Three Questions That Could Change Your Relationship With Food

anxiety with foodWhen my niece was a teenager, she asked a group of her friends to guess the number of calories in a serving of corn nuts she was eating. Because none of them had ever eaten corn nuts before, she posed the question as more of a random game of trivia than out of any concern about nutrition. One friend instantly blurted out “140.” Impressed, my niece said, “Wow. That’s exactly right. How’d you guess that?” “I didn’t guess it,” said her friend. “I knew.”

And so unfolded a story of how, at age 11, my niece’s friend had found a book belonging to her mom that listed the nutrition information of pretty much every food under the sun. Sneaking into her mother’s bedroom, the young girl all but memorized the book before starting a year-long obsession with counting every calorie she consumed.

Sadly, way too many of us can relate to this story in one way or another. Our relationship with food and eating starts to form very early in our lives. It’s impacted by the messaging we receive, be it through attitudes and comments directed at us or those our influential caretakers modeled and directed at themselves, e.g. a parent counting her every calorie, a sibling standing critically in front of the mirror, or a grandparent advising us not to get seconds while gesturing toward our midsection. Then, of course, there is the monumental amount of messaging we get from society, which includes a $192 billion diet industry that banks on us feeling bad about our weight and seeing food as alternately our best friend or our worst enemy.

Whatever our stories around food may be, most of us wish we had a better relationship with it. Many people already struggle with critical thoughts about their bodies. These thoughts can impact every aspect of how we eat and what we feel when we eat. Diets have been on the rise, with the latest CDC data showing that 17 percent of Americans were on one as of 2018. A 2021 report from the APA on “Stress in America” 2021 further showed that 61 percent of American adults said they’d experienced undesired weight changes since the start of the pandemic. With all of this in mind, now is the time to challenge any ruptures in our relationship to food. 

When it comes to changing how we feel about ourselves and think about the food we eat, asking ourselves these three questions can be a huge help.

1. What are the messages you got around food?

Our first experiences learning to feed and nourish ourselves have a strong impact throughout our lives. Unless we can recognize and differentiate from unhealthy attitudes we internalized around food, we’re likely to subconsciously continue a cycle of self-criticism, or even self-punishment. 

Taking time to reflect on what kinds of messages we received around food, eating, and our bodies can shine an incredible amount of light on the way we feed ourselves today. When we do this exercise, some of these messages may be obvious. Maybe we had relatives who consistently called us “fat” or put us on diets to lose weight. Other messages may have been more subtle. Maybe we noticed our mother seeming down after pinching her waistline in the mirror or our father falling into a pattern of extreme restricting that made him irritable. When we were distressed as a child, we may have been repeatedly handed a cookie in attempt to soothe us, inadvertently setting up a pattern of using treats to calm ourselves. Or we might have had a parent who modeled a relationship with food in which they indulged in binges when they themselves were in turmoil. Whether we knew it at the time or not, our ideas around food and eating were being formed in these encounters. 

Being curious about our own story as it relates to how we came to feed ourselves can be an ongoing, beneficial process. It can help us understand some of our habits as well as the current way we treat ourselves when it comes to food and eating.

2. What are your critical inner voices around food?

Its much more challenging for people to find their own natural rhythm and balance when food itself can stir up feelings of anxiety and guilt. Many people struggle with disordered thoughts and feelings around how we look and what we eat. One major element that’s fueling this anxiety and guilt (along with self-doubt and self-hatred) is our “critical inner voice.”

The critical inner voice is like a cruel coach inside our heads that reinforces and elaborates on destructive thoughts and attitudes we’ve internalized throughout our lives. This inner critic can get very focused on what we eat and how we nourish ourselves. “You can’t eat that. What’s wrong with you? You’re out of control. You’re so gross,” or, alternately, “you deserve a reward, it’s been a hard week,” or “you need to calm down, just have a treat.”

The tricky thing about this voice is that it doesn’t always make itself so obvious. It tries to disguise itself as our real point of view by continually building a case against us, berating us when we fail, but also luring us into actions that work against our goals. “One more glass of wine won’t hurt. You’ve had a hard day.” “Have another piece of cake. What difference does it make anyway?” The problem, of course, is that that same voice that seduces us is right there to beat us up the minute we take its advice. “See? You failed again. You’re going to look terrible now. You’re never going to change.”

One of the most powerful actions we can take to transform our relationship with food is to challenge our critical inner voice. This means identifying it every time it comes up and systemically refusing to accept it as our real point of view. Treating this inner critic as the enemy it is can help us interrupt the self-destructive cycles we get into in relation to how we feed ourselves, an act which should, at the very least, come from a place of kindness.

3. How would you treat a friend in this situation?

How do you feel when a friend berates themselves in front of you? Or goes on yet another painfully restrictive diet? How about when they feel guilty for enjoying a meal or having a treat? Our reactions may range from eye-rolling to genuine concern and protectiveness. And yet, we’re rarely inclined to extend this same compassion to ourselves.

We’re perfectly willing to put ourselves down and enforce all kinds of rules and regulations on our own bodies. We never think to challenge the mean ways we treat ourselves when it comes to food. In fact, very few of us regard feeding ourselves as a kind act at all. We’re unwilling to attune to our own needs or accept our natural hunger.

One simple way to start to challenge this is to ask ourselves, “how would I treat a friend in this same situation?” What would I say about them beating themselves up for gaining weight? Would I insult them for craving a certain food? Would I force them to eat everything in their fridge that they like in one night so they can starve themselves tomorrow? Would I tell them they’re only good if they restrict as much as possible? Would I make them feel guilty for being hungry? Or anxious about needing to meet a natural human need?

When we feel our anxiety arising around food, we can stop to take a pause and take a breath. We can think about the most nurturing and compassionate way to treat ourselves in that moment – a way that matches how we’d behave with a friend. That may mean eating something really nutritious that boosts our energy, or it may mean stopping to savor something delicious. Whatever the action may be, the intention matters. 

Being kind to ourselves redefines our relationship with food by breaking internalized, often harmful patterns that have been engrained in us. By understanding where these patterns come from, challenging the critical thoughts that drive them, and building new behaviors and attitudes around food, we can completely transform how we eat, and perhaps even more importantly, how we feel.

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About the Author

Lisa Firestone, Ph.D. Dr. Lisa Firestone is the Director of Research and Education at The Glendon Association. An accomplished and much requested lecturer, Dr. Firestone speaks at national and international conferences in the areas of couple relations, parenting, and suicide and violence prevention. Dr. Firestone has published numerous professional articles, and most recently was the co-author of Sex and Love in Intimate Relationships (APA Books, 2006), Conquer Your Critical Inner Voice (New Harbinger, 2002), Creating a Life of Meaning and Compassion: The Wisdom of Psychotherapy (APA Books, 2003) and The Self Under Siege (Routledge, 2012). Follow Dr. Firestone on Twitter or Google.

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One Comment

Donna

I like your idea that whatever action or reply we take that matches how we respond to a friend that , it is our intentions that matter. Thank you

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