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Creating a Sane Relationship With Food

A friend asked the other night “how do you know when you are restricting because you’re trying to maintain control over your appetite and food intake or because a food genuinely doesn’t work for your body?"

My answer was immediate because this is not a topic I am new to. I have spent years teasing out my motivations with food, binging and restricting. They say that your biggest struggle is often your greatest gift and as a result of my years of food & body struggle, I am now blessed to be helping other women caught in the same web of confusion and crazy around food & body.

My response to my friend was simple:: It’s about being in relationship with food & body, rather than controlling food & body. Control, one could argue, is still a form of relationship. It is a "power over" sort of dynamic. What I'm proposing is a "power with" dynamic. The former requires force of will, the latter, a dynamic of listening and exchange.

Any good relationship is based in feeling, reciprocity and respect. This has become my compass for any and all decisions around food and hopefully can become yours, too. Our feelings gets us closer to the heart of our motivations more than any thinking, analyzing or rote control. And as such, I pay attention to the relationship I have with my body as the sole indicator of what food I choose to put in it or not.

This can be a slippery slope because we have been hard wired in our culture to equate health with weight loss. So I can easily say “oh I am choosing what’s best for my body because this will keep me help me lose weight/keep me thin.” There can be health benefits to losing weight, but as we know, more than 80% of weight loss efforts fail inside of just two years. So when I work with clients, I coach them to focus on health, not weight loss, as their primary motivator and goal. One may follow the other, but even if it doesn't, you've still improved your life for the the better. When I am friends with my body, when I genuinely care for it and want to treat it kindly and compassionately, I make much different choices than when I am at odds with my body, judging it, hating it or trying to control it. No one, in any relationship, likes to be controlled. Especially your body.

To really consider why I am making the choices I am with food & body, I consider what’s fueling the choice. Is there a sense of pride or righteousness that I was able to stay away from THAT food? Or is there a sense of relief that I escaped that craving and as a result I feel good about myself for avoiding, restricting and withholding what I wanted?

If any of those things are at play, I know I am in a destructive pattern of restriction and control. Of trying to achieve a moral high ground and feeling good about myself through my food choices, rather than innate sense of feeling good because I'm caring for myself well. Of pretending I'm choosing health when really I’m trying to maintain thin. It is a place based in fear and reaction rather than a loving and inclusive choice, because caring for oneself rarely includes control, judgment and following rigid rules.

On the flip side, there are those of us who just don’t do well with certain foods, foods that genuinely don’t feel good in our body. I have come to realize this is very true for me when it comes to many common culprits in the American diet, but I should be clear here that I didn’t know ANY of the foods that did or didn’t feel good in my body when I was in the throes of my crazy behavior with food.

I used food merely as a way to help cope with my life, my emotions and my daily experience. We all need coping mechanisms, but when we use food as the sole way to do that, we twist the role of food from one of basic pleasurable nourishment into a co-dependent, can’t live without you experience.

I turned to food when I was anxious about my next work meeting, when I was happy about how great that work meeting had just gone. I turned to food when I was longing for connection, love or sex. I turned to food when I felt shame about those desires. I turned to food when my head was spinning with insecurity and uncertainty if my co-workers liked me, if that guy from OKC was gonna ask me out or if I was afraid my boss wouldn’t give me the raise. Then days later, or even the next meal later, I would feel a lot of guilt and then restrict and control what I was eating in an attempt to make up for my out of control emotions and eating strategies. It was a crazy making roller coaster ride of good and bad, shame and control.

It's hard to sense what messages our body is actually sending when we're in the throes of a binge-restrict-diet cycle. So if you're there, give yourself some grace. Start to lean into eating regular, consistent meals. Every great thing begins with just one small step.

Here’s how to do this in your own life:

  1. Start Listening:: Begin to pay attention to how food physically makes you feel after you eat. Do you feel energized or lethargic, satisfied or craving more food? Do you feel bloated and heavy or fueled and well nourished? Approach this step with a sense of curiosity and think of it as research. It is NOT an opportunity for you to beat yourself up for the choices you’ve made. The information you gather from this research is information you can use in the future to make choices that serve you in feeling the way you want to feel. Remember, all good relationships come back to feeling good.

  2. Choose Pleasure:: Please note that pleasure is NOT the same as over-indulgence, binging or an unconscious free-for-all for whatever your impulse grabs at. Instead, find food that brings a sense of real satisfaction emotionally and physically. Food is a sensory experience and as such, you want your senses to be engaged and finding pleasure in the food you’re eating. Choosing pleasure breaks up dogmatic, rigid rules that so many of us use with food. It also breaks up the unconscious overeating we find ourselves using as a salve. When we stop and put our focus on enjoyment and pleasure of eating, rather than staying stuck in the rigid control patterns, we invite new energy and perspective into our food and body relationship. Relationships thrive on new energy, especially our body relationship. You'll begin to notice and feel things you previously hadn't.

  3. Forgive Yourself:: We’ve all done things that didn’t support us to have a positive, kind relationship to our bodies. The diet culture we live in actually encourages us to go against our natural rhythms. This doesn't make your body or soul happy in the long run, as you may well know. So offer your body an apology. Be kind to yourself here. This isn't another reason to institute new discipline and rigid eating and exercise plans. That would defeat the purpose of this step. It IS an opportunity to re-write your patterns and truly treat your body as friend. To apologize for the places you’ve tried to control it or have ignored it or tried to fit it into eating or behaving in a way that simply wasn’t natural to who you really are. I recommend writing this body apology down and then saying it out loud to yourself. No joke, this is powerful in its simplicity. Make it come from the heart.

We all want great relationships in our life. But the key to a great relationship is a lot of listening, care and compassion. Like any relationship, the relationship with food and body takes time and effort to get right. It means listening, caring and acting with kindness and compassion the way you would with any other friend in your life.

Want some guidance and expertise in helping you navigate your relationship to food and body? Schedule a 20 minute call with me here and let's see how I can help you find more sanity and peace with food.

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