How your relationship with food developed

Ever wondered how your relationship with food developed?

Food is for nourishment. If you use it for any other purpose, you are likely to have a dysfunctional relationship with it. As with all relationships, our one with food develops over time and many things will impact on it. But in order to make practical changes, it can be useful to explore our formative years. We learn how to use food from a very early age – and then rarely challenge the associations as adults. Hilde Bruch, a respected theorist in eating disorders, suggests that the confusion starts during infancy, when the child is fed when it is distressed as well as when it is hungry. So, from very early on, we may start to lose the ability to differentiate between hunger and emotional needs.

Family mealtimes are an important part of developing healthy self-esteem, social skills and the relationship an individual has with food. Think back to when you were a child. What were your mealtimes like? What were your parents’ attitudes to weight, food and dieting?

Where may your food related beliefs or habits have come from during childhood?

In order to survive, all animals learn what to eat, when to eat and how to eat from their parents. It is unlikely our parents have perfect eating habits, so there will always be things we can improve upon as adults. Is a habit or belief still useful now? If not, change it! For example: “You must clear your plate.” Why? What will happen if you don’t? Go on, go really wild and leave the odd potato or brussel sprout!

Do you use food to get control?

Children learn that they can get control of adults by using food. Did you learn to get attention from others by not eating or making a fuss? Or maybe you were force-fed foods you didn’t like and felt out of control? There are so many things in this world over which we have no control. It is common for people to turn to food in an effort to take control over their own bodies instead.

Solution: Deal with the issue directly – rather than by eating. What in your life is making you feel out of control or stressed? Job / family / money? What practical changes can you make to put you back in control?

Can you leave food on your plate?

“Finish your dinner or you won’t get any pudding.” Sound familiar? Or perhaps your grandparents encouraged you to eat lots. This may have been particularly important for previous generations, as food was more scarce and they wanted to ensure we ate as well as possible. We are lucky, as this is generally not the case now.

Solution: It’s probably healthier to leave the excess on your plate.

Are you a pleaser?

Are you unable to say ‘no’ to others? Do you feel taken advantage of? As a child, did you observe that the pretty / clever / entertaining one got all the attention? If you learnt this, you may still believe that you will only be loved if you are clever / attractive / slim enough. Or, maybe by being good, or doing things for others, you prevented their anger being directed at you. So you learnt that pleasing others was the easiest course of action – even if it meant not getting your own needs met.

Solution: In which situations is it truly the best course of action to please others? On what occasions is it completely unnecessary (i.e. just habit)? Work out when these are and just say no politely.

Do you restrict food and then feel guilty when you end up eating?

Were you ever sent to bed without any supper? If so, you may have learnt that if you do something bad, you get punished by being made to feel hungry. Dieting is traditionally associated with being hungry and ‘going without’: punishing yourself for overeating in the past. Then, when you get so hungry that you break the diet, you feel twice as guilty, because you’ve now sneakily gone against the punishment, too!

Solution: Balance your blood sugar. This helps from the physiological perspective as it will help reduce your cravings. Remember, you are not punishing yourself – you are on a mission to improve your health. Question what happened in order to break the negative cycle: what led to the slip and what will you do differently next time?

Do you eat when you feel sad or need love?

“Have some chocolate, that will cheer you up.” It’s easy to see how we all learnt this behaviour. The sugar rush may well perk you up momentarily, but it doesn’t resolve the problem!

Solution: Remember, distress is a normal part of life – deal with it directly. Or, if you need love, ask for some attention from a loved one.

Do you use food as a treat?

Most of us have received food as a reward for good behaviour or to signify love. And we are likely to have had treats (or love) withheld for bad behaviour. So love and sugar can become closely linked – and an easy way to love yourself.

Solution: Choose treats that won’t make you feel guilty afterwards. This way you can reward yourself more effectively and positively.

Do you eat in secret?

Were sweets hidden out of reach from you? This instantly suggests they are naughty or forbidden, which makes us want them even more! Or perhaps someone called you “greedy”. So maybe even now you eat in secret, so that they won’t say it again. But it was probably said a long time ago in jest and in response to a specific incident, e.g. eating all your Easter eggs in one go. As a child, that’s not a crime!

Solution: Question your beliefs: maybe you eat a little too much sometimes, but that doesn’t justify calling yourself names! Try not to eat on your own and serve appropriate portions. 

Do you rush your food?

Perhaps older siblings helped themselves to your food if you didn’t eat fast enough. Maybe your parents encouraged you to “hurry up and finish your dinner and you can go and play.” This can result in overeating as we miss the ‘fullness’ signals.

Solution: Slow down. Chew properly. Put your cutlery down between mouthfuls

Do you eat when you are angry or frustrated or
to avoid conflict?

If you feel others didn’t listen to you or you were unable to speak your mind effectively, you may have turned to eating to relieve the tension. The act of swallowing pushes the feelings down, suppressing them. Or, if you want to avoid conflict, it is difficult to argue if you are too busy eating …

Solution: Start learning to be assertive and deal with the situation that is creating the frustration. Avoid these situations. Or find a healthier outlet for the stress like exercise, dance or alterntive active hoppy you enjoy.

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