Our relationship with food runs deep. For many of us the way we relate to food is complex and multi-layered. How we relate to food is varied and the way we eat takes many forms. Some people turn to food for comfort, whilst some become so caught-up in the purity of food they get anxious when going out for meals with friends. It can be under-eating as well as overeating. It can relate to the colour of food or the variety. It can also be the habits we form in how we eat, at our desks, on the go, skipping meals or hiding when we eat. It can be the obsessive thoughts thinking about the next meal, the next time to eat. Even down to the labels we give food like “treats” and “healthy”.
I firmly believe that our relationship with food is a reflection of the relationship we have with ourselves. If we do the work on ourselves, our relationship with food changes.
Let’s explore some questions together…
Why do I seek temporary, quick fixes when I'm stressed?
When we’re stressed our central nervous system goes into what we call fight, flight or freeze. This is our stress response and it’s designed to keep us safe from danger. In the past we would have had to physically run or fight danger and the body adapts to meet this need. It diverts away from your digestive system (digesting food isn’t a priority when on the hunt with dangerous animals), it releases sugar into the bloodstream for energy and your pupils dilate so you can see better. This is why we go for quick fixes, our body is calling for a quick release of energy when the sympathetic part of the nervous system is activated. Things like cakes, biscuits, ultimately sugary foods that release sugar quickly into the body. In the world we live in, when we’re stressed, more often than not we don’t need that energy. For example, an email has popped in that has triggered a reaction in you.
You may also be feeling uncomfortable emotions and it’s a way to distract from those. Or perhaps you haven’t eaten for a while and your blood sugar is low and therefore you want to go for something quick.
In any case the first thing to do is become really conscious about what’s going on in your body. How does your body feel? There’s likely to be a heightened state. Then breathe into your body and ask it what it needs? It may need a few deep, nourishing breaths. You may need to go outside for some fresh air. You may need a full nourishing meal or a hug! What is it that you really need at this moment?
I’m addicted to sweet foods and I can’t seem to change?
This is really common and can be complex. The first thing to say is sugar is addictive. When you eat sugar you release endorphins and that’s how we can all become reliant on sugar. If you go for a period of time without sugar, you can find that your tastebuds change and you crave it less and less.
And it can also run deep. Sugar is associated with the energy of the mother, if you think about breast milk as a baby, it’s super sweet. It’s nourishing in a profound way. If you don’t know how to love yourself, or you didn’t receive love growing up as a child, you can find yourself turning to sweet foods for love. It can also be linked to connection, having people around you that love and support you. During this past year, I ate so many sweet foods because we were disconnected. Sweet foods can give us the sweetness of life that we’re longing for and we do need some sweetness in our lives. For the joy of it. For our hearts.
Why do I self-sabotage and turn to foods that don't make me feel good?
Again this is something that runs deep and is entangled in the relationship that we have with ourselves. There are many reasons why you may do this. This is the inner work.
The first thing to look at is how do you speak to yourself? Are you harsh or critical? It may be that you do this as a way of turning on yourself, to punish yourself. Can you go more gently? Bring in more love and compassion for yourself? This takes so much practice and care. Urula Le Guin says, “Love must be remade each day, baked fresh like bread”.
Then look to see what emotions are present. We’re not taught how to be with our emotions. In fact most of us were brought up to think emotions are wrong. You’re too sensitive, too emotional. And we’re definitely not taught how to deal with the stronger emotions of anger, grief and even the pain that we feel. See what’s there and explore whether you can be with it just for a short time. Let it live within you for a moment or two, rather than reaching for the food. They’ll always still be there. It’s about coming into relationship with our emotions and how we feel, with love and compassion always. Emotions aren’t wrong, they’re simply signals to the body.
It could also be a habit, or perhaps you don’t even know how to eat a different way. Investing in a good cookery book and experimenting with food is a great way to explore what you might like to eat. How your body responds can be the first step in finding a way to be in a relationship with food that works for you. What you and your body need will be unique for you.
What about under-eating and restriction?
This is a very important question as most of the focus is on overeating or eating disorders and there’s a way of eating that brings in restriction and/or an element of under-eating.
As always it’s complex, and it will relate to your own personal story, but this can be around control and fear. When everything feels out of control, the one thing we can control is our food. We control when we eat, how much we eat, what we eat. Everything is on our terms.
Lack of food is also about the ability to truly love ourselves. Can we allow ourselves to receive love and nourishment? We may need to relearn how to do this, sometimes our protection is so fierce that we don’t allow love and nourishment in. We may have been hurt in the past, had our hearts broken and then we block everything out in the fear of getting hurt again. Including food.
It’s important to know that as human beings we are designed to enjoy all the flavours of food; sweet, sour, pungent, salty and bitter. When we eat a plethora of these flavours that’s when we feel most satisfied.
“You can search throughout the entire universe for someone who is more deserving of your love and affection than you are of yourself, and that person is not to be found anywhere. You, yourself, as much as anybody in the entire universe, deserve your love and affection.“
How can I nurture myself more?
I love this question as this is what I’m about. I want to invite you to think about this question for yourself and I’ve popped it below as part of the journaling prompts. The key thing about nurturing yourself is to ask yourself what you need at any given moment. What do you really need? Outside of what people think or what’s expected. It may be a bath in the middle of the day (I do this a lot!). It may be some space and time alone. It may be a beautiful piece of cake that you enjoy every mouthful of, or your favourite cup of tea. A hug from a loved one or a walk in nature. Nurturing and nourishing yourself on the deepest level goes beyond food and can be a fun and exciting exploration.
Is it possible to change?
It most definitely is. From my own experience, and those I work with, I know you can move from a complex relationship with food to one that is loving, nurturing and nourishing all at once.
Here are some journaling prompts to help you explore your relationship with food. This can only be done with absolute love and compassion. Be kind to yourself, this is simply a curiosity to look more deeply as to what might be going on.
- How would you describe your relationship with food (use factual and kind words, nothing harsh or judgemental here)?
- What were the messages you received about food when you were a child (e.g. you can’t leave the table until you clear your plate)? Has society played into your relationship with food (e.g. clean-eating, fat phobia, sugar is bad etc)
- What was your parents' relationship with food? How does this mirror your relationship with food?
- Do you go for sweet or savoury foods?
- If sweet, how can you explore being more loving to yourself? What ways can you show yourself love outside of food?
- If savoury, what could be trapped in your body? Do you use your voice to express yourself? How can you bring softness into your life (perhaps in the way you speak to yourself)?
- How could you nurture yourself more today (it can be something small)?
- What would a good relationship with food look like for you?
Nicola Duffell is am experienced BANT Registered Nutritionist, Maturation Coach, Executive & Organisational coach, Speaker and Writer. Nicky brings together nutrition expertise, functional medicine and powerful coaching techniques to support the whole you: Mind, Body and Soul.
Nicola qualified from The Institute for Optimum Nutrition in 2009 and is registered with The British Association for Nutrition and Lifestyle Medicine (BANT), and the Complementary & Natural Healthcare Council (CNHC). She is also a member of The Institute for Functional Medicine (IFM) and has a specialist interest in soul and grief work.