Sometimes folky bits of advice and wisdom just feel right. “What goes up must come down” is a good one. But occasionally, quaint observations that seem accurate at first blush end up not only being wrong, but potentially hazardous. Case in point: “You need to have a healthy relationship with food.”
I suspect you’ve not only heard this kind of well-intentioned advice, you might have even rattled it off to a few people. It’s a natural inclination, especially when we look around our world and see people struggling with overeating, obesity, type 2 diabetes, or serious eating disorders.
But what if this well-intentioned advice, preached by the medical establishment, media, and your Aunt Erma, is just wrong? (By this point I imagine you are either intrigued enough to want the punchline or annoyed enough to shut your browser window and walk away.) Here’s my point: food and eating are not remarkable aspects of living. Eating is necessary, like breathing or walking. We don’t need healthy relationships with breathing and walking. We should be grateful for the experience of both (food too, for that matter), but there are no self-help guides encouraging us to look within and find a happy relationship to these activities. They just “are.”
Where things go awry with food—and again, the more specific act of eating (and choosing what to eat)—is the activity can get entangled with things like loss, grief, vulnerability, and pain. I’ve worked with folks ranging from billionaire entrepreneurs to social workers and stay-at-home moms, all diligently working on developing a “healthy relationship” with food, but they never really get closer to an end point or success. I’m not a therapist or psychiatrist, I’m just a middle-aged biochemist who has been coaching people for 20 years and doing my damnedest to help them regardless of where I meet that person, and this is what I’ve noticed. The folks who “have food issues” and struggle to eat healthy well … it’s NEVER about the food.
The specific act of eating (and choosing what to eat)—is an activity that can get entangled with loss, grief, vulnerability, and pain.
Food is a symptom. It’s a place to focus energy and feel a modicum of control. The real issue is inevitably some kind of hurt, often in childhood, for which food becomes a salve to quiet the pain. This may sound a bit woo-woo to you, as it did to me as I noticed this pattern, but what I saw beneath the “food issues” was that when people have been hurt, they develop coping strategies like self-medicating with food in order to keep others at a safe, but ultimately unhealthy, distance.
Here are a few things you can do if there are food issues in your life.
1. Shift your focus
Shifting your focus is essential if you want to improve your health. Just remember food can often be a distraction, not a solution, so explore the possibility that food is a symptom of something, not the cause. Journaling your feelings about food or simply being aware of potentially destructive self-talk is one way to begin shifting focus away from food and towards the things we really need to work on.
2. Find a qualified therapist to support you
Ideally, this person should be willing to tackle this not as a food issue, but as an emotional one. Although I’m not a therapist myself, I’ve worked with clients who’ve greatly benefited from this kind of relationship in their lives.
3. Sleep as much as possible
Most people are chronically sleep-deprived, and this might lead to a host of problems ranging from an increased desire for unhealthy foods to even insulin resistance. If there are some issues you need to work through, that requires strength and resolve. Nothing fortifies one for hard work like a good night’s sleep.
4. Eat well
Focus largely on whole, unprocessed foods. Get adequate protein and essential fats. This will set up your neurotransmitters—the brain chemicals that communicate information throughout our brain and body—to be in a good place, which means YOU will be in a good place. Pay attention to how you feel an hour or so after a meal. Do you feel mentally clear and energized? Or are you foggy-headed and cranky? With a little work you can figure out what foods you do best with and which you’d do best to generally avoid.
Food and eating is a hot-button topic, and I don’t make these suggestions lightly. In my forthcoming book, Wired To Eat, I look at the neuroregulation of appetite and how our genetics may be setting us up for problems such as overeating, given our modern world of easily available, hyperpalatable foods filled with fat, sugar, and salt.
I’ve occasionally had folks punch me, cry on me, punch me and then cry on me, and a host of other responses when talking about these topics. But I’ve seen first-hand that often times, what someone finally discovers that what they thought was a food issue isn't really about food—that's when they finally dig in and do the work needed to make a real difference in their lives. I’m willing to take a few lumps on the head to keep helping people.
Robb Wolf is a former research biochemist, health expert, and author of the New York Times bestseller The Paleo Solution and the eagerly anticipated Wired To Eat. You can find him on Facebook, Twitter, and sometimes even Instagram.
Photo credit: Paul Delmont