What does eating mean to you? For many of us, it can mean to satisfy hunger, indulge, or sometimes it can accompany a feeling. Our relationship with food is closely related to our relationship with our body. Therefore, it’s helpful to remember that eating is more than just getting nutrients. Of course, our relationship with food may be disrupted from time to time at certain points in our lives. When this happens, we may start looking for solutions, as our body’s balance is thrown off as well. In this process, our false assumptions, beliefs, or strict diet systems can also create a nutritional imbalance and impact our mental health.
So, what can we do about it?
Often, we may experience the constant whisperings of our inner critic, judging us and sometimes catastrophizing our reality. This voice may stem from our environment, family, friends, and media over the years and may become so internalized we begin to believe it is our own. Shifting toward self-compassion and positive self-talk can be powerful ways to combat our inner critic and improve our relationship with food.
When your inner critic rears its head, trying to make its voice known, practice saying the above sentences to yourself. Our negative self-talk won’t immediately, or perhaps ever, disappear, but with practice we can center self-compassion and prevent or lessen the stress, guilt, and shame our inner critic can create around eating.
The more we forbid ourselves something, whether restricting ourselves or giving into diet culture, the more valuable it can become in our mind. Does this feel true to you? On the other hand, if we eat the same thing every day, we can get used to it and may not crave it as much. Therefore, it is important to find a middle ground which gives us both the opportunity to become familiar with and to desire.
Our goal is not to try to eat the same thing until we get tired of it and there’s no one formula that works for everyone when it comes to food and eating habits. The goal, instead, is to create space for joy in our relationship with food, or, to at least reduce the harmful effects a negative relationship with food can have on our bodies and mental health.
Our body tells us to eat when we are hungry and to stop when we are full, just as it tells us to sleep when we are tired. That’s why we need to be in touch with our body while trying to improve our relationship with food. The inner body awareness that we can develop to help with this process is called “interoceptive awareness.” Interoceptive awareness allows us to recognize and understand signals coming from within our body.
Our bodies can respond to physical hunger, social hunger, imaginary hunger, and emotional hunger, which all create a desire to eat something.
Physical hunger is the hunger we feel when we need food for energy. This type of hunger often intensifies the longer we wait.
Social hunger refers to the desire to eat as part of a social order. Here, the social aspect of eating food comes to the fore, rather than the energy source aspect.
Imaginary hunger is the state of craving caused by seeing, smelling, hearing, or thinking of the taste of particular foods. This can also pass after waiting for a time.
Emotional hunger is a feeling of hunger that arises in order to calm or suppress certain emotions or thoughts. Often, it appears out of the blue and when the emotion dissipates, the hunger lessens.
After identifying the source of our hunger, there are several ways to notice how full we are as well. Sometimes you may not notice the feeling of satiety if you are engaged with other things while eating, do not pay attention to the food, or if you are eating very quickly. To be more in tune with your body’s sense of fullness, you can turn off devices like the TV, your phone or computer, so that you can more clearly pay attention to your food. The practice of mindful eating allows you to get acquainted with how much you eat and which emotions you feel while eating. By doing so, you have time for your food and are better able to identify and follow the signals of your body. To get even further in tune with your body’s wants and needs, you can also practice focusing on your breathing, meditating, or journaling about your emotions as you think about eating.
One of the things we can do to improve our bond with food is to enjoy it, to really savor the experience.
The first step is to ask yourself, “What do I really crave?” What would you like to eat for the simple sake of enjoyment without letting that inner critic take over?
You can then try discovering the pleasure that comes from the palate. The food we eat has so many characteristics from taste, to smell, temperature, and texture. You may find some aspects of your food more enjoyable than others. Maybe you gravitate toward salty, crunchy foods over sour and soft foods, for example.
Third, you can make your eating experience more enjoyable by eating slowly, taking the time to appreciate your food. If possible, try to eat in a calm and pleasing environment. Instead of eating in the car or in front of the computer, try eating at a table, maybe even setting a place for yourself.
The fourth step is finding contentment, or what works for you. You can transform your relationship with eating and increase the pleasure you get from a meal as you notice your own eating habits and extend compassion toward yourself. Remember: The most important thing is to nourish yourself with joy and awareness and to treat yourself with love while doing so.