From the moment we arrive on the planet, all if not most of us enter into a relationship with food and nourishment.
From receiving nutrients from your mothers placenta, to then finding comfort from being breast or bottle fed as a newborn, we immediately learn that consuming nutrients - in whatever form that may be - is essential for our growth and survival - even if this at first only happens at a subconscious level.
Even at this subconscious level, we have entered into a life long relationship with food.
However, food not only serves to nourish us, but also to create bonds with who we eat with, significant memories, and the cultural rituals we use to create our sense of identity.
Whether that be eating a spaghetti Bolognese every Friday night with your family, ice cream along the beach, or popcorn with your friends when watching a film - food is associated with people, times and places.
As we go throughout life, food can also take on another meaning. It also serves as a way to identify how self-controlled of a person we are.
Unfortunately, this association between food and self is not always a positive one. Instead on being linked with positive memories or becoming part of our cultural sense of belonging, food can become a way of negatively self-judging and comparing ourselves with others.
Since much of western society views food as a gauge of how self-controlled a person is, e.g. how ‘healthy’ or unhealthy they eat and even how much they weigh, what we eat can be symbolic of trying to obtain (unrealistic) cultural expectations.
Take for example the act of eating a cake or biscuit. For one individual this might mean relating to that food as symbolic of sharing time with family and friends.
However, for another person it might symbolise deviating from a particular way of eating, such as a weight loss diet or a plan where all processed foods are to be strictly avoided.
Quite quickly, a food can become a source of pleasure as well as hate.
Simultaneously a person might sense the pleasant taste of sugar and fat, while also feeling a pang of guilt as the act of eating that cake conflicts with another goal - e.g. losing weight or eating ‘clean', whether the person physically needs to or not.
Similarly, eating foods that are not typically classified as ‘healthy’, may conflict with the expectation of avoiding foods that are viewed as nutrient deficient, toxic and indulgent.
These negative connotations we associate with food not only apply to that moment, but also the lasting feeling we have towards ourselves after eating it.
Instead of experiencing food as part of a balanced diet that allows us to connect to other people and create memories, the food becomes a symbol of what we haven’t got - i.e. the ideal diet, capacity for self-regulation, or reaching a ‘perfect’ weight.
Reflections about eating food may become tied up with negative thoughts about how we just aren’t good enough, and perhaps never will be.
However, while we might believe that this negative self-talk will lead to increased motivation to eat ‘better’, it can lead to the very opposite by making us feel incapable of having ‘control’ over what we eat. With this sense of being out of control, we can feel the urge to eat even more.
At the other end of the spectrum, it could also lead us to engage in disordered behaviour that involves going to any means to eliminate the effects of the food we have eaten - e.g. over-exercising, skipping meals, or being sick.
Of course these may seem like extreme examples, but they are unfortunately quite common in a society where our relationship with food is linked to self-comparison and judgement.
Our capacity to apply meaning to food can be harnessed in a negative way, as suggested in the above example.
However, it can also be utilised in a positive way.
When eating becomes a source of showing kindness to yourself, and as a way of acting in line with your values, this can bring a positive sense of wellbeing.
By viewing food as having greater meaning than its nutrients or value in terms of our health and weight, we can develop a positive relationship with it.
As one example, by developing lifestyle choices that allow you to consume foods that have no/little exploitation of animals involved, this can feel quite empowering, since it contributes to creating a better society to live in.
Similarly, even if a food/meal you eat is not specifically ‘healthy’ or ‘low’ in calories, seeing the food as an opportunity to create a new memory, break away from rigid rules, or appreciate someone’s time and effort to prepare that food can feel liberating and enjoyable.
If we alternatively continue to have a relationship with food where we beat ourselves up about what we have or have not eaten, this can turn into an abusive relationship.
We could ask ourselves, can self-compassion ever grow out of this type of relationship, even if we are just talking about food?
If the answer is no, what can we do about it? Should we just accept that food will always be associated with certain positive or negative connotations that involve judging ourselves by what and how much we eat?
Or, can we develop a way of thinking where food becomes an empowering tool to reconnect with ourselves, others and the world around us?
If we go for the last option, this would likely mean learning to eventually see food as being more than a means to reach a certain standard set by society.
You can also begin to become more critical of these standards. For example, questioning the idea that “I am a bad gluttonous person if i eat this type or amount of food”.
Similarly, we can begin questioning how eating a certain food means we are or not a worthy person who needs to be punished or driven to get rid of the effects of that food
These questions may not lead to any specific actions to stand up against them at first, but critical awareness is the first step.
If we can realise that, as human beings, we have more to define ourselves by in terms of what and how we eat, then we can come to develop a healthier relationship with food.
But what this ‘healthy’ relationship with food look like?
Over many years of learning to become more self-compassionate with what I eat, I feel that the following components are crucial in order to develop a healthy relationship with food:
- Not viewing food solely as a mixture of nutrients (e.g. fats, carbohydrates and protein) or calories
- Not relating to food in a way that symbolises your weight or self-worth
- Eating when and how much you like, while not feeling like you have to abide by certain rules or rituals
- Saying yes to opportunities to try different foods, and not fearing how you might feel about yourself after eating them
- Seeing food as part of your most important memories and relationships with others
- Appreciating the smell, sight, taste and touch of foods - being mindful when eating and not rushing to eat due to lack of time or not wanting to face any negative thoughts about yourself while eating.
- Engaging in positive talk to others about food - i.e. not referring to it as a way of moulding the body in a certain way or negatively judging others based on what and how they eat
- Acknowledging that food brings us all together, rather than using food to gauge how you compare with others
- Eating in a way that connects you to your deeper values of nourishing yourself (in mind and body), while c being compassionate to yourself and others.
By placing more emphasis on these values, we can come to view food as something we can enjoy in many forms and contexts without a need for control, self-punishment or judgement.
We can learn to feel free, and focus on other significant parts of our lives that contribute to our wellbeing and ability to thrive, flourish and reach our full potential
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