My “Relationship” with Food: Really, How Complicated Is It?

With the start of the new year, many of us have changes and resolutions on our minds. As a clinical psychologist, I spend a lot of time in January with clients talking about goals, hopes and aspirations. The phrase, “My relationship with food...” gets thrown around frequently. We all have ways that we interact with food, including how we respond to hunger and how we make choices about what to eat.


But let’s look more closely at these words: “My relationship with food…” A relationship requires a dynamic interaction: give and take, input and output, giving and receiving. Is your relationship to food actually a relationship? Food does not get up and ask to be eaten. It does not walk its way into your mouth. It does not express its need to feel wanted or desired. It does not express cravings to be close to you or a longing to spend time with you.


By attempting to relate to our food, we ascribe power to it that in turn disempowers us from our ability to care for ourselves in decisive and intentional ways. Let’s make a pact: No more giving away our power! Let’s talk about how.

Chances are, you have been in a cycle with your decisions and feelings about food. You have set out to “lose weight,” measured by pounds on the scale and gone about weight loss in many different ways. You are consistent with a plan--Weight Watchers, Beach Body, Whole 30-- and then you are not. You are successful with an approach—juice cleanse, sugar detox, Paleo -- and then you are not. You make the changes you desire, and then you stall out.


You go through periods of ease and calm with your food choices. You feel better and better in your clothes as you get smaller, tighter or leaner. Then, an event like a birthday or holiday party, a stressful phase at work or a visit with your mother, leads to a period of rebellion. The voice in your head, or maybe outloud, says, “Screw this diet. Screw these rules. I’m going renegade.”

You eat treats, be they salty or sweet, and you feel like crap, physically and emotionally. You beat yourself up about your food choices. You focus on your confusion about why you always end up gaining weight after a period of weight loss and adherence to your diet. You beg you inner self for an explanation: “Why am I sabotaging myself? What is wrong with me?”

You stay here for a while, identifying “lack of motivation” as the primary issue. Your friends reassure you that you will get back on track when you’re ready. And then you do. When you’re feeling fed up with yourself, you get back to your point-counting, calorie-tracking, weighing and measuring, denying, eliminating, withholding, or whatever your method may be. Soon enough, you are back to losing weight and feeling better. The sense of ease returns and you reflect on the hard phase with a bewildered curiosity lined with self-judgment: “I just don’t know what’s wrong with me that I can’t stick to this. It’s not so bad!”

The question embedded in this self-talk that I hear a lot from my clients is, “How can this time be different?” These types of questions make my ears perk up. This question indicates readiness for a new approach and a big green light flashes in my mind and I think, “transformance drive.”

We are all born with this drive, and what a wonderful thing it is. Our emotions are designed to tell us what to do next and what action to take. All core emotions have the potential to move us towards our best selves. Our task is to listen to them.

So, in the case of the food cycle, what is the core emotion? Anger. You may feel angry at yourself for not having the willpower or motivation to stick to your diet. But, if we trust that anger is leading us in a transformative direction towards our best self, I suggest that the anger is pointing you somewhere else. Our bodies are not meant to eat the same foods for long periods of time. Three months is generally the length of a season, and humans were designed to have access to different local food sources as the seasons changed. So if every few months, your system starts to rebel against a diet by “giving in” to irresistible cravings, you are a normal healthy human. So, how can we use the core emotion of anger to drive us towards a new approach?


If food were your spouse and every few months you were back to the same issue of wanting to rebel against the relationship, to break out of the structure, to screw the rules, I would say: “How do you really feel about this relationship? Are these rules working for you?” If you can tolerate the structure for only so long, maybe tolerating them is not good enough for sustainability and fulfillment. In therapy, we might examine your relationship and explore options for changing the structure. Perhaps you even end up deciding you don’t want to be in the relationship. Of course you cannot leave food behind, and move on with your life without it. But you can leave your disempowered approach behind and you can restructure your thinking about food in major ways.

The dieting method that worked for you before may work on and off, or for short periods of time. But chances are it is an ineffective long-term way of life. If these rules are not working in a sustainable way, throw them out and write ones that will. Write “rules” that don’t feel like rules. Come up with a structure that feels nurturing, supportive and sustainable and one that you can be with for the rest of your life.

Here are some key questions to ask yourself:

1) What change did I make in the past that I whole-heartedly believe is good for me?
2) What change did I make in the past that made my mind and body feel better?
3) What indicators did I notice of improved health when I made this change?

Approach these questions like you’re a scientist. Look for data that support your belief that a certain change benefits you. Use indicators like mood, appetite, sleep quality, energy level, and sex drive. Tracking these using 0-4 rating scales is the most effective approach for adopting a scientist’s mindset and for noticing trends.

Use this information to inform whether a certain change is putting you on the right track or whether the change isn’t paying off. If you don’t see the benefit in the form of data, your brain will not “buy” that this change matters. If your brain doesn’t believe this change matters, you will most likely resent the change and rebel at some point.

Use these questions and the experimental method to develop basic principles related to food. Write down the principles that you want to use and then test them out using consistent rating scales for a period of no less than 30 days. If you feel angry in the form of irritability, crankiness or a desire to rebel, go back to the 3 questions posed here, and tweak as needed.

Know that you will need to make adjustments as you learn more about yourself. Report back what you discover as you use these principles to learn more about how your transformance drives are inching you ever closer to your best self. ~ MK