We expect a lot from food. We want it to help us lose weight, lower cholesterol and live longer. We want it to make us lean, sexy and strong. We want it to taste really good. And on top of all that, we want food to make us feel good, to comfort us when we're sad, soothe us when we're anxious, indulge us when we're deprived and make us happy when we're not.
Of course, food isn't supposed to do all that; at its most basic level, it's fuel. That's how animals use it: They eat for sustenance, to keep their hearts beating, their lungs breathing and their limbs moving. But we humans have egos and emotions around eating, and we have stories about food that lend a more complex meaning to the simple act of sustenance.
Changing your relationship with food can be a tricky task; our perceptions of what food is, does and means are formed at a very early age. If you grew up as a member of the clean plate club, or with parents who rewarded you with treats, scolded you for eating certain foods or closely monitored your weight, your current relationship with food can't help but be skewed. Some of the more common pitfalls:
Eating to cope. When we use food to soothe our loneliness, provide comfort, relieve stress or meet any need other than physical hunger, we're eating to cope. We're using food as a distraction to carry us out of troubling or painful emotions. It's common, but it doesn't work; in one 2008 study, participants who ate in response to their emotions were 13 times more likely to be overweight than those who reported the least emotional eating.
The first step in halting coping eating is to pay attention to what's really going on when you have the urge to munch. Every time you head to the kitchen when you're worried, angry or stressed, stop. Take a moment, and use that gotta-eat-now impulse as an opportunity to connect to yourself and respond appropriate to your emotional needs. Ask yourself, "Am I really hungry for food?" Maybe you need to feed a different kind of hunger -- for comfort, relaxation or relief from anxiety.
Using food as a reward. If your parents rewarded you with food for good behavior, it's likely you'll do the same as a grown-up. But using food as a reward is a confusing message for the brain and body: If cheesecake is off-limits, why does accomplishing a certain task remove it from the list of forbidden foods? What have you done that's created a situation where you can now eat cheesecake? And why do you have to "earn" it in the first place?
It also depends on what rewarding yourself with food looks like. There's a big difference between getting dressed up and taking yourself out to dinner as a celebration of your success and buying a frozen cheesecake and eating the whole thing alone in front of the TV. Find other ways to reward yourself. Book a massage, have dinner with a beloved friend, go to an afternoon matinee, sleep an hour longer, take a day off. All of these offer the kind of reward that includes down time, stress relief and non-food indulgence.
Chronic dieting. Characterized by calorie counting, rigid rules around food intake and obsessive attention to portion size, chronic dieting takes you out of the physical experience of hunger and into the mind. If you're on a diet, when you've reached a certain number of calories or specific amount of food, you stop eating -- even if you're still hungry. (The reverse is also true: If you're eating according to calories, not hunger, you may think "Oh, good, I've only had 800 calories today, so I can splurge on a milkshake" -- even if you're not hungry.)
Inherent in the act of dieting is the idea that we're "good" or "bad" depending on what we eat. That sets up an adversarial relationship with food and heaps unnecessary and inappropriate judgement on ourselves. You are not a "good" or "bad" person because you had the extra-large French fries; you are "good" or "bad" based on how honest and kind you are, how much love you spread in the world.
Mindless or binge eating. Munching lunch in the car, eating at the computer or in front of the television, standing in front of the refrigerator and nibbling out of containers. All of these are forms of mindless eating. Binge eating is a more extreme form, with a few notable differences: Binge eating almost always has a frenetic quality to it, and it almost always involves "forbidden" foods. No one binges on kale salads or steamed fish.
The first way to approach binge eating is to be present with your food. Every time you eat, put the food on a plate, put the plate on a table, and sit down -- even if it's a spoonful of ice cream or "just a bite" of last night's leftover. Drawing attention to the act of eating makes it register in the brain and body in a way that it doesn't when you're eating mindlessly.
According to most studies, the bottom line for improving your relationship with food -- no matter what the pattern -- is to eat when you're hungry, stop when you're no longer hungry, choose whole foods rather than processed foods and allow yourself "forbidden foods" so you don't end up feeling deprived. Most important, develop a healthy relationship with your body. Take the act of eating out of the mind and back to the belly, and trust the wisdom of your body to know when, what and how much to eat.
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