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Understanding Your Eating Habits for a Healthy Relationship with Food

By Jennifer Barzey, LCSW

Was one of your goals for 2024 related to exercise or weight loss? In the therapy room, I frequently notice an increase in body image concerns during January and February so this seems important to address. 

Studies indicate fitness and dieting compromise over 75% of resolutions made. However, the same studies find that a majority of resolutions only last an average of 3 months. This can lead to feelings of inadequacy and failure which are detrimental to overall health. I do not believe that unsuccessful resolutions are due to a lack of motivation. People want to change and heal. It seems more likely that the problem lies in setting goals without fully understanding the issue they are trying to address. And when it comes to something like food and body image, there is much more to consider than just dropping numbers on the scale. 

Despite having studied nutrition and developed an understanding of the impact that food can have on our physical and mental health, I still love chocolate. After a stressful experience or difficult day, I can find myself more enticed by chips or sweets. There are many reasons for this. I grew up associating food with both a way to feel better when sad and a way to celebrate when happy. Although not consciously aware of it, eating became intricately connected to my emotional state. I also used eating and restricting in an attempt to be in control when feeling overwhelmed and powerless by situations around me. When I didn’t yet have the skills needed to cope with my feelings, food was there.

Our relationship with food can be quite complicated. I think it’s safe to say that most of us eat for many reasons other than nutrition. Some people eat in an attempt to experience a sense of comfort and nurture or to suppress emotions like sadness and anger. Others may eat to manage the discomfort of boredom or loneliness. There are many reasons. When it becomes a problem is when eating (or restricting) becomes the primary way we cope. In Eating in the Light of the Moon, Anita Johnson, PHD, writes that we get into trouble when we begin to interpret all hunger as a hunger for food.

Letting go of an unhealthy relationship is not easy and an unhealthy relationship with food is no exception. Unlike alcohol or cigarettes, we cannot go “cold turkey” or completely abstain from food. Instead we must redefine the relationship. In this way, moving towards health involves understanding what the real hunger is that you are trying to feed. Only then can you nourish yourself with what is truly needed and feel satisfied. Only then can your body become a place to inhabit and enjoy rather than something to endure or escape. 

As we enter the new year, the stores are stocked with various supplements and advertisements for weight loss programs abound. It is easy to get pulled into diet culture and societal pressures of how we should look. But perhaps a better place to start is by asking “what is my relationship with food and what am I truly hungry for?”

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