Before we go any further, I don’t mean for you to feed your partner to enhance your relationship – in an ‘The way to a man’s heart is through his stomach’ kind of way.
I mean heal the relationship you have towards food!
We all have our own sub-conscious and conscious associations with food and what it’s meant to us in the past. Our brain will have made ‘short-cut’ links – and these are activated when we now see or think about food.
I know I still hear some of my own playing silently in my mind from 40+ years ago…’don’t leave the table until you’ve emptied your plate…think about those starving children in Africa…don’t be fussy and eat whatever is put in from of you, and be grateful for it.’
You no doubt have some similar associations of your own that still influence you today.
I had an enormous appetite as a very active child and was also ridiculed with ‘you must have worms’, ‘you’ll get fat and ugly’ and was called gannet for eating ‘too much’. Some very mixed messages in there for sure. Eat everything up but don’t eat too much!
In my case I had problems putting weight on and with hindsight I think I was probably malnourished with junk food and sweets rather than underfed. I can vividly remember feeling very hungry a lot of the time, and nowadays I tend to rush to quash even the early pangs of hunger. It takes a determined effort for me to wait until meal times – even though I have mid-morning and mid-afternoon snacks.
Food can also have strong associations with power. The unspoken rules about who has the power to offer the food and the power to insist it is consumed – with nothing wasted.
The dining table can become a battle ground in childhood and this may have carried over for us into adulthood – with variations on the power games reappearing.
Imagine for yourself a typical scene from childhood that involved your family.
* Were you eating together? Was anyone absent?
* What was the atmosphere like? Tense or relaxed?
* What was spoken about – or was talking at the table prohibited?
* How did the child you once were feel during these mealtimes?
* How might the messages you heard in childhood have affected your present day relationship with food?
There might also be a particularly strong link made between the ‘reward’ area of the brain and the dopamine released when you had sweets and chocolate.
For some children sweets were a bribe and a giving up of what you wanted to do in favour of meeting someone else’s needs – in return for your sweet reward.
Maybe they were a sweetener for you when the babysitter came to look after you, perhaps more to ease the parent’s guilt at leaving you behind whilst they went out to work or play.
One client I worked with years ago had associated sweets with sadness and loneliness because her father would give her a bag of sweets when he left after his irregular access visits. She was left waiting for his love and eating his gift of sweets as a substitute. Whenever she felt sad or lonely, she ate sweets – and lots of them! She was already morbidly obese as a young adult.
Another client used to live in a grocer’s shop with her family as a child, and she would secretly help herself to sweets and chocolate bars which she would hide away and gorge on until she felt sick. She realised in our sessions that she’d been stealing what she wasn’t freely given to her – love, time and attention from her busy parents. She also stole money from the shop till. Stealing from a parent is a common behaviour of an unloved and angry child.
To change your own relationship with food into a more nourishing and healthy one:-
* Make the links with your own childhood experiences around food – and sweet foods in particular.
* Get your head in to gear – and know your own body’s calorific needs See here for more about calculating your own calorific needs according to the Harris Benedict Formula http://manytools.org/handy/bmr-calculator/
* Become aware of anything else that might be causing you to be overweight – e.g. hidden sugars in processed foods, food intolerances, heavy metal toxicity, parasites, environmental toxins, hormonal imbalance, high sugar foods (and associated cravings and sugar burning mode instead of fat burning mode), lack of regular high-intensity bursts of exercise
* Break the trance – and intentionally become more consciously aware of what you buy, cook and eat.
Make a menu plan and a detailed shopping list. Only buy real natural foods. Avoid caffeine and alcohol as well as cutting down on dairy products and wheat gluten. This advice is common and standard and I only include it here to emphasise that your Inner Child now needs help from your sensible Adult to live a healthier life and to have a better relationship with food.
* Let cooking become a form of meditation – breath peace and happiness into your meals and enjoy eating them slowly whilst noticing every smell and mouthful of taste and texture. Be in the present moment and imagine nurturing your inner child with each meal you’ve carefully and lovingly prepared.
* Keep your body in mind. Don’t squash down your feelings or treat your body like an ‘it’ by stuffing it with food. Your body is a reflection of your self-concept and people inevitably judge you on that. Don’t judge yourself harshly or treat your body like an enemy. Get re-acquainted with the beautiful body you had as a child – regardless of any physical imperfections. Nothing can ever be perfect so give up punishing yourself for being normal.
* Be sure to keep listening to your inner child’s feelings needs and wants. Respect that you were once incapable of getting what you needed as a child, despite how good your parents might have been to you, and make a promise to become your own best parent from now on. Allow yourself to be free to express your feelings and not stuff them down or disown them.
* When you feel peckish or hungry ask yourself – do I want and need food to eat, or am I really wanting to change my mood?
* The food you do and don’t eat will affect your energy levels and mood. Food has power and you have power over what nourishes your body.
As if all that wasn’t enough to digest… there’s also the neuroscience of eating and how the way in which the brain has been shaped by our experiences determines our later eating habits.
In his research findings neuro-psychiatrist Dr Daniel Amen describes different types of overeating – each related to a brain programming.
He says – “Most weight problems occur between the ears, which may explain why most diets don’t work…. It’s the brain that makes our eating decisions, and what we’ve found is that there isn’t just one brain pattern associated with overeating — there are at least five.”
1: Compulsive Overeater. Tends to get stuck on the thought of food and feels compulsively driven. Tends to be a night-time eater. Typically claims to have no control over food.
2: Impulsive Overeater. Exhibits poor impulse control, is easily distracted and reaches for food without thinking. Research suggests that having untreated Attention Deficit Disorder nearly doubles the risk of being overweight; without proper treatment, it’s nearly impossible for people with this condition to adhere to a nutrition plan.
3: Impulsive-Compulsive Overeater. Exhibits symptoms of 1. and 2. Compulsive gamblers, for instance, are compelled to gamble and have little control over their impulses.
4: Sad or Emotional Overeater. Overeats to medicate feelings of sadness and to calm the emotional storms in the brain. Often struggles with depression, low energy, low self-esteem and pain symptoms, and tends to gain weight in winter.
5: Anxious Overeater. Medicates feelings of anxiety or nervousness with food, complains of waiting for something bad to happen and frequently suffers from headaches and stomach problems.
(with thanks to Dr D Amen and Mary Monroe, and Child Obesity News)
It’s vital that we all seek and examine our inner child’s wounds and associations around
eating food – and to make peace with our bodies, and find peace of mind.
Maxine Harley (MSc Psychotherapy)