The second week of February is Eating Disorders Awareness Week in countries around the world – normally I wouldn’t know this, but I’ve been invited to speak at a fundraising event this year for Hope’s Garden, an Eating Disorder Support and Resource Center.
When they originally invited me to speak, it was because they were looking for an uplifting and hopefully inspiring headline act for their event. They didn’t know that I’d suffered in the past from not one, but two eating disorders!
I’ve written about my various challenges with food in another post on “How To Stop Overeating”. Though that article and the chapter about food and nutrition in my book, Live A Life You Love contain useful information that I’ve applied with success in my life and the lives of others, the typical relationship with food is still very complex – there are always more layers to be peeled back and understood.
You have probably heard of the book “Women Food and God” by Oprah favourite Geneen Roth. I’ve been familiar with Roth’s work for years, including the fabulously titled “When You Eat at the Refrigerator, Pull Up a Chair”. I recently bought her latest book in an airport on my way back from a speaking gig, and sat down with it at Starbucks with a steamed vanilla soy milk and a muffin (by the way, this is in direct opposition to Roth’s Eating Guideline No.3, “eat without distractions”, which I still have a tough time following!).
Much of the book contained information I already know and practice (most of the time, anyway) but it did make me even more curious than usual about the meaning of food in my life. I frequently talk about identifying what it is that is driving you to eat something for reasons other than true hunger – Stress? Loneliness? Anger? Boredom? After reading Roth’s book I was inspired to understand the meaning of the very food itself.
I soon had an opportunity to practice – a staff birthday party at a medical clinic where I work part time. They handed me a piece of cake, and even though it was a fairly unappealing concoction of greasy fake whipped cream layered with unsatisfying dry yellow cake, I downed it in seconds. Almost immediately after I started to get a headache, noticed the unwelcome unease of a cheap sugar rush, and regretted having done it.
Roth’s book emphasizes digging deep to discover the roots of your relationship with food, so I did. I stared at the empty whipped cream-smeared plate and asked myself what it represented.
It came to me immediately: “fun”.
I didn’t want to miss a piece of cake, because to me the cake was the party. A piece of cake was a party on a plate. Even if it wasn’t the kind of fun I really wanted, even if it was sure to give me a headache, I was afraid of missing out on any kind of fun.
I was fun-deprived.
My life didn’t have enough fun in it, I had been working too hard, and the thing that I was identifying as being a source of that badly needed fun was an incredibly poor substitute for the real thing. Accompanied by a ton of fat, sugar and unnecessary empty calories to boot. All because of a lie I had told myself, an association or story I’d probably created around cake decades earlier. If you read any of my writing about food, you will note that I’m always talking about my issues with cake! I used to be able to eat an entire one in one sitting, and I’m not talking about an entire piece – I mean an entire chocolate cake.
Not that I (or you) can’t ever have cake, I enjoyed a piece of divine homemade cake with some friends just the other night and it was fabulous. I was really having fun with those friends, so the cake wasn’t the source, it was just a bonus and a lovely accompaniment. But now I have a deeper sense of where that deep passion for cake comes from, and what that longing might be telling me about my life when it shows up.
If you have a problem controlling your behaviour around a certain food or foods, to the degree that it causes a negative impact on your life, try sitting that food in front of you and asking yourself what it represents to you.
What is that food giving you? Comfort? Peace? Something to do to get through a lonely night? Stress relief after work? When and how did it become that for you?
The food may indeed accomplish those things in the moment as you’re eating it, but if you feel guilty or terrible afterwards, and wish you could stop eating that food in that way, it would serve you well to look at fulfilling that need in a different way.
What else would give you true comfort without side effects? A warm bath? A great movie? If you’re lonely, what could you do that would truly help you fill that void? Could you call a friend instead, or make a spontaneous date for coffee or a visit?
I absolutely agree with Roth that we need to be detectives about understanding our relationship with food, until we understand it so well that we can’t trick or lie to ourselves anymore. And once we realize how we have been using food and what it has been doing for us, we can find a healthier and much more effective way to take care of ourselves in that area.
To read more about my own journey with food, and my recommendations on how you can learn to eat in a way that lets you enjoy better health, energy and even slows aging (without feeling deprived), see my book Live a Life You Love: 7 Steps to a Healthier, Happier, More Passionate You.
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Susan Biali, MD is an internationally recognized medical doctor, wellness expert, life coach, speaker and flamenco dancer. She has performed for and taught celebrities, and speaks and dances across North America. Dr. Biali blogs for PsychologyToday.com and appears regularly in media, including Fox News ABC,CBS,NBC and CTV, Global and CITYTV networks in Canada. Her opinions appear in publicatins such as Cosmopolitan, Self, Fitness, Hello!, The Medical Post, Reader’s Digest Best Health, Chatelaine and The Chicago Tribune. She is the author of the best selling book Live a Life You Love! Seven Steps to a Healthier, Happier, More Passionate You (Beaufort Books, New York). To order Live a Life You Love, click on these links to Amazon.com and Amazon.ca