Is Food Your Friend or Enemy?

Frequently, patients tell me they want to
“change their relationship with food.”  This lofty-sounding desire is
often expressed after significant weight loss following a diet, after a
life-changing event or during recovery from disordered eating. Some
refer to it as making “peace” with food, as if they have been at war
with it all their lives. And perhaps they have.

How we change
that (food) relationship — or not — greatly depends upon how we view
food. Merriam-Webster.com (medically) defines food as: “Material
consisting essentially of protein, carbohydrate, and fat used in the
body of an organism to sustain growth, repair and vital processes and to
furnish energy.” Food is, first and foremost, the important fuel that
keeps the body alive. So, it makes sense that quality “fuel” put into
the body would produce a healthier-running organism.

But beyond
being a source of macro and micro-nutrients, food also provides
pleasure. Nature could have permanently provided us earthly inhabitants
with some bland-tasting, gray-colored sustenance to meet our nutritional
requirements for survival. Instead, nutrition is packaged in a plethora
of delightful colors, smells, tastes and textures. Along with man-made
food preparation methods, we now have a phenomenal multiplicity of
choices. “Extreme variety” —with food available almost as soon as we can
imagine it — is both a blessing and a curse. And one could argue that
the availability of today’s super palatable convenience foods doesn’t
help. So, we need to know how to reasonably combine nutrition and
pleasure, calories and nutrient density. We need balance.

if we want to truly improve our food relationship, we have to slow down,
learn to savor and listen to our bodies. When we dismiss our bodies’
hunger signals (usually pretty discernable) and satiety signals
(sometimes more like a whisper), our food behavior can move us quickly
from starved to stuffed — neither of which is a positive or pleasurable
experience. And while we also need to learn that mild hunger is not
something to be feared (most of us are blessed enough not to experience
food insecurity) our concern with seeking food and thoughts about food
also should not interfere with daily life.

Lastly, food really
needs to be food. It can’t substitute for or squelch our emotional
expression on a regular basis. If our “default” is to eat when an
emotion arises, we are no longer nourishing ourselves as intended. Food
is not a persona — not our “friend” or our “enemy.” To put food back in
its place, people often initially need some structure. Planning meals
and snacks at regular intervals, eating a wide variety of plant foods,
lean proteins, whole grains, healthful fats, drinking enough water and
tracking intake are some sensible ways to start. And because food
attitudes, just like emotions, can be contagious, having a good “food
mentor” is not a bad idea.

So improving one’s food relationship —
just like a relationship between people — involves the
desire/willingness to change, which takes times and effort. There is no
room for self-blame or blaming others for our personal food history
because, as adults, we are each responsible for the food we put in our
mouths. There is only room for learning and growing, one day at a time —
one meal at a time. Sometimes we can do this on our own and sometimes,
as with relationships, we need outside help. And it takes patience. But
the rewards of improving one’s food relationship are very rich, and go
beyond weight management to include health, a sense of gratitude,
confidence, and a growing appreciation for nature. It’s never too late
to start the process

Blog written by By Rosemary Mueller, MPH, RDN, LDN, Advocate Medical Group — Advocate Weight Management

Tags: For Providers, Habits, Healthy Eating, Obesity, Eating Habits, For Dieters

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