy Food as a Love Language Without Overeating

If food is your love language and you absolutely love it, keep on! Shared experiences are some of life’s greatest riches, and food offers a great place to express and feel love.

For anyone that struggles with overeating because food has become too strongly connected with expressing and receiving love, let’s dig into some practical tips to help ease the pressure to eat without hunger.

1. Identify Your Primary Love Language

Begin by exploring your own primary love language. Take the quiz from the official love language website to identify your predominant love languages. This sheds light on how you most naturally feel loved, which can help guide how you engage with food-related expressions of love. 

For example, let’s say that you love spending quality time with your significant other, and you also love cooking. Food has always been your love language, but sometimes you struggle with feeling pressured to eat when you aren’t hungry because you really look forward to cooking and eating with your partner.

On one hand, you can remind yourself that cooking as an act of service doesn’t mean that you have to eat when you aren’t hungry. You can cook for your partner and simply let them enjoy! But, do you remember the “social facilitation of eating” and how we’re inclined to eat to invoke positive feelings in others?

If your partner feels awkward eating without you also eating, it’s time to take a step back and explore your boundaries. You should be able to express love as an act of service without feeling pressured to take actions that are unkind to your body (such as eating when you aren’t hungry).

It can be hard to resist that fierce inclination to evoke positive feelings in others by eating anyway, but try to remain firm in your boundaries. If you want extra help, I include an entire lesson on people pleasing inside my online course, Food Normal.

[Bonus quiz: If you love quizzes, don’t miss my Eating Psychology STRENGTH quiz at the end of this post. Even if you struggle with food, we all have a strength. Look for it at the end of this post, or click here to take the quiz now.]

2. Identify the Primary Love Language of Those Around You

Just as you have your own top love languages, so do the people around you. By understanding the love languages of your family and friends, you can tailor your expressions of love in a way that resonates with them, without solely relying on food.

For example, one of my coaching clients has a primary love language of quality time while her husband has a primary love language of acts of service. She feels pressured to cook dinner every night even though she hates cooking because she knows how much it means to him.

Can you imagine the look on her face when I said that she doesn’t have to cook, especially when she doesn’t want to, and that she can find other ways of expressing love through service? Her eyes bugged out of her head in the best way ever! It’s like she had never thought about giving herself permission to not do the thing she hates! 

This is a great example of the clarity that comes from coaching. Sometimes you have no idea where you’re holding yourself back until someone holds up the mirror for you.

3. Find Alternative Ways of Expressing Love Outside of Food

there is absolutely nothing wrong with expressing love through food!

There are many ways of expressing love outside of food. Remember, food as a love language is not bad! I am merely making suggestions for those of us who feel obligated and pressured to eat when we aren’t hungry because we struggle with the boundaries between food as a love language and honoring our bodies.

Here are some examples of non-food-related love language expressions:

  • Quality Time: plan a day trip, a hike through nature, or engage in a shared hobby together
  • Words of Affirmation: write heartfelt letters and notes expressing your love and appreciation (how much more powerful would this be than a chocolate muffin for the words-of-affirmation person in your life?!)
  • Acts of Service: offer to run errands for someone when they’re busy or prepare a care package — even if they aren’t going through a tough time (how much cooler would it be that way?)
  • Physical Touch: hold hands, sit together doing nothing, or offer someone a great big hug
  • Receiving Gifts: pick out a special item that aligns with their interests, like a gardening tool for someone with a green thumb

Each of these expressions provides a meaningful way to show love and care while respecting your own and your loved ones’ boundaries regarding food. They offer creative and thoughtful alternatives to demonstrate affection, helping to strengthen relationships in diverse and fulfilling ways.

4. Make Sure You Still Enjoy Your Food!

no matter what, you always deserve to eat satisfying foods

Remember, enjoying food is still important. Joy and satisfaction from eating play a crucial role in feeling physically and emotionally content after eating, which can help curb compulsive eating past fullness. It’s about finding a balance where food is a source of pleasure without being the sole expression of love or comfort.

A great way to increase the satisfaction you get from food is to stop dieting and eat the foods that appeal to you. Whether or not you use food as a love language, it’s always a good idea to eat the foods that you enjoy! When you get joy and satisfaction from the foods you eat, it helps curb the desire to continue eating later in search of that extra “oomph” to hit the spot.

5. Acknowledge the Social and Cultural Aspects of Food as a Love Language

is eating food out of guilt and obligation a true demonstration of love?

In cultures like Italy, where food is deeply interwoven with expressions of love, it can be tough to navigate cultural or familial situations. How can you refuse your mother’s lovingly prepared meal, especially when she casts immense pressure upon you when you refuse?

This is where the concept of ‘practical hunger’ can be a valuable tool. Practical hunger means acknowledging that there are times we eat for reasons other than physical hunger, such as social enjoyment, emotional comfort, or in this case, participating in important cultural and family traditions.

Sometimes it’s okay to allow yourself to have a small helping of food when you’re not hungry, especially if you struggle with boundaries around family members that really prioritize food as a love language. Not all of us have the iron-clad will say no to mother’s cooking — and you don’t have to. Practical hunger means it’s okay to “eat for the hunger to come” sometimes. Just pay close attention to when boundaries are pushed too far.

For example, if it’s 5pm and you aren’t hungry but you feel pressured to eat (because someone has demonstrated their love language through food) it’s okay to have a satisfying portion of something. You were likely going to get hungry later anyway. However, if it’s 8pm and you’ve already had dinner and someone pushes chocolate cake onto you, and you know you’re going to feel physically unwell if you have some, then it’s important to remain firm in your boundaries.

6. Focus on Self-Care When Food Is a Love Language

“You don’t have to earn or deserve love. You are love. Loving is never about how others treat you. It is always about how you are treating yourself.” – Rhonda Britten

Food as a love language extends beyond how we express affection to others — it also encompasses how we treat ourselves. Often, indulging in our favorite treats can serve as a profound act of self-care. Yes, seriously!

Many of us hesitate to consider food as a form of self-care due to its association with overindulgence and weight gain. However, it’s essential to recognize that enjoying our favorite treats without crossing boundaries can be a nurturing practice. It’s about finding ways of coping with discomfort without food while also allowing yourself to enjoy the foods that you love.

For example, I really enjoy going to my local bakery to get vegan donuts with my fiancé. It aligns with my dietary preferences (no dairy for me, thanks) and it’s super scrumptious. I don’t see it as an extravagant indulgence that I have to “work off” later. I see it as an appropriate expression of self-care and connection. (Food isn’t one of my love languages, but if it was, I’d add love to that list too!)

Now, I wasn’t always this levelheaded. I used to keep sweets completely out of the house and avoid any kind of sweet indulgence with anyone over the fear of binge eating. However, as I worked to unwind diet mentality and let go of the food rules, I was able to make peace with sweets and get to a place where I can have one donut and feel satisfied.

Sometimes I even eat a few bites and leave the rest for later. Although I worked really hard to get to this place of feeling normal around food, in those moments I still have a gut reaction to keep eating so that I don’t make my fiancé feel bad. However, I quickly remind myself that he doesn’t care if I eat the donut or not. He just likes my company. Quality Time is the primary love language at play — the food is just the sweetener.

Conversing in the Language of Love With or Without Food

There is no doubt that food is a powerful love language in and of itself. While it intersects with Gary Chapman’s clearly defined five love languages, I think we can all agree that food is the unofficial love language #6.

If you have no problems using food as a love language, keep on! If you struggle with feeling pressured to eat past fullness, however, try to use your tools. Set boundaries, protect those boundaries, and find other ways of communicating love outside of food. Just as importantly, make sure you’re not depriving yourself of satisfaction from eating — it’s healthy, necessary, and fun!

  1. YoujaeYi, Jacob C. Lee & Saetbyeol Kim (2018) Altruistic indulgence: people voluntarily consume high-calorie foods to make other people feel comfortable and pleasant, Social Influence, 13:4, 223-239, DOI: 1080/15534510.2018.1546616
  2. Herman, C Peter. “The social facilitation of eating. A review.” Appetite 86 (2015): 61-73. doi:10.1016/j.appet.2014.09.016
  3. Ruddock, Helen K et al. “A systematic review and meta-analysis of the social facilitation of eating.” The American journal of clinical nutrition 110,4 (2019): 842-861. doi:10.1093/ajcn/nqz155
  4. Ruddock, Helen K et al. “The social facilitation of eating: why does the mere presence of others cause an increase in energy intake?.” Physiology & behavior 240 (2021): 113539. doi:10.1016/j.physbeh.2021.113539

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