Healing a toxic relationship with food

JanineBlog posts

In the run up to Christmas, we were bombarded with the message that eating till we burst is an indulgence we deserve.

A couple of days into January, and the message changes dramatically. The party is over and it’s purge time.

How do we find the balance in a society that constantly gives us such mixed messages about what food should mean to us?

We are taught from a young age that we sit on one end of an emotional seesaw with food. It’s both something we deserve, and something we are not worthy of.

Cadbury’s built its ad campaign for Flake on a love story between a woman and her chocolate bar. Wasn’t there a cascading waterfall in one ad? Romantic.

The brains behind the marketing world know where and how to hit to provoke an emotional response to get us to put our hand in our pocket.

They’ve done their homework, and have learnt that many of us, especially women, have a complex and oftentimes troubled relationship with food, and this they can work with.

Our relationship with the contents of our fridge can be a daily battle in our heads.

Some of us will seek comfort, happiness or even avoidance in food. If we are struggling with a life event or difficult feelings, food can be the only therapy and friend we think we need.

That quick food high can be addictive, something to distract us and shield us from the bigger and scarier issues in life.

The scale of this can vary massively, from rewarding ourselves with a takeaway after a stressful day, to regular bingeing having a real impact on our health.

The message is the same in any case. Food is a reward, a forbidden fruit, a band aid that covers the wound but cuts off the blood supply.

For others, our relationship with food can be something to control, from cutting back to obsessively counting calories. Control over how much we’re eating, or not eating, lets us hold the reins tightly on something tangible when it feels like everything else around us is spiralling.

So where do we start to rebuild our unbalanced and at times toxic relationship with food?

From a therapeutic point of view, how we interact with food is somewhat about our relationship with control.

When each of us were infants, we were fed. This meant that someone else controlled what and how we ate. This measure of control remains with us throughout our lives and our relationship with food.  

For example, if you grew up in a household where food waste was intolerable, then it is likely that this will still resonate within later life.

In order to assess what parts of our relationship with food work well for us and what parts might need some further examination, we need to take stock and look at how we process food from a psychological perspective.  

First of all, what is food to me?  How often do I think about my next meal? What constitutes a ‘treat’? How do I feel, physically and emotionally, after consuming?  All of these are basic questions that give us valuable information about our relationship with food.

However, the bigger question, once these are dealt with, is this: what feelings trigger a hunger response in me.

Early psychotherapist Sigmund Freud will tell us that food is that it is related to the oral phase of development.  This means that we learn, as babies and infants that our needs being met involves us being fed.

Likewise, conversely, elements of control over how and when we are fed as babies leave us with an internalised understanding of oral consumption equating to feelings of satisfaction or frustration.  

Therefore, if we have, for example, a very deep rooted understanding of love and caring being wrapped up in a hot dinner that someone else makes for us, then we can see this behaviour manifest in ourselves perhaps as parents or partners or within those solitary moments when we need to self soothe in the most basic manner.

Even more deeply within this issue is the kind of food that we use to soothe ourselves, when the ravages of insecurity or fear come calling.  

Interestingly, for most people, their relationship with food, at this level, is still within the range of healthy.  We live in a world where our relationship with food is under constant exploitation.

Low calorie’, ‘artificial sugar’ or ‘fat free’ are all labels that are created to buy into the ideal that we ascribe to societally – that we can have a treat-filled and therefore emotionally satisfying and secure life, without dealing with the physical consequences of consuming unhealthy choices.

All parts of this are up for examination for each of us: why is this a treat? What makes this emotionally satisfying? What does this do to my sense of security within my own life? Why am I disconnecting from the physical consequences of unhealthy choices?

There is an even darker side to our ongoing relationship with food, in that when anxiety manifests, we are given societal tools to use food as a means to control something, thereby externalising the feelings of chaos that we feel emotionally.

If our relationship, career, family or any other part of our life is causing us stress, it is socially acceptable to diet, deny ourselves food or use our bodies as a tool to alleviate the emotional discomfort by causing ourselves physical discomfort.  

By denying our bodies something, we are our own judge and jury. Feelings of worthiness dissipate in the face of exercises in denial and hardship. Controlling our bodies and what we consume is satisfying when everything external feels chaotic and uncontrollable.

However, this path is a slippery slope towards an eating disorder and when we are more controlled by our relationship with food than we are in control of it, stress and anxiety become the space from which we make all our daily decisions.

All this said, even a very controlling behaviour within our relationship with food can be a healthy coping mechanism, as long as it is done mindfully.

When we act with awareness, having spent time examining the ‘why’ of why we do what we do, we can make choices that factor our emotional wellbeing into our relationship with food.  

We can eat something that we love, knowing that we are doing so in order to feel better. We can diet, knowing that this behaviour is allowing us to control something in a space where we are feeling out of control, and knowing how important this is to us.  

All of this is based on the presumption that we are aware of what we are doing and how it is impacting us.

Awareness allows us to understand ourselves and why we do what we do. Awareness could just be the difference between an acceptable means of control over our anxiety and having an eating disorder.

Written by MyMind psychotherapist Lorraine Hackett.