Relationship With Food

Breaking Up Is Hard To Do – Your Relationship With Food

September 23, 2016

Why is it so difficult to give up certain foods?  The origins of your relationship with food go back a long way.

If your life was a film and we viewed some highlights of it frame by frame, we would see all kinds of situations where you and food were co-stars. Certainly, there would be the times, as a crying infant, your parents instinctively tried to help by sticking a bottle in your mouth. There would be the scenes when the fussy nine-month-old version of you sat in a highchair. To keep you occupied crackers or cereal were placed in the tray in front of you.

The reel would also show the times in elementary school you were given candy for doing well on a test, or not given if you didn’t do well. Those times your soccer or baseball team won the game, you were taken to the local pizza place after the victory. Attending any birthday party as a teenager there were celebratory treats like soda and cake. Frame by frame, we would see a major theme in your life: Food has always meant good times, soothing, comfort, and reward. All of these situations played a part in developing your relationship with food.

Emotional Rescue

The problem: Distress. The solution: Food.

Food = Comfort:  We’ve seen it a thousand times. A child is crying in the stroller. Mom reaches into her bag and produces a magical remedy – a bottle. The child stops crying…for now. This time, the intent was to soothe the child with a bottle of milk. Next time it could just as easily come in the form of juice, fruit snacks, etc. Of course, small children cannot always express their needs or emotions at that stage of life, but an effect was often produced that was never intended. Food = comfort. Little do we realize that we are training our children to soothe or calm their emotions with a substance. Automatically, they learn to associate distress and the calming of it through ingesting some form of food. This pattern is replicated in different ways throughout our development.

Clean Your Plate Club:  We reward children when we tell them to eat their vegetables or by cleaning their plate, they can have dessert.  I like to refer those of us that grew up in this way as members of the “Clean Your Plate” club. By the time I was ten years old I associated food with reward, with comfort, and with good times. Is it any wonder that food becomes more than just fuel or medicine to our bodies? It has become a means for us to feel something positive, or to not feel something negative. We have all celebrated, mourned, and loved others with food as well. Obviously, it’s not our intent to contribute to the detriment of our children’s welfare by giving them soda or something unhealthy, but we must accept that is an effect of doing so. It’s time we take responsibility for that effect.

The Way We Talk About Food

Over the years, we’ve come to almost personify food and imply there is a genuine relationship between it and us. Though I completely understand the meaning and usage, I have never been a fan of when people refer to food as their “friend” and they imply there is a “relationship” with it.

First off, we must be careful when we personify any substance.  It doesn’t deserve to have that place of power or influence in our lives. We choose to give it that power and influence. And, unlike a person, it cannot take it on its own. That being said, one of the main reasons people cope with their emotions by using food is that food cannot reject us, it is safe. People can reject us, abandon us, leave us, say cruel things etc. But is food really our friend? As one patient reminded me years ago, “If food was really my friend, it wouldn’t have given me diabetes or high blood pressure. I finally realized that food was never my friend.” No substance deserves that place of influence over our lives. One patient summarized this notion perfectly:

“My father had a history of diabetes and refused to change his bad eating habits because, in his mind, ‘it’s part of who I am.’ His condition got so bad that he eventually had to have his right foot amputated.  I tried to warn him, my sisters tried to warn him but he wouldn’t listen.  When I was told I was pre-diabetic six months ago I knew that I had to do something about it.  At that point whenever I wanted to have a tortilla, or five of them, with my meal I would look down at my right foot and say aloud, ‘I want to keep you.’  This helps change my mind on what I want to eat.  To me, it is not worth it.”

You can hear the value people place on food in statements like; “Eating gives me something to look forward to,” “I am ‘addicted’ to soda,” “I’m not the same if I don’t get my sweets in the afternoon,” and “I’ve been good this week so I can eat what I want this weekend.”

If the value that you once gave to food doesn’t change, you will always be giving it a strong place of influence over your life.

Changing Your Approach to Food

So, how do we start changing our approach to food? Once we become aware of our habits we can become empowered to change them.

After discussing her history of eating popcorn when going to the movies, Amy recognized that this habit had become a conditioned ritual that she started years before. She explained that her husband had asked her to go to the movies over the weekend.  The first thing she thought about was having popcorn, “You can’t go to the movies without having popcorn!”  So Amy immediately told her husband, “No, I better not go.”

After re-thinking the situation she told herself, “Wait a second! I’m not going to give popcorn power over what I can and cannot do.  We will go to the movies, and I don’t have to have popcorn.” She ended up having string cheese before they left for the theater, went into their show, and enjoyed it even without having popcorn. This was the start of Amy rewriting her own history of a habit she had practiced since her adolescent years.

Changing your relationship with food is a complex undertaking. You owe it to yourself to see a professional who can help you develop the insight, awareness, and strategy for doing so. In many ways, it comes down to basics and re-learning how to eat.

Tips for Changing Your Relationship With Food

  1. Plan – Plan the times in which you eat to ensure consistent eating patterns.
  2. Prepare – Preparing your own food gives you total control of what is going in your body.
  3. Protein – Know how much protein your body requires and space it out throughout the day.
  4. Pace – Training yourself to eat in a slow, controlled manner & let your body re-establish a sensitivity to feeling
  5. Predict – Predict situations that put you in a position of compromise e.g. avoid going long periods without eating, eat before you go to social outings that will have food at them.
  6. Participate in Physical Activity – Always do what you can to your ability.
  7. Perception/Philosophy of Food Has to Change – Don’t participate in the romanticizing of food that we so often see on social media.
  8. Perfectionism – One mistake doesn’t a failure make.
  9. Patience – You’re human, except it. If you make a mistake, forgive yourself and move forward. Small changes lead to the big ones.
  10. Procrastinate – Don't do it, the best time for re-dedication is always Now!
Relationship With Food
Steven Reyes


Dr. Steven Reyes offers expertise on the psychological adjustments associated with weight loss surgery. Dr. Reyes is best known for his compassionate coaching and therapeutic approach in helping others with their psychological and physical well-being. Dr. Reyes' research includes a phenomenological study of the post-surgical adjustment issues with weight loss surgery patients between 1 and 2 years post-op.

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