I have a confession to make: Iâ€™ve struggled for years with my relationship with food.
Years ago, I was addicted to junk food, and it caused me to become overweight and feel bad about myself. To beat this addiction, I tried numerous diets, failing at them and developing a fear and also craving of food that I saw as unhealthy. Over the years, I developed food phobias, telling myself I couldnâ€™t eat Pop-Tarts and sugar cereals and other â€œbadâ€ foods. I loved French fries and pizza, but thought I shouldnâ€™t eat them.
This worked for me, because I started eating healthier and losing weight. But the food phobias didnâ€™t go away, and even to this day I sometimes struggle with them. I fear getting fat if I overeat the foods that tempt me.
These days, I am working on developing a healthier relationship with food. Itâ€™s a slow process, to be sure. But Iâ€™m learning.
I want to talk about some of the things Iâ€™ve learned, in hopes that it might help you on your journey. Some of you have always had a healthy relationship with food, but many others have issues like mine.
How We View Food
The first area is in how we look at food. Itâ€™s complicated, because we tend to see food in so many ways: itâ€™s pleasure, one of the great joys in life, a way to satisfy hunger but also cravings. Food gives us comfort, is used for stress relief and sadness relief and a way to unwind after a long tiring day. Food tempts us and causes long-term health problems when abused. Food is a way to socialize and show love. Or food is something to avoid.
But a healthy relationship with food means tossing all of this out. Start to see food as just a way to get nutrition and the energy you need to live a healthy life. Thatâ€™s all.
Thatâ€™s really what food is, but we endow it with all of these other properties and functions, when thatâ€™s really all in our minds. Itâ€™s how weâ€™ve learned to see food, but in the end, it doesnâ€™t have to be more than a way of nourishing ourselves. Not a way to get comfort, not a thing to avoid.
We should also start to see that food isnâ€™t good or bad. No food is forbidden. We donâ€™t have to split them into â€œhealthyâ€ foods or â€œunhealthyâ€ foods. In fact, all foods can be a part of a healthy lifestyle, but some should be done in moderation (the ones that donâ€™t provide a lot of nutrients for the energy they give us) and others like vegetables should be prioritized.
While you donâ€™t have to see food as a way to find pleasure, you can eat food and enjoy it. Thereâ€™s nothing wrong with enjoying a good dessert or delicious meal, but thatâ€™s not your main reason for eating. Itâ€™s a side benefit, and youâ€™re free to enjoy it.
Mindfulness & Hunger
Developing mindfulness around your eating, cravings, and fullness levels is one of the best ways to form a healthy relationship with food.
Mindfulness helps you to see when youâ€™re eating for hunger or for another reason. When youâ€™re about to eat some food, get into the habit of asking why you want to eat it. Are you actually physically hungry? If not, whatâ€™s your reason? It helps to keep a food journal â€” what you eat, when and what youâ€™re feeling at the time. This allows you to start to see the relationship between what youâ€™re eating and why.
Mindfulness allows you to eat while truly tasting the food, and noticing how full youâ€™re feeling. It allows you to stop when youâ€™re moderately full, before youâ€™re overfull.
You can become aware of your fullness levels before, during and after you eat. And in fact, you can also learn not to fear hunger. Yes, itâ€™s fine to eat when youâ€™re hungry, but itâ€™s not something you need to worry about too much. You can go an hour or two (or more) and be hungry, with no bad consequences. That doesnâ€™t mean you need to starve yourself either, but you can learn that hunger isnâ€™t anything to panic about.
Undoing Old Habits
A lot of developing a healthy relationship with food is undoing old habits that have formed over the years. Some habits you might want to work on changing:
- Find healthier ways to manage stress, rather than eating.
- Avoid trigger foods for awhile, keeping them out of your house, so you can avoid bingeing while youâ€™re working on mindfulness and a new view of food.
- Use socializing and your family as a way to eat healthier, rather than a way of overdoing it. Success rates of eating healthier are much higher when you are helping your friends and family eat healthier as well, not just doing it in isolation. The family is the main place where we develop our food habits, and itâ€™s an important way to change them as well.
- Donâ€™t eat to become skinny. Eat to be healthy.
- Learn that you can eat anything in moderation. Nothing needs to be avoided, just not overdone.
- Again, donâ€™t eat mindlessly. Develop mindfulness as you eat.
In the end, the Middle Path we discussed in the lesson on Food Aversions is the way to a good relationship: donâ€™t cling too tightly to cravings or aversions to foods, but rather be balanced in your heart towards everything.
Practice the equanimity meditation we discussed in the webinar, and see that you can hold everything on your plate, everything around you, with a loving gaze.
Develop a friendly attitude towards your cravings and aversions as they come up, smile at your guilt, urges, temptations, whatever arises. Smile too at the bumps in the road, and keep going even if you falter. Make friends with your feelings about your food and your body, facing these feelings instead of running from them.
This is a learning process, so what Iâ€™ve described in this article doesnâ€™t have to be achieved overnight. Continue to practice with these ideas, and youâ€™ll be able to make food choices without affliction, be balanced in your approach to nurturing yourself, and have joy as you make your way along the path.