Do you spend your days constantly worrying, thinking, planning and obsessing about food? No matter what you eat, you feel some form of guilt or shame about it? Have you tried and failed to make real changes over and over again, on different diets without success? Almost everyone has. This is because most people have been taught to look in the wrong place for a solution. It’s like the old story of the man who lost his keys in a dark alley and looks for them on the street under a bright streetlight.
“Why are you looking here for your keys if you lost them in the dark alley?”
“Because this is where the light is.”
Why changing diet is hard
We’ve all been taught to look at our food choices and at our motivation and desire to eat better, but we are rarely asked to consider where the desire and motivation comes from or what might be getting in our way of making different choices. We blame unhealthy eating on lack of motivation or “will power” and stay trapped in a guilt-shame cycle. But truth be told, you’re probably a pretty motivated person who does in fact do what needs to get done in many areas of your life – you got up and got dressed and went to work and did a number of other constructive things today, didn’t you? So why can’t you seem to apply this motivation and constructiveness to your relationship with food?
It’s likely because food is a profoundly unique aspect of our lives that we have a hard time understanding due to it’s deep, powerful and symbolic nature. We never just eat the food, we eat the meaning it carries with it. This is why we eat cake at birthday parties, eggs for breakfast but not dinner, and salad when we feel like eating “healthy”. We make these choices most often without even thinking about it because we’ve been taught to do this by the forces of culture acting on our individual relationship with food.
Every TV, magazine, internet, movie, cell phone, bus, and billboard ad, as well as articles from fitness, wellness, medical, fashion, beauty and health sources, have been telling us for years to “Eat this and NOT that.” Donuts are “bad,” broccoli is “good,” chocolate is bad – no wait, it’s good – no wait, it’s bad again. These broader cultural messages are then laid over your personal food story; your family background, culture, ethnicity, where you grew up, how many siblings you have, what your socioeconomic status was, your parents’ food preferences, and the era in which you grew up all working in concert to create the day to day relationship you have with food.
This is your “food story.” What foods you feel are allowed or forbidden, what you deserve and why, foods that reward you, foods that feel like punishment, etc. – all these internal rules and regulations play out every minute in the background, steering your thoughts, feelings and actions towards what you eat. No matter how hard you try to make different choices, if you’re not aware of your food story, you can’t make real changes because these choices won’t be in alignment with your story. Since your food story is a fundamental reflection of who you are, if you understand, appreciate and work towards altering the story, your choices and relationship to food will automatically change. Trying to impose will power over your food story without understanding it first is an exercise in frustration and futility. But how can you understand your food story?
5 steps to better understand your food story
- Mindful eating: at your next meal, take three slow breaths before you eat, three breaths in the middle of your meal, and three breaths at the end when you’re finished eating. Notice the clamoring of thoughts, emotions, memories and/or sensations that arise as you put the food in your mouth. Most of us eat so quickly or in such a distracting setting that we’re able to ignore all these “voices” and sensations. To eat mindfully (to tune into your body and mind while consuming food) is the first step to hearing what your food story is trying to tell you.
- Just ponder, without judgement, what the voices are saying: this is a powerful and, often, an emotional experience. These inner desires, voices, needs, fears and wants might be things you’ve not listened to for a long time and they may initially not seem to have anything to do with food. You may suddenly hear your mother’s scolding voice, remember a birthday party from when you were a kid, or experience anger or sadness “out of the blue”. The key is to just let these sensations be what they are. After all, they are a part of you and they want to be expressed. They are not good or bad, they are just part of your truth. While doing this, don’t forget to keep breathing.
- Jot down some of the thoughts, feelings and sensations you are experiencing: this doesn’t have to be a big deal – just a quick recording of what’s going on internally so you don’t forget what came up for you.
- Accept that this is how you feel and that this is the story you have about food: this step can be the hardest but is critical. Accepting means there are no “ifs”, “ands” or “buts”. Your story is what it is. Here is where most people run into difficulty. Why would you want to accept that you feel sad and anxious when you do a mindful eating exercise about ice cream, for example? It’s important to understand that accepting doesn’t mean giving up, it means giving in – giving in to the resistance of who you are so you can move past it. Most of us can’t understand that accepting what is doesn’t mean that we can’t also strive for something more or better.
- Making authentically different choices about your eating: Once you have come to a place of acceptance about the thoughts, emotions, memories, etc. that accompanied your mindful eating experience, you will be on the road to making authentically different choices about your eating and the way you feel about food. I always remind my clients, “It’s not what you eat – it’s how and why you eat that’s important”. In other words, your thoughts and emotions about what you are eating are far more important than the actual food you’re putting in your body. I think you’ll find that feeding what the inner you desires is more valuable than worrying about what you feed the outer you.
With practice and support, you can make real, deep, permanent changes to both your food story and what you eat every day. It often feels strange to let go of worrying about what you eat for a while – it goes against everything your parents taught you (and the media constantly reinforces) about “good” and “bad” foods, but I think you’ll find that the freedom gained from a better understanding and appreciation of your food story will be an empowering experience. I wish you the best of health.
Ian Rubin, MA, is the creator of Food Story Coaching TM and shares his work from Wholeself Wellness, his studio in Portland (Oregon). His primary goal is to help his clients ”eat happy” and live the life they’ve always wanted. You can contact Ian at firstname.lastname@example.org.