It’s also likely that these two people, the one who eats to live and the other who loves to eat, have had very different experiences with food throughout their lives. Our relationship with food is totally unique, a bit like a food fingerprint. Each eating experience we have plays a small role in shaping this relationship, and for this reason. It’s incredibly complex.
Let’s take a look at how our relationship with food is formed from the first days of life and how it continues to change and affect our eating behaviours. Right up to the last bite, you’ve taken a bit of a health warning for some people. This next section might bring up some tough stuff. We invite you to take part in this as much or as little as you want right now.
It’s also really important to us that, you know, when we talk about our relationship with food and how it is shaped, that we aren’t judging or blaming anyone at all. As human beings, we are most often just trying to do the best we can with whatever we have available in that moment.
What used to work for us at one time might not be useful right now. But sometimes if we aren’t aware of what’s influencing our eating behaviours, we don’t update or change this. We also know that criticizing ourselves and beating ourselves up about things isn’t a helpful way to learn, grow or change. So please hear this next section with a heavy sprinkling of kindness and compassion.
We start to learn about food from the very earliest moments of life. Babies feel hunger. They signal this to their caregivers by crying, who respond, hopefully by giving them milk. And the baby is soothed. As the baby becomes a toddler, they’re exposed to a wider variety of foods and textures and individual taste. Preferences start to emerge. Throughout the toddler years, and early childhood food starts to take on different meanings. Food can be a reward when we’ve been good, a treat for a special occasion, or a way to soothe and provide comfort when we are upset or unwell.
As children, we are often given certain rules about food and eating that then become internalized. This means we start to see these beliefs as being our own rather than the views of others. A common example of this is being told that we must not leave food on our plate. Well, this message usually comes from a good place. For example, parents who are on a tight budget or who are just trying to ensure their children are well nourished.
For many people, it encourages them to ignore their own bodily signals of hunger and fullness and to rely on external cues to know when to stop eating. This type of rule, if internalized, can then mean we sometimes end up eating in ways that don’t really serve us.
For example, when the portion size at a restaurant is more than our bodies want or need. Food and eating can also become associated with more difficult experiences for some people. Mealtimes growing up might have been associated with feelings of anger or even fear around the dinner table.
This might mean that food and eating can trigger a bodily state, which makes the experience of eating uncomfortable. If you grew up in an environment where there wasn’t enough food or food wasn’t always available, this can trigger something called the deprivation mind-set.
This can install a very powerful drive to seek out and eat food and can lead to behaviours like binge eating and hoarding. As children become teenagers, or perhaps even before then, they’re exposed to more messages about eating from the culture we live in. We start to think of food as being either good or bad, healthy or unhealthy.
Just a quick note here at the Blogs, we strongly believe that food is just food, that it has no moral value, and that health is about more than the food we eat. But these messages from diet culture, which, let’s face it, are everywhere, can lead to feelings of guilt and shame around eating. Another common thinking pattern that we and many people we work with. Experience is all or nothing thinking.
This thinking style often goes hand-in-hand with dieting, which encourages people to be either constantly obsessed with food and following their diet plan to perfection, or to be off plan and not care at all about the foods they’re putting in their bodies. Speaking as someone who notices a lot of all or nothing thoughts, this pattern can be very reinforcing and can exist across many other domains of life too.
Having a big influence on our overall health and well-being. Labelling foods in this way and having rules about eating isn’t something we’re born with. It’s something we’ve learned. But we don’t very often stop to think about where these messages have come from or who has told us they are true. Often we’ve become so familiar with these rules that we stop even noticing them, yet they continue to influence our eating behaviour every single day.
The good news is that if this is something we’ve learned, it’s also something we can unlearn. If we feel that doing so will help us to have a healthier relationship with food eating and our bodies as adults. Our relationship with food continues to change and be molded by the different food experiences we have. Food traditions are often passed on through families and cultures. The people around us further shape our experiences of eating, and our relationship with food often becomes intertwined with socializing, celebrating and communicating. Love and care.
It’s worth mentioning again that we are absolutely not saying there is anything wrong with any of these things. We are talking about this because often so much of our relationship with food happens underneath the surface of our awareness. When we aren’t fully aware of the influences on our eating patterns, it’s really difficult to make changes if we decide this is something we want to do. We invite you now to take some time to reflect on your life experiences with food.
What rules and beliefs might you have developed and how do they influence you’re eating behaviours? What would it be like to bring a sense of curiosity to your eating behaviours day to day, to notice what thoughts and beliefs you have about the food you eat and the way you eat it.
What happens when you hold onto these food rules and beliefs too tightly? Where do they take you? Do they take you towards the relationship with food you want? Or did they take you away? What would it be like to loosen your grip on these rules and beliefs a little? What possibilities might this open up?
For more information about what to do with these thoughts. If you notice they are getting in the way of you taking care of yourself, please see our blog series on responding to thoughts.