Research indicates over 50% of Americans—of all ages, genders, cultures, and socioeconomic brackets—struggle with disordered eating. Health coach Anna Matriotti considers this an epidemic: “There is so much anxiety in our culture around food. We live in an environment that’s really challenging.” As a result, we’ve become disconnected from our intuitive sense of what our bodies need and want.
Over 30 million Americans meet the criteria for clinically diagnosable eating disorders. But those who do not are still at psychological, physical, and emotional risk. It is common—and dangerous—to minimize the consequences of obsessive calorie counting, rigid or excessive exercise routines, anxieties about certain foods and eating, restriction, binging, purging, inflexibility around eating, and distorted body image—all of which constitute disordered eating.
While cultural pressures to achieve an ideal body are rampant, most people struggling with eating are not, at their core, driven by dissatisfaction with their appearance. Saturated with the stressors of modern life, we crave comfort and control. We seek resolution through food—the most primal source of comfort—and our bodies—the most accessible and consistent thing in our daily lives that we can attempt to control.
Unmet emotional needs and negative self-perceptions influence how people treat their bodies and interact with food—from restriction and over-exercising, to food rules and judgments, to binging and purging. But attempts to soothe inner pain by taking “control” of the body ultimately backfire, throwing lives into greater chaos. What percentage of your mental space is taken up thinking about, fearing, obsessing over, or calculating food? If this type of thinking takes up more space than you would like it to, consider trying the strategies described in this article and/or partnering with a wellness coach, dietitian, or therapist to free yourself from these draining thought patterns.
Understanding Your Dynamic Relationship with Food
Kim Wyman, R.D., a dietitian who specializes in eating disorders, believes that “how you feed yourself is a direct demonstration of what you feel about yourself.” When people use disordered behaviors, Wyman observes, the “relationship between self and care is distorted and mutates into a punitive dynamic.” The body becomes the target. Ramifications can be immediate or long-term, and include physical and mental depletion, emotional imbalance, interference in daily activities, financial losses, social disconnect, and interpersonal conflict. Over time, you lose your sense of self and your true values.
How can we begin to examine and change our relationship with ourselves, and thereby with our food?
It helps to appreciate that we are more than physical creatures; we are also spiritual and emotional beings. Wyman explains: “We all start out in an organic state of seeking pleasure, attachment, and love.” Over the course our lives, challenging experiences and traumas disconnect us from our original self. We often respond to these challenges by punishing, neglecting, and abandoning ourselves. To heal, we must revive our original self by appropriately meeting our needs. It can help to inquire, with gentle curiosity: “What would it look like if compassion, instead of criticism, fueled my food choices?”
Related: A Colorful Guide to Healthy Eating
Needs are often disparaged in our culture; being “needy” is considered a weakness. But as human beings, we have both physical and emotional needs. Flourishing depends upon embracing these needs. Wyman encourages people not to deny or even just tolerate needs, but to “take pleasure in your relationship to needs, develop intimacy, so that (meeting your needs) is an act of cherishing and loving self.”
Wyman defines emotional needs as “being seen, heard, witnessed, and acknowledged.” When these needs are not met appropriately, wounds develop. We then try to soothe these emotional wounds through actions taken out on our bodies: eating more when lonely, less when anxious, etc. In small degrees, these are natural and normal responses. But sometimes they go too far. And ultimately, emotional needs cannot be adequately met through physical need outlets. We simply must respond kindly to all needs as they arise. Mattrioti observes: “When we meet our needs with a loving and compassionate touch, our bodies will respond and feel cared for.”
Meeting our emotional and physical needs requires ongoing self-inquiry and a courageous commitment to change. It’s normal to resist change—particularly in food patterns. We may feel daunted, frustrated, scared, or ashamed. But to break a cycle of self-abusive behaviors and cultivate self-love, taking radically different actions than we have been taking is necessary. For example: prepare a nourishing meal for yourself with feelings of generosity and appreciation, instead of anxiety or judgment. It helps to start by acknowledging where we are and imagine where we’d like to go. To start, ask yourself, with gentle curiosity, “What is my current relationship with food? How would I like it to be?”
5 Ways to Foster a Harmonious Relationship with Food and Self
These five evidence-based approaches to cultivating well-being are drawn from traditional Western therapeutic models, groundbreaking integrative healing practices, and contemplative traditions.
The stories we tell ourselves, and thereby live in, either harm or support us. It’s important to become aware of the stories we’re telling about food, body, and self. If we find we are living a harmful or limiting story we want to revise, we can imagine what alternative storylines we’d prefer living. Once we acquire understanding and appreciation of our food stories—either independently, among peers, or with a professional guide—we can better tend to our bodies. But just how can we tune into our body, after it’s been muted for years?
Matthew Sanford, founder of Mind Body Solutions, considers disordered eating a “fundamental mind-body disconnection.” He believes healing cannot happen solely in the brain through cognitive-based treatments such as cognitive-behavioral therapy, dialectical-behavior therapy, and nutritional education, because these approaches operate “right in the web of the disorder.” Instead, he suggests changing the mind-body interaction: “How can the body become part of the solution?”
Sanford has successfully used body-based practices to treat women struggling with anorexia. He has learned: “You cannot just educate (people). You have to experientially show them.” He encourages starting with a gentle exploration of embodiment through yoga therapy.
Research indicates mindfulness practice significantly benefits mental and physical health. Pioneering mindfulness teacher Jon Kabat-Zinn defines mindfulness as “awareness that arises through paying attention, on purpose, in the present moment, non-judgmentally.”
When healing disordered eating, mindfulness is essential. Our physical body takes in life through the senses. When we cultivate attentive, nonjudgmental presence—instead of spinning in negative feelings and thoughts about the past or future—we can contact beauty surrounding us, and hold suffering with compassion.
To shift out of a stress-based relationship with food, try activating the senses through mindful eating practices. Tuning in to taste, sight, smell, touch, and breath brings us into a present moment relationship with food and body. In addition to mindful eating, Wyman believes that in cooking—a practice of self-love—“there’s activation of the self, and bliss and contentment in the moment. Take the time to make a meal!”
Related: A Meditation for Mindful Eating
Connection as a practice for healing our relationship with food takes two forms: connecting with self, and connecting with others.
To self-connect, Wyman advises, “befriend, witness, and acknowledge yourself.” Try articulating emotions and experiences in writing, either with a narrative coach or independently. Or foster friendliness with self through self-compassion meditation, which has been proven to improve physical, mental, and emotional well-being.
Next, break out of the secrecy in which disordered eating thrives. When we share our stories, we realize our interconnectedness. Seeing ourselves in each other’s stories, we realize we’re part of something larger. Consider calling a friend, or working with a professional guide like a wellness coach, recovery specialist, somatic practitioner, or a dietitian. Authentic, vulnerable, and nourishing relationships with people can replace depleting relationships with disordered behaviors.
Social experiences with food can also be healing. For those who experience food anxiety, breaking bread with others can “take the focus off the food by making it about relationships,” Mattrioti explains. Perhaps schedule monthly dinner parties with friends, or weekly family meals.
One of the primary ways humans connect with self, food, and others is through gratitude. Gratitude is acknowledging and expressing thanks for goodness. Research consistently affirms its correlation with positive emotions, physical and mental health, resilience, strong relationships, and overall happiness.
Gratitude can be offered before, during, and after a meal, aloud or silently. It can be offered to our body, the company we keep, the sensory delights of the food, and everything that contributed to the meal—the sun, plants, animals, farmers, transporters, and cooks.
The Journey Forward
We crave sweeping, seismic, and rapid change. But realistically, change happens by taking tiny steps over and over. Mattrioti reminds clients that the slow and imperfect nature of this process is “not a failure—it’s transformation, beauty, and goodness.” Mattrioti recommends: “Hold a lot of patience and space. This is not about achieving a goal perfectly. This is a journey.”
To minimize the bumps along the way, try reframing what’s possible, instead of only seeing all-or-nothing options. Consider creating small rituals that bring present-moment awareness into decision-making, perhaps by inquiring: “What’s happening inside of me, right now?”
Patience, practical action, persistence, and believing change is possible are key ingredients to a nourishing relationship with food and self. With realistic expectations and compassionate support, we can explore our current relationship with food, envision how we might prefer it to be, gradually implement the practices that lead to change, and experience peace and pleasure in all of our relationships.