Talking about weight, diet, and image is part of our culture and society, one that, unfortunately, can lead to a potentially toxic relationship with food.
Ah, toxic relationships.
Chances are you either know someone or have had a few toxic relationships yourself. Or maybe you suspect you could be in one right now. One relationship that many people struggle with is a toxic relationship with food, and it is easy to see why this happens. Everybody has to eat to survive. Most people, predominantly women, discuss food, weight, and body image at multiple points in any given conversation.
So, what makes a relationship with food toxic?
Have you ever wondered if how you think, view and discuss food affects how much and what you eat?
4 SIGNS YOU MAY BE IN A TOXIC RELATIONSHIP WITH FOOD
When we are young, it’s understandable that we would blame ourselves for the traumatic events around us. Self-blame is a way to make sense of things that, quite frankly, are not for us to explain or figure out.
You may be thinking; of course, you will blame yourself when you emotionally eat or feel out of control with your eating habits – you can’t blame the slice of pizza.
But we blame the food, and by condemning it, we give it incredible power (or “say”) in our ability to cope with stress and trauma.
“But I wouldn’t turn to it if the food weren’t so delicious or comforting. I’m hardly going to cram entire stems of broccoli florets into my mouth when I feel bad!”
Well, you might if you found broccoli comforting. Not the food being too delicious or comforting causes you to eat it when upset. Shutting off the discomfort or coping with a stressful situation is necessary.
The food isn’t going to fix anything, but if you continuously turn to food in times of distress, it sure might seem like you depend on it to do something it’s unequipped to do.
Listen, there are way worse things, in my opinion, that a person can do when they are stressed or upset than eat something. However, when eating something leads to eating something else and then another thing and turns into a manic cycle of feeling powerless and shameful while hitting up multiple drive-thrus, your relationship with food is toxic.
LACK OF AUTONOMY
Autonomy is a basic human need. We need independence to feel that we can make the best choices for ourselves and our lives based on what we need without the influence or approval of others.
“I can’t eat that because I’m on a low-carb diet.”
“I can’t have dairy because I’m paleo.”
If Sally, from accounting, lost 15 pounds and cured her irregular period by cutting sugar out of her diet, that means it is a suitable choice for Sally, but that doesn’t mean that you should try an elimination diet yourself. If you choose not to eat carbs, that’s fine. If you decide not to eat dairy, excellent, but the thing is, you can have carbs, dairy and sugar — unless you have an allergy or medical condition that prohibits you from consuming them safely.
Pursuing dietary “lifestyles” that restrict you or limit you because you believe that it will “fix your body” to eat a certain way or that you have to abstain from entire food groups to “eat right” could have a toxic relationship with food.
A judgment is an opinion. We live in a judgmental world. People judge a book by its cover all of the time. Is it right? No. Nine out of ten times, the judgments we make are based on a very skewed and limited amount of information and are inconclusive at best.
We don’t reserve judgments for other people – we also judge things. Food is always under scrutiny. Some foods are bad. Some foods are good. Some foods are even labelled “super.” The bottom line is they. Are. All. Just. Food.
True, some foods are more nutritionally dense than others, but to believe that one food is terrible and another is good is an arbitrary judgment that creates dysfunctional relationships with how we eat. There are many reasons we consciously and subconsciously choose the foods we eat when we decide to eat them and how we judge food has a significant impact on those choices.
Having a healthy and objective attitude towards food is #goals for your relationship with food.
If the prospect of being around food or in an environment you can’t “control” causes you distress, you’re not alone. Counting celery sticks and not participating in events because you can’t be around the temptation of food is something many people do every damn day.
So many people spend their days feeling wrong about the foods they choose to eat or not eat. What happens to our thoughts and feelings after eating can show our actual relationship with food and our bodies.
“I’m a failure because I ate a cheeseburger” is a sentiment most people will think – if not say – to themselves when they decide to eat a particular food item.
Bad feelings such as guilt, shame or anger after eating specific foods or quantities of food could mean that you have a toxic relationship with food.
How do I manage my toxic relationship with food when I have to eat to survive?
Well, the first thing to establish is that it is not the food causing the toxic relationship; it is the associations and attitudes you have created surrounding eating as behaviour and the stigma you have assigned to particular foods. Let me add any shame attached to a specific food could have been designated by a parent, a friend, or just from society in general and is not necessarily an original association created by you.
The four signs you may have a toxic relationship with food; blaming, lack of autonomy, judgment, and bad feelings – come from how you have been conditioned to view food; as a coping mechanism.
Let me be clear: I believe there are far worse things a person can do than eat a cupcake when they are sad, angry or stressed. In those cases, it is usually only in small quantities and when the individual has an established healthy attitude towards food.
However, eating as a coping mechanism – or as a response to an emotional trigger – leads the behaviour to have negative associations, which over time can become harmful not only concerning physical health but mental health as well.
When food becomes an automated self-care method, a mechanism to soothe stressors or trauma or is used as a reward system is when toxic emotional associations with food and how we eat start.
It is important to know that you are not alone.
Many people I have worked with over the years, both as a personal trainer and nutritional therapist, have communicated the same frustration when it comes to food and stress; they feel as though they have no control over their lives and the food is a way to distract themselves from the moment.
Some clients express feeling as though they had an ‘out of body’ experience where they feel in the moment that they are no longer in the driver’s seat of their life.
Other clients say that they know what they are doing is “wrong”, but they feel like crap, so what’s the point in doing anything positive – it’s not like it matters at the moment.
Regardless of a client’s specific account of their experience, the message is the same: they are using the food to escape discomfort.
As a result of this association, the foods they consume while feeling upset, angry or out of control are branded as ‘bad’ or ‘evil’ and exist as a response to an emotional or an environmental trigger. At that moment, they need to pull the ‘escape hatch’ on reality and escape, even if it is just until they reach the bottom of the chip packet.
Nobody deserves to be in discomfort or to experience crippling stress. Every person deserves the opportunity to heal from trauma, and that is why recognising not only how we react to stressful situations but whether or not the way we cope with these situations is healthy and not causing secondary physical or mental health issues.
People feel much more comfortable discussing their struggles and breaking through the stigma and shame that emotional eating and toxic relationships with food give you the tools to successfully manage stressors, anxiety, and emotions in a healthy and healing way.