02/27/2014 04:17 pm ET Updated Apr 29, 2014

Eating Like You Mean It

By Emily K. Sandoz, Ph.D., co-author of Living with Your Body and Other Things You Hate

This morning I snuck downstairs and made French toast. My husband and the friends I'm vacationing with were still sleeping, so it was a quiet affair. I mixed and sliced and browned with the gentle rhythm that comes with doing something more times than you can count. And as I cooked, I noticed my gratitude for these humans who had gathered here in New Orleans simply to enjoy each other's company. I smiled, remembering the laughter we shared the evening before.

And as I watched each slice for that perfect combination of crispy outside and soft, rich inside, I realized something. In Louisiana, we know how to eat. We know how to cook, of course. But that's not quite what I mean. I mean that when we eat, we eat with intention.

For nearly a decade now, I've been working with folks who struggle with eating, and nearly every one of them, at some point in our work together, asks for a way to make eating not matter. They are stuck, watching themselves eat in ways that harm them, and see only one way out. "Just fuel," they say, "if it could just be a way to keep my body going..."

Here in Louisiana, food is way more than fuel to keep from keeling over. As in many cultures, preparing and eating food is part of every major event in our lives. We eat in joy and in mourning. We eat for luck, we eat for fortune, and when we're sick, we eat ourselves well. Here in the place I call home, we have whole festivals in celebration of food -- strawberries, cracklins, crawfish, sweet potatoes. We even describe the temperature in terms of food (the first cold front brings "gumbo weather"). Our relationships are built and maintained in the kitchen and around the table. Food is everywhere and part of everything. Well, everything that matters.

And so when folks I care about look into my eyes, desperate for some way to make food not matter, I share their anguish. Because not only do I have no idea how to do that, but because I realize that I wouldn't do it if I could. I find myself wondering what the cost would be. What it would be like to peel crawfish with or serve French toast to someone for whom food didn't matter? What it would be like to share an intimate dinner with someone who was just "fueling up"?

I sit with them in that hurt, and in that moment, it is apparent to me that the struggle with eating does not come because eating means too much. We get stuck in that struggle because over time, eating doesn't mean enough. Maybe it starts standing in for comfort or love. Maybe, for some of us, it brings the control we don't feel in our lives. Maybe the way we eat starts standing in for who we are -- if we eat exactly right, we can finally be good enough. Eating isn't eating anymore, it's a struggle to find comfort, or love, or control or ourselves. And one day, when that struggle has taken over more of our lives than we're willing to sacrifice, we suddenly realize that we'll never eat our way free. "Just fuel," we say, "if eating could just be a way to keep my body going..."

I have to admit to my clients that I can't help them eat with less meaning, but I would be willing, and honored, really, to help them learn to eat with more meaning.

We start, not with eating itself, but with life. We sit and wonder -- what is this struggle with eating doing for you? Are there other areas in your life that you'd want to live with more control, with more security, with more confidence, with more love? And what is this struggle with eating costing you? Where would you be spending your time and energy if it wasn't on your eating?

And as we begin to get a sense of some intention for our work together, we create opportunities to learn to experience eating again. We make room for the tastes and smells and textures that are lost in the struggle to return. And with them, the sense of what meaning eating could have for you.

What if you could eat in a way that served who you want to be in your life? What if your eating could really matter for your relationships, your growth, or self-care? What would it look like for you to eat like you mean it?

The first of my friends stumbled groggily into the kitchen just as I was sprinkling sugar over the last piece of French toast. "It smells so good in here," she smiled and whispered. Soon the kitchen was full, the coffee was brewing, and the laughter started again. "This weekend," I told my friends visiting my lovely home, "we eat like we mean it."

Emily K. Sandoz, PhD, is assistant professor of psychology at University of Louisiana at Lafayette, LA. She is a therapist who specializes in treating clients using acceptance and commitment therapy. She is the co-author of Living with Your Body and Other Things You Hate, Acceptance and Commitment Therapy for Eating Disorders, and The Mindfulness and Acceptance Workbook for Bulimia.