What is a 'healthy' relationship with food?
I'm currently reading 'First Bite: how we learn to eat', a fascinating book by Bee Wilson that explores how our preferences, attitudes to, and relationships with food are formed and played out through our lives.
'If we are going to change our diets, we first have to relearn the art of eating, which is a question of psychology as much as nutrition. We have to find a way to want to eat what's good for us.'
Is it functional or emotional?
I agree that psychology and nutrition are both central to how and what we eat. I work with a number of clients before, during and after pregnancy to ensure their diets include the nutrients they need during these important times. For some women, the pre-conception, pregnancy and post-natal period is the first time they've really thought about the role of nutrition in their lives and they really want to do the best they can for themselves and their babies: they want to eat what's good for them. This is as much to do with their knowledge of the functional side of nutrition in supporting them to make, grow and provide for new life as it is about their emerging maternal instinct, which is both biological and emotional.
It's not always easy to separate the functional/biological from the emotional drivers of what we eat and how we see food. Our first exposures to tastes, textures, certain nutrients and the attitudes of those around us shape our food preferences and relationships with food from the very beginning of our lives. From the sweet taste of breastmilk to the foods we are introduced to when we are being weaned and then later through family mealtimes, school and friendships - the foods we are exposed to as babies and children play a significant role in how our preferences develop.
For example, when we're told as children that if we finish our greens we can have dessert, green vegetables take on the role of an inconvenient pre-requisite to the good stuff. Being told we have to eat certain foods or clear our plates before we can leave the table can leave us with lasting negative associations with family meal times or particular foods. Having vegetables 'hidden' in food can also create a sense of us needing to be tricked into eating revolting substances. While all of the above are well-intentioned measures that parents employ to encourage children to eat well, they can unfortunately have the opposite effects.
Supporting clients to have a 'healthy' relationship with food is a fundamental part of what I do as a nutritional therapist, but defining what that means isn't always straightforward.
Giving foods a moral value
Labelling foods as 'good' or 'bad' is common in some dieting and nutrition circles, and an extreme effect of the anxiety this can cause can be seen in the eating disorder orthorexia. The moral labelling of foods can also result in feelings of guilt or remorse if these 'bad' foods ever do pass our lips. Beating ourselves up over food choices can be as detrimental to our mood, self-esteem and stress levels as the food is for us on a physiological level - so in effect by punishing ourselves we're doubling the damage.
On the flip side of leading to obsessional behaviour around eating only 'good' foods, moral food labelling can actually increase the appeal of less healthy foods. While it's undoubtedly true that processed foods high in sugar, trans fats and preservatives do our bodies little good, apportioning a moral quality to them can be counter-productive, making them more seductive as 'naughty', 'forbidden' or 'cheat' foods. My childhood holidays to visit my grandparents in America were a case in point. At home in London we rarely had processed foods or refined sugar and ate healthy, balanced diets. But when we passed the threshold into my grandparents' house we were sucked in by all the choc-ices, hot dogs and coke floats at our fingertips, and binged on them morning, noon and night. This felt subversive and indulgent, but was validated by the pleasure my grandparents clearly got in treating us.
Is it really nourishing you?
Instead of thinking in terms of 'good' or 'bad', I believe it's more productive to look at foods in terms of what they actually give our bodies and how they make us feel. By doing this, treating yourself becomes more about nourishment and care - and that doesn't mean it can't be satisfying and tasty. Think of the pleasure of a sun-ripened tomato, a crisp apple, a creamy ripe avocado, a nutty spoonful of tahini, a fragrant mango. The textures, tastes and nutritional benefits of these foods top anything processed - and they make your body sing.
In considering our relationships with food, it's also useful to think about the emotions driving our food choices. Emotional associations with food are complex, and trying to understand them can help us to overcome them. Eating a bar of chocolate because you've had an argument won't actually make you feel better about the argument. So ask yourself if that's really what you want or need in that moment.
Often the comfort foods we gravitate towards when we're feeling low are attached to happier memories, and eating them is a way of trying to recapture the feelings we remember from those times. Remember those choc ices and coke floats at my grandparents'? As well as enjoying the novelty (and crazy sugar rushes!), I also associated them with my grandparents' love and affection.
Memory and emotions
My best food memories are definitely tied up with happy moments - but the food merely enhanced these, it wasn't the central component. For example, the meal we shared with the guests at our wedding, a fresh coconut I drank the water from then scooped out with a spoon on the beach in Mexico, fish I cooked on an open fire on the beach with my oldest school friends, the first time I tasted a fig straight from the tree. The memories go on and on… When we think about it in these terms, food is both functional and emotional: without the context of their surroundings and the people I was with, these food memories don't have the same emotional power. The foods themselves can be reduced to something more objective and functional.
Adjusting our perceptions of food in terms of the emotions we attach to them also has the ability to alter our preferences - a smoothie with fruit, natural yoghurt, nuts and seeds that fills you up and gives you energy when you're tired and hungry actually becomes more appealing than an ice cream that leaves you feeling lethargic after its initial sugar rush. The feeling you get from doing something to look after yourself can be a surprisingly powerful emotional driver. And that thing you do to look after yourself doesn't need to be eating either, it could be taking a bath, going for a walk or calling a friend.
Step back and think
Just to be clear, I'm not saying that the odd ice cream isn't something to be savoured and enjoyed - it's just about re-training those more frequent cravings that we often associate with needing to reward ourselves after a hard day, or that keep us going if we're knackered. So next time you reach for the chocolate or crisps on auto-pilot after a rubbish day, or bolt your broccoli down so you can justify having pudding, try stepping back to think about what it is you really need. I believe that's the first step to a healthier relationship with food.