Ah, toxic relationships. Chances are you’ve had a few of those or maybe your suspect you might be in the grips of 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, particularly women discuss food and weight at multiple points in any given conversation. Talking about weight, diet and bodies is a part of our culture.
So, what makes a relationship with food toxic?
Have you ever wondered if the way you think, view and discuss food is affecting how much and what you eat?
Truthfully, many traits can help you determine if your relationship with food is toxic, but for this post, we will focus on four specific characteristics:
- Lack of autonomy
- Bad feelings
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 things that happen 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 are going to 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 do blame the food, and by blaming the food, we give it an incredible amount of power (or “say”) in our ability to cope with stress and trauma.
“But if the food weren’t so delicious or comforting, I wouldn’t turn to it. I mean, 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. It’s not the food being too delicious or comforting that causes you to eat it when you’re upset. It’s the need to shut off discomfort or to cope with a stressful situation. The food isn’t going to fix anything, but if continuously turn to food in times of distress it sure might seem like you depend on it to do something it isn’t equipped 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, then 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 you choose not to eat carbs, that’s fine. If you decide not to eat dairy, cool, 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. 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.
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,” you 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 food 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 that 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 when it comes to your relationship with food.
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. If the very prospect of being around food or being in an environment you can’t “control” causes you distress, you’re not alone. So many people spend their days feeling wrong about the foods they choose to eat or not eat. It is what happens to our thoughts and feelings after we eat that can show our actual relationship with food and our bodies.
“I’m a failure because I ate a cheeseburger,” this is a sentiment most people will think – if not say – to themselves when they decide to eat a particular food item.
Having 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.
So, 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 that is 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 – all 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 – is what 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, or 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 that 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 what they experience, the message is the same: they are using the food to escape a 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 are feeling much more comfortable these days discussing their struggles, and breaking through the stigma and shame that emotional eating and toxic relationships with food while giving you the tools to successfully manage stressors, anxiety, and emotions in a healthy and healing way.
I offer clients one-on-one coaching programs to work through rebuilding their relationships with food, stress and help them find their way to the healthiest lifestyle specific to their needs and struggles. Everybody is unique and has their history, and while signing up for my coaching emails and blog posts is a great start to rebuilding your confidence with food, some targeted work could help you better reach your goals.
If you are interested in working with me one-on-one, please email me at firstname.lastname@example.org and follow me on social media.