Why your relationship with food may not be about food at all...
“I tried every diet in the book. I tried some that weren't in the book. I tried eating the book. It tasted better than most of the diets.” ― Dolly Parton
Many people that we work with at the clinic, come to us for help with their relationship with food. They are really keen to change their habits and behaviours around food. Many will have worked with nutritionists or dieticians in the past or tried endless diets or meals-plans - however they would have rarely found something that they had been able to sustain for the long-term. The reason for this is that our relationship with food is rarely just about food. Our relationship with food is very often about so many much deeper rooted values, beliefs, emotions and habits. If you were you examine your relationship with food, do you think that any of these factors play a role in the food choices that you make:
Self-esteem and confidence
For many people, their relationship with food is very closely tied to their self-esteem and confidence levels and also to their self-perception. When someone feels very bad about themselves and has lots of negative thoughts about themselves and their body, they will often then feel down and in turn may turn to food to cope with their low mood. It can become a very vicious circle. Equally, when someone feels down about themselves and their body, they can also try and punish their body with very restrictive diets and starvation, which may last for a short while but then often end up leading to periods of binge-eating or over-eating. So our self-esteem levels are very tied up with our relationship with food. Often when clients get to a place of valuing and respecting themselves and their bodies, they just naturally want to nurture, nourish and take care of their bodies rather than punish them with extreme dieting and/or overeating.
Not prioritising themselves
Tied in with our self-esteem is how much we give ourselves the time, space and permission to take care of our own needs. So many of the people that we work with spend so much of their days rushing around after other people, that they end up completely neglecting their own needs. They are giving far more than they are allowing themselves to receive. The result of this is often that they feel depleted and down. However this often also has an impact on their relationship with food. They may find no time to eat all day long- as they are too busy working hard and helping others - but then by the evening, they are so ravenous, that they will end up devouring anything in sight. Here the root of the issue isn't really just how much they are eating or not eating - but the fact that they don't feel able to prioritise themselves and their needs. Exploring where this underlying belief has come from and shifting this belief can then help individuals not just with their relationship with food but also in their romantic relationships, their professional life and their interactions with friends and family too.
Comparing to others
Again tied to self-esteem levels is how much time an individual spends comparing themselves to others. Often when they feel a lot of pressure to be more like those around them (or perhaps even those that they see on TV or social media), this can drive low self-esteem, which in turn can lead to an unhelpful relationship with food. Of course, when we compare ourselves to others it is very rarely a fair comparison, as we tend to compare our worst qualities/flaws against other people's strengths. Therefore working to help someone to stop unfairly comparing themselves to others can help them to feel more confident and in turn develop a more positive relationship with food and their body.
How someone feels about, relates to, perceives and connects with their body very heavily influences their relationship with food. Disordered eating is usually driven by an individual not feeling very good about their body. Therefore, developing a healthier relationship with food involves getting to a place where someone can work with their body (so that both mind and body can feel great), - rather than working to punish their body or working against their body. When someone is able to have more positive and helpful thoughts about their body, this can really improve their mental health and their relationship with food.
Anxiety and not having control in other areas of your life
When someone feels anxious or that they can't control certain areas of their life, they may try and manage this by controlling things that they do have the power to change. This can then involve either not eating or being very disciplined around food in order to feel some sense of order or control. For some people, this can lead to very restrictive eating patterns, however for others this can lead to skipping meals, which in turn drives binge-eating or over-eating by the end of the day. Either way, the issue here is not really the food itself. The issue is more the anxiety and lack of control that the individual is experiencing and the fact that the only coping mechanism they feel that they can turn to in these circumstances is controlling their food intake. Helping an individual to find new ways to manage anxiety and to come to terms with not having complete control over their lives, can therefore help shift their relationship with food long-term.
Food is a coping mechanism for stress/sadness/low mood
For many people food is a coping mechanism - and it is one of the most socially acceptable things that we can use to give us a quick-high. However, like other things that give us a quick high, such as alcohol, drugs, gambling and shopping - food very rarely makes us feel good long-term. It can make our problems seem better in the moment but often it does nothing to actually help us to lean into and process our emotions and our thoughts. Where someone has come to rely on food to cope with their emotions and thoughts, helping them to build new coping mechanisms and equipping them with new psychological tools, can really transform their relationship with food.
Food is filling a gap where intimacy/relationships/purpose/fulfilment etc. would go
Often food comes in when there is something else missing in our lives. Some individuals may turn to food when their relationship lacks intimacy, when they feel unfulfilled by their professional life or when they don't feel that they have enough things to look forward to in their weekends. Food can give people something to look forward to when other areas of their life are lacking. Therefore helping individuals to examine their lives and instead work on areas where they don't feel satisfied and fulfilled can mean that food no longer has to fill that hole in their lives for them.
Unhelpful habits are just playing out on autopilot
Many people think that overhauling their diet is the answer to rebuilding their relationship with food. However a lot of their behaviours around food are actually just habits playing out on autopilot without them really even realising that they are happening. Whether it is automatically reaching for the same foods for breakfast, grazing on the snacks available at work or not eating much all day and then feeling out of control around food in the evenings - a lot of these are just automatic habits playing out with little thought. Trying to change all of these habits in one go can result in a lot of resistance and an internal battle or struggle taking place. However using behaviour change techniques to gradually shift these habits can be much more helpful for long-term sustainable behaviour change.
The reason just telling yourself to eat a certain way or to follow a certain meal plan often doesn't work long-term is that we don't just use food for fuel. We use food as a coping mechanism, as a way to pass the time when we are bored, as a way to punish our bodies for not feeling good about them, as a way to fill gaps in other areas of our lives... and so much more. If you are keen to get to the root of why you eat the way you eat, in order to resolve your habits around food for the long-term, please get in touch with us at firstname.lastname@example.org to book in a free 20 minute consultation.