How I Healed My Relationship with Food: And You Can Too
Here’s a fun fact: I’ve spent the majority of my life hating food. Hating that it even had to be a part of my life. I was fat growing up. I was the fat kid. Not the morbidly obsess kid, but the kid who was just fat enough to stick out from everyone else. Worse, I knew I was fat. I remember being 4 or 5 years old and not wanting to go back to ballet class because I felt bigger than the other girls in a leotard. What started as small observations, eventually led to a large part of my life being centered around wanting to be thin.
Having a positive relationship with food was something that was never modeled for me growing up and something that I didn’t even know was in the realm of possibilities. It wasn’t until I started to learn about how food could nourish my body, heal my body and make me feel good that I began to realize that my desire to breakup with food was just a misguided misunderstanding. Here’s my story.
My negative relationship and misunderstanding of food started pretty young and it lasted for decades. I grew up in the 80’s/90’s when low fat was the craze, sugar was no big deal and if you didn’t want the calories from sugar, there were tons of sugar free (fake sugar) alternatives. Organic wasn’t a word I knew and the more processed the food, the better. Fast food was a regular in our household; as were ring dings, Cheetos, and all the sugary cereal you could dream of. My brother and I would always tease each other that we were fat. My father would constantly complain about a 5lb weight fluctuation and my mother was a yoyo dieter. To really top it off, my best friend was one of those girls who could eat anything and stay amazingly thin. I had no role models when it came to understanding food.
I knew I wanted to lose weight, but had no idea how to do it. I remember being in Middle School and skipping breakfast. Then packing a fat free strawberry yogurt and raw baby carrots for my lunch and that's it. I’ve dabbled in every eating disorder, tried every diet, diet pills and laxatives. I tried anorexia, but swiftly failed. Not eating wasn’t for me. So I tried eating and throwing up and failed at that too. Not only was I fat, I was a failure at being thin. Throughout Middle School and High School I spiraled. Trying everything you could imagine. I jumped on the ephedrine bandwagon with open arms. At first it seemed like a miracle, a pill that made me not hungry! In the end, though, I would just end up hungrier when the effect wore off.
Somehow by my early 20’s, all my dieting and dabbling came together and I achieved the pinnacle of success - I was thin. I wasn’t just thin, I was super model sized, ungodly thin. My pelvic bone jutted out, my collar bone was ever present and my ribs showed through. A size 0 was loose on me. I ate 3 meals/day, though, and I wasn’t 80lbs like the pictures of true anorexic girls you see. I was fine. I didn’t have an eating disorder, I told myself. I thought, If you couldn’t label it, nothing was wrong. I was just like every other woman in their 20’s dieting and exercising.
My body was crippling inside though. My anxiety and fear around food was on high alert. I couldn’t sleep. I had no energy and I got sick a lot. I was always fearful of gaining back the weight. The way I lost weight wasn’t easy and wasn’t natural so I didn’t trust I could do it again. I equated exercising to allowing myself to eat certain foods. Food was a reward. All I could think about during the day was what I was going to eat next and how many calories I would allow myself to have. Going out to eat, which I used to love, gave me anxiety. Was the restaurant using a lot of oil in their foods? Could I get the dressing on the side? How could I avoid all the things I thought would make me fat. I was 21. I was young, thin and beautiful. My body, though, was in a constant state of fight or flight over food.
I went through a lot of highs and lows with food over my 20’s. I felt like I had finally gotten the formula down right to where I didn’t have to worry at all, but really all I was doing was replacing my control of food with control of exercising so that I could eat more food without worrying. I still didn’t have a good relationship with food and honestly, I wasn’t even striving for one. It wasn’t something that I ever saw as possible. Then I started acupuncture school. I started to learn more about how food affects our bodies and can keep it in balance, or throw it out of whack. I started to learn that the way my body was reacting to the erratic dieting, was actually trying to tell me something bigger. So I continued to learn more. I’ve always had an interest in food, just in the past, my interest had been skewed incorrectly. In the past I was interested in nutrition because I wanted to know how I could control and manipulate food to help me get to my smallest weight. Now my interest in food turned from fearing it, to embracing it.
Here’s the thing - The world is saturated with fad diets and some even tote themselves as being a healthy way of life. I’ve tried those too. While some diets may be on the “healthier side,” like paleo, they all have one thing in common. Diets focus on restriction and control. Nobody wants to live their life surrounded by absurd restrictions and grasping for control. Today I can happily tell you that I’ve overcome my life of dieting. I still maintain a healthy weight without counting calories, protein, fat or carbs; or restricting what foods I can eat. You can too. It’s not easy and it takes time, but it is possible. Start by following these 5 steps to change your relationship with food:
1. STOP, LOOK & LISTEN
Stop. Really look at yourself. The first step to any recovery is realizing you have a problem. Even if it’s not all life consuming, but just something in your life you feel uncomfortable with; or makes you unhappy, stressed or anxious. Realize there is a part of your relationship towards food that you want to change. Listen to what your body is telling you. Ask yourself, how do you feel in your body now? How do you want to feel in your body?
2. FIND YOUR WHY
Understand why you want to make a change. For me, when I truly reached my pivotal point was when I wanted to get pregnant. I wanted to be thin, but more than that I wanted to have a child. For you it could be the same, or it could be that you don’t want to get sick 10x/year. Or that you want energy to do all the things you want to do. It can be as simple as you want your freedom back. Whatever it is that is driving you to read this article and make a change. Write it down and keep it with you.
3. START FROM SCRATCH
Literally forget everything you’ve ever thought you knew about food because it’s probably all bullshit. You can eat carbs and lose weight/maintain a healthy weight. There is no protein number you need to hit everyday. Not eating breakfast will not help you lose weight. Being in a ketogenic state will make you lose your mind and compromise your health. Fat does not make you fat. Salt is not the enemy. I could go on, but you get the point. Replace everything you thought you knew about food with this one important piece of knowledge: Food that comes from the earth, ground or sea, is meant to nourish my body, mind and soul.
4. TAP INTO INTUITIVE EATING
I think humans are born knowing how to eat intuitively and then lose it along the way as we are introduced to packaged goods, chemicals that cloud our taste buds and start to associate feelings, memories and emotions with food. I see this in my children, 1.5 years old and 4 years old. They only eat until they’re full. They will leave 1 bite of food on their plate because if they’re done eating, they’re done. They don’t think they need to clear their plate, or eat something just because it’s there. I also see my 4 year old who has a strong love for food, but has started to associate food with emotions. If he’s tired, sad, or cranky he’ll ask me for a “special treat.” Part of this is because when you’re tired, your body craves food for energy. Part of it is comfort. Food is comforting and I’m not telling you that it shouldn’t be. A warm bowl of soup truly warms the soul.
When we start to cultivate a negative relationship with food it is because we have given up listening to our bodies. We’ve clouded our minds with a thousand things we are told about food, unclear of what is even correct and impose erroneous emotions on different foods. We also start to associate feelings and memories to food. What I’m asking you to do may seem foreign at first, but will soon become second nature. Tap into your body and how it feels. Start off when you first wake up in the morning. Then before you have breakfast, ask yourself, what would make me feel good? Think about how you're physically going to feel after you eat your meal. Let go of should/could/shame or food guilt. Let your body tell you what it needs. It’s OK if you mess up at first, it’s new to you. You may not even know how your body feels at first, but if you start to incorporate this practice you will quickly start to understand what foods make you feel good. What your body needs is always changing. One morning your body may want eggs and the next a blueberry muffin may hit the spot. That’s the great thing about intuitive eating, you don’t have to have rules, or remember anything.
To help support intuitive eating, I always recommend incorporating a mindfulness practice such as meditation, yoga, and/or journaling. These help you connect deeper to yourself and your being.
5. CULTIVATE AN APPRECIATION FOR FOOD
I love food. I truly do. I love white rice, I love charred broccoli and I love chocolate cake. I didn’t get here overnight though. I started by cultivating an appreciation of food and there’s a few ways you can do that:
Grow your own food. I live in a NYC apartment. I have a small plant section and a grow lamp. I grow small herbs. Whatever space is available to you, use it. Planting seeds, nourishing the soil and watching plants/food grow is just something special. It’s the circle of life in your backyard, or if you’re like me, your living room. As I’m writing and trying to find the words to why this helped me love food, I am wordless. It’s just a feeling I can’t explain. An unspoken understanding of the use of the earth and how the earth nourishes us. I don’t mean this to say we should only eat plants. If I had room for a chicken coup, I’d have my own chicken eggs.
Understanding how food affects the body from an Eastern/TCM (traditional Chinese medicine) point of voice drastically changed my relationship with food. In TCM, food isn’t good or bad. Food is meant to nourish and heal us. There is no counting, there is only understanding and implementing. There are some restrictions. The restrictions in Chinese medicine nutrition come from a place of healing an imbalance in your body for the time being, though, and usually will connect back to intuitive eating if you’re truly tuned in. If you’re interested in understanding more about how food can nourish and heal your body, Andrew Sterman has some wonderful classes and book resources. You can also reach out to me if you’re interested in 1:1 coaching.
Become a Home Cook! Cooking your own food makes it special. Yes, there were obstacles to overcome with cooking my own food while being a recovering calorie counter at first. I knew the exact number of calories in every food. It’s hard to forget that. It can be hard to add a stick of butter and think about the number of calories in it. I replaced my knowledge of numbers with a knowledge of nourishing my body, though. So I leaned into that. I learned to see that stick of butter as something that was nourishing my Yin (estrogen/female hormones) and not something that was going to make me get fat.
I overcame my fear of food, constant dieting and restriction about 6 years ago, but I still have times that I catch myself with negative thoughts creeping in. Just the other day I was eating a homemade brownie and caught myself thinking that I needed to workout that day because I was eating a brownie. I smiled and laughed at myself. I don’t need to earn my calories, that was the old me. Today I don’t focus on calories, a specific diet or take crazy supplements. Food quality is more important to me than quantity and the only thing I “restrict” are foods with chemicals that shouldn’t be allowed on the shelves. Healing a relationship with food, like healing any relationship in your life, takes time and patience. Be patient with yourself.
If this article resonates with you, please reach out with any questions, comments or feedback. You can email me at KatherineAnneWellness@gmail.com I’d love to hear from you and I’m hear for support if you need it.