Food is everywhere and in practically everything we see — television commercials, gatherings with family and friends, billboards, print ads, celebrations, and more. It is a cultural marker of togetherness, as well as a primal need for survival. All species depend on sustenance to give them energy to endure the day’s tasks. We are, however, much different than our lion counterparts, as we attach considerable emotional weight to food.
Through our Stomach to our Hearts
As humans, we rely on food to keep us going. However, we also make food as a sign of love, bring it as a sign of respect or welcome, and then criticize it when it makes us feel uncomfortable. We often hear food categorized as “good” or “bad,” “clean” or “fattening,” and a variety of other judgmental cocktails.
Diet culture and “healthy eating” are messages that worm their way into our psyche through social media, celebrities, and other sources that prioritize weight or diet over nutrition and intuition. The messages are omnipresent and inescapable. So the question becomes, how do we ignore the harmful ones or reshape them so they meet our unique needs?
An Individual Approach to Nutritional Needs
At THIRA Health, we work with women navigating their relationships with food and body image. It is worth a moment to understand some misnomers around “healthy eating” and how that can impact our eating experience.
Any adult with a television or internet connection is aware of the ever-evolving eating trends that have phased in and out according to whatever new program is “hot” or perceived to “work” (e.g., keto, South Beach, low-carb, etc.). Some common messages found in diet and fitness communities include: (1) eating sugar, fats, or carbohydrates are “bad,” and (2) we should manipulate and restrict what we put in our body to achieve our desired goal, which can be a target weight, body shape, or a combination of the two. In pursuit of these goals, often we’ll try anything.
Why Do We Eat?
We move between eating for pleasure or comfort, eating for energy and strength, or eating what is available based on our position in society (e.g., financially, mentally, geographically). We often see eating for pleasure or comfort (also known as hedonic eating) as a form of self-care after a challenging emotional event. In truth, many of our feel-good neurotransmitters exist in our gut (read more on this in last month’s blog for National Eating Disorders Awareness Week). Eating for pleasure activates the body’s reward systems in ways that eating to satiate hunger does not, which may spur us to keep eating for pleasure even after our bodies no longer need the nutrition.
Eating for energy or strength can also be valued as self-care that makes us feel ready and motivated to take on the challenges of the day. However, eating based on availability speaks to the problems with less privileged populations often lacking access to affordable food choices, and how poverty/food insecurity affects our ability to select foods that make our bodies and minds feel full.
How can we alter our relationship with food by understanding the space between acceptance and change? With all of us, there is a bit of tension when it comes to food and our desire to eat well, enjoy what we eat, and follow some sort of plan that will help us reach our goals. There is no plan that will work for everyone. We have to find a way to manage our eating habits so that we are satisfying both our hedonic and nutritious impulses.
Food and our relationship to it does not exist in a vacuum; it is grounded primarily in cultural and social contexts. Those factors plays a key role when considering what we eat and how it affects our bodies. Understanding these contexts is another way of gaining control of our nutritional habits.
Debunking the Myth of the Diet
In honor of National Nutrition Month, we will debunk some common myths and messages surrounding “healthy” eating so we can free ourselves from expectation and judgment, and instead eat for our mental health and physical wellness.
Myth #1: Groups of food are objectively “bad” or unhealthy
False. Although all foods are not made equal, there is no objective standard to qualify any treat, food group, or nutrient as inherently “bad.” Instead, societal expectations provide that message. Select food according to your culture or individual experiences and preferences.
Myth #2: Healthy eating is about the macronutrients that the food contains
Although a balance of macronutrients can be essential to gut/heart health and keeping our vitals intact, eating is so much more than that. Our taste palates, childhood exposure to food, and understanding of nutrition all influence our food selections. “Healthy” or “proper” eating is about eating mindfully and paying attention to how your body responds. For example, as you eat, notice when you are full and how it influences mental clarity. You can also cultivate a “healthy” relationship with eating when you consider your experience of eating — who is around you, and what does your shared meal represent?
Myth #3: We can train our bodies to respond to what we want
Each body responds differently to food groups based on allergies, digestive health, and a host of other factors. Our bodies need variety. Our bodies are complex and intuitive vessels that we can rely on and listen to when deciding on food choices.
While we know the societal attitudes toward food and food groups is ever-changing, what remains constant is the mindfulness we hold in ourselves, knowing that ultimately we can trust that what we eat.
If you are looking for more nutrition-related information on mental health, please visit us to learn more about our holistic treatment programs.