Many of us talk about healing our relationships with food. But, what about our relationships with eating?
Photo credit: Marissa Price
Is it our relationships with food that need help? Or, our relationships with eating? Or, both?
We often focus on food as the thing we need to make peace with or change. While that is true to a certain extent, food is one piece of the puzzle.
To produce and make food, we have a complex food system. This system is, in many ways, broken. Not everyone has the same access to food, not all food calories are really the same and food is produced in both sustainable and unsustainable ways. This is a post for another time.
Once the food makes it in our homes and on our plates, we eat it. And, how we eat, what we eat, who we eat with, when we eat, how fast or slow we eat, etc are all informed by our histories, beliefs, lifestyles, environments and more.
When clients tell me they feel 'food freedom', it isn't just because they ate enough or had X or Y food without guilt. It is also because they cooked it themselves, can eat that food with friends or in their favorite restaurant, grew their food, etc. Food is not the whole story.
So, today I'm here to talk about healing our relationships with eating.
What does eating mean to you? What is your relationship with eating like? What do you want it to be?
What is eating?
Eating is a complex dance that is informed by our pasts, cultures, societies, food systems, and more.
Eating is an activity that we learn and practice. While it is, to some degree, a skill most of us are born with - think, breastfeeding - eating food requires modeling, demonstrating, internalizing, learning, and practicing. Eating encompasses a wide variety of activities. For example, what we use to eat- silverware, hands, chopsticks, and more- differs between people. Or, how fast we eat - slow, fast, somewhere in between. What is normal for some is not for others.
Unfortunately, for many of us, the autonomy and practice of eating does not come naturally. Maybe we:
Were told to ignore our body’s cues (‘You can’t be hungry, you just ate!’)
Were told that certain foods were verboten (‘You really do not need that ice cream today.’)
Were told we were not capable of knowing what and how much to eat (“You don’t need that extra piece of bread, it’s too much.”’).
Didn't have enough food all the time.
Had chaotic meals at home.
Were mostly or only exposed to highly-palatable foods.
Changed our eating somewhere along the way to cope, fit in, or feel worthy.
How do we heal our relationship with eating and find a way to eat that supports us?
Ever learned a musical instrument? Competed in a sport? Learned a skill like coding? It takes a lot of time, failure, frustration, courage, confidence, and vulnerability. Eating is no different.
Right now, I’m learning German. I do not have an affinity for languages. I took Latin in high school (it did not help me on the SATs!!), then Italian in college (better choice but after 3 semesters I didn’t stick it out), and this last year - German.
For me, learning German means survival. As an expat, if I do not know how to talk in German, I will not be able to make a doctor’s appointment for my daughter, order the food at the deli, find new friends, and more.
Is learning a language like eating? Not exactly. You do need to eat for survival; learning a language is not a requirement for our bodily functions. But, the idea of trying something, making mistakes, feeling uncomfortable, trying again, building confidence, having successes along the way, and forming relationships with yourself and others that ultimately expand your life through a new way of being and thinking are all quite similar.
No matter if you’re recovering from chronic dieting, disordered eating or an eating disorder or just working on your relationship with food and eating, we practice eating.
This may look like:
Eating with others
Eating at a table instead of standing, sitting on a sofa, at a desk, etc
Taking longer or faster to eat than normal
Trying new food that frightens us, whether due to texture or associated fear of weight gain
Eating until fullness or eating before you’re starving
Eating multiple times a day
Trying a new cooking skill
Eating during or after workouts
3 Steps to Practice Eating
Write down or think of one thing that you avoid or that scares you around eating or that just isn’t a norm and that causes you to feel a level of 5/8 discomfort or less when you think about doing it. (8 being extremely uncomfortable and 0 being no discomfort).
Plan out how you want to try it. When, where, with whom, etc you will try this experiment? What do you need to feel safe in this experience? Examples may include eating enough that day, telling a friend you’re doing it, getting sleep the night before, calming your nervous system beforehand through deep breathing or smelling something soothing, etc.
Then, try it! Be curious and non-judgmental about how it went. What was your level of distress right before, during and after? What did you notice about your thoughts and feelings? Did you do anything to manage the distress after? What did you learn? Would you do it again or change it next time?
By being intentional about your experience and trying it in a way that reduces expectations, you can use the experience as a building block for the next time or to try something else. It may be helpful to think about eating in a way that feels good to you as a muscle that hasn’t been used in a while or at all, and that you can flex.
That it will take practice and finding other ways of coping than eating (or not eating) may have been helping you with.
For example, a client tried ice cream with her family at a busy ice cream shop. After, she said it was a ‘disaster’ even though it was planned. The family was more distracting than helpful, she was overwhelmed by the choices at the shop and she ate it quickly. She felt a high level of distress and discomfort after that took a day to subside. Despite the experience, she knew avoiding ice cream was not the answer to the situation. Instead, she decided to try it again, but instead eat the ice cream on her own in a peaceful park and get it from a shop that served less flavors. This time, she enjoyed the ice cream and found she could trust herself with it. She had dinner a few hours later, with no guilt. Building off this positive experience, she was then able to eat it with her family and tolerate the discomfort after, which was not as high as the first time around. As you see, the context matters (its not just the ice cream!) and its about building that muscle.
Step by step, through experimentation and support, you can figure out what works for you and can gain strength and confidence to continue your journey. You can tolerate the discomfort and even view it as helpful information to inform your next step. Healing your relationship with eating is possible.
Eating is a flow, a permissiveness, a practical need, a rhythm.
When we have a flow to our eating, when it feels supportive of our lives, when we are no longer trapped by it, maybe, just maybe, eating can become a celebration.