By Jessica Allen, Clinical Psychologist
As a child of the 90’s I grew up around ‘fat free’ food, the Atkins low carb diet, and Carmen Electra’s strip aerobics. I still remember my mum's coffee order; a ‘skinny’ latte, and I watched on as all the women in my family would critique their body size and image on a regular basis. These experiences are what shaped my attitude and relationship with food. That the food you ate determined the kind of person you were, and more concerningly, your worth.
In contrast, a dear friend of mine is Italian and grew up celebrating food, connecting with others through food, and eating seasonally. The relationship we have with food can be determined early on and is a complex combination of our early environments and culture. It is no wonder then that so many of us struggle with our relationship with food. Food is central to our daily functioning and therefore our food choices have a huge impact on our quality of life. Thanks to science we now know that poor diet choices can lead to inflammation and associated health conditions, mental health illness’ such as depression, impacts on mood (hello brain fog!), and reduced motivation and energy. We also know that our attitudes to food can be really harmful and lead to a high prevalence of eating disorders.
The impact of food on our mental health is a rapidly growing field with research showing that up to 95% of serotonin (a neurotransmitter that helps regulate sleep and appetite, mediate moods, and inhibit pain) is made in our digestive system, which if functioning poorly can seriously affect our mood. So, what does a healthy relationship with food look like? Basically, being able to enjoy what you eat, stop eating when you feel full, and not restricting foods based on moral labelling of ‘good/bad/naughty/cheat’ foods. Here are four tips to help you reboot your relationship with food:
The first step in making any change is reflecting on why you want to change, how you currently feel, and how you would like things to be different. Try asking yourself the following questions;
- What is my current relationship with food like? (How do I feel when I eat?, What kind of thoughts do I have about food?, How often do I think about food?, Are there certain food groups I avoid all together?, Do I feel shame about food?, Do I struggle to control myself around food?)
- What do I want my relationship with food to look and feel like? (Food is seen as enjoyable, food doesn’t control my life and choices, I can be flexible with what I eat.)
Mindful eating is a way to be present and slow down when we eat which can help us notice things like hunger cues, foster more trust in our bodies and what they are telling us, and ultimately shift our relationship with food to one that is more balanced and enjoyable. You can practice mindful eating with anything, but it can be good to start small and experiment from there. Choose something like a pistachio nut, or a sultana to start with. Take some time visually examining your food, noticing its shape and colour and texture. When you put the food in your mouth notice what this feels like, tastes like etc. When you finish eating take a pause and notice how you feel, are you full, do you want more etc. Eating slowly is important for connecting with our bodies natural hunger rhythms as it takes 20 minutes for our brains to register that we are full!
Sometimes we won’t get it right and that’s ok. This applies to life in general but also what we eat. Sometimes we won’t hear our body tell us that we don’t need another timtam, or that coffee after 3pm, or that extra glass of wine. Acceptance is the practice of allowing things to be as they are without guilt or shame. Acceptance is not giving up or shirking responsibility. We can accept a situation while also committing to doing better next time. Its all about balance and flexibility and being kinder to ourselves as we learn and make mistakes.
Ask for help.
Lastly, sometimes we might need help on our journey to a healthy relationship with food. If you struggle with your mental health, disordered eating, or eating disorders its important to get support as you work on your relationship with food in this context. Nutritionists, psychologists, and your GP can all provide the support you need.
For more information or if you or someone you know needs help:https://butterfly.org.au/get-support/helpline/
About: Jessica is a clinical psychologist located in Melbourne. She specialises in young people and parents going through the perinatal stage, while also helping patients manage depression, anxiety, personality disorders, relationship difficulties, eating disorders and trauma. With experience across clinical and educational settings, Jessica is now working with Orygen Digital in digital mental health program planning and implementation.
Jessica believes in a holistic approach to mental health that takes diet and lifestyle into account. She understands the monumental impact sugar can have on us and is dedicated to helping people improve their quality of life – starting with what we put on our plates.
Jessica will be providing exclusive content for our 8-Week Program where we'll be kicking sugar to the curb. If you're keen to get into her best tips and tricks for living well, along with nutritious meal plans and recipes from the team here at I Quit Sugar, this is your chance to take back control of your life. Here's what's on offer when you sign up to the program:
- 8 weeks of meal plans and shopping lists.
- 90+ member-only recipes.
- Community forums to share your journey.
- Support and guidance from the I Quit Sugar team and our panel of experts.
- Dietary flexibility for vegetarians, paleo, dairy and gluten-free members.
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