This topic has been swirling around inside my head because I see how often people struggle with something as fundamental as nourishing their bodies with food. Whether we started by drinking milk from our mother’s breast or a bottle up until what and how we eat and drink today, it appears that along the way, some mechanisms became faulty. And in some cases, broken.

Imagine a situation in which someone obsesses over what foods that she believes make her fat, and then only wants those foods. Picture having one meal morph into another, and rarely letting our bodies finish digesting one meal before the next one begins. Or picture eating a meal and spending the next two hours deeply regretting what you ate, feeling terribly uncomfortable in your body, and fighting against yourself with guilt and shame.

Not a pretty picture, I know.

As horrible as this sounds, unfortunately many otherwise successful people who live what might be called a normal life struggle with food as much as an addict struggles with a drug. Since food is not illegal, and eating a box of donuts does not create second-hand smoke, destructive food habits can be hidden from view. But in my own experience, formerly as a person with uncontrolled bulimia, this can rob a person of fundamental happiness and contentment in life. Had I not gotten my act together with food, I might not be alive today.

How to eat food begins with your relationship with  your body.

If you struggle at all with how much, when, and what to eat, I suggest that right away you consider that moving to higher ground is personal growth, also called self-development. Becoming sane and relaxed around food comes as a result of you working on yourself. When I look back to what it took for me to grow past the food obsession that ran my life throughout my twenties and thirties, the first thing I did was to stare down my debilitating behavior. That meant that I had to know who my demons were and to face them squarely. I had to get to know me and what the heck was making me tick.

In general, when we misuse food, we are using it as a band-aid to cover something else that is broken or mal-functioning inside of us. In my case, I had a bad case of self-loathing and a remarkable resistance to facing my loneliness. Even though this occurred decades ago, to this day, I enjoy the refreshing feeling of having left all that pain and suffering in the past where it belongs. This leads me to my second suggestion.

Whether it was what your parents or spouse told you, or how you learned to comfort yourself with food at an early age, or because you are frustrated with your life and use food as an escape, all of these issues can be relegated to the past. Will this take enormous effort? You bet it will. Using each of these as examples, with regards to the first, you can practice distinguishing the voices from critical parents from your own self-honoring, self-encouraging voice. Instead of letting others voices run freely in your head, begin to think your very own thoughts and choose those that bring out the best in you. This voice sounds differently than others’ voices and it produces different feelings in your body. Doing this repeatedly also helps you create new habits. Learn to whisper in your own ear, using your voice, and make it positive on purpose. If what you tell yourself over and over informs your decisions and therefore your actions, it makes sense that when you work on choosing more life-and-health-enhancing thoughts, you will make more life-and-health-enhancing decisions.

Regarding the second, if you are tempted to use food to comfort yourself—in particular when you know you are not physically hungry—deliberately get involved in life instead of killing times between meals. Hobbies, time with your family, refreshing exercise, volunteer work, cleaning out closets, and connecting with friends are all examples of ways to put your time to good use when it’s not time to eat.

And last, if you use food to avoid anything unpleasant or unrewarding in your life, addressing those issues will make you so much happier in the long run. This might entail telling the truth to yourself about your job, as an example, or having a frank conversation with the people with whom you live and work in order to make changes to your living and/or working environment. Use this as an opportunity to get to know yourself better. Along the way to learning how to use food to nourish and nurture your body, you have the chance to make adjustments in your life that may have been calling out to you all along. One client told me that he is using this newfound relationship with food and his body to find a way to make an improvement about himself every day.

I am not glossing over the inherent challenges in moving from entrapment around food to freedom. And I am only giving you the high notes in this blog. As a firm believer in the idea that practice makes improvement, I urge you to begin those practices and stick with them as your life, your body, and your relationship with food begin to flourish.

Here are three ways to create lasting transformation in this arena. I am drawing from my clients’ experiences since they present to me real-life situations.

  • Instead of dismissing your thoughts when you reach for food, remember that you cannot afford to “just not think about it.” There is no free pass when it comes to making deliberate choices around what you eat. If you are trying to lose weight or resolve some health challenge, paying attention to your thoughts on purpose will put you ahead of your own game. The “screw it” mentality keeps you stuck. Making healthy choices on purpose helps you feel good about what, when, and how you are eating.
  • Avoid eating in a stressed state. Discover any feelings that could be described as anxious, tense, fearful, panicky, exhausted, and the like. Hang out with your emotions before you reach for food. Practice relaxation techniques such as breathing, releasing tension from your body, movement and refreshing exercise before you automatically reach your hand out for food. These will serve as a buffer between you and self-destructive behavior. Work on getting in a good state before you eat.
  • Practice waiting until you are hungry before you eat. Instead of having the clock tell you when it is time to eat, listen to your body. Hunger is not something to avoid. It is as natural as the pressure you feel when your bladder is full telling you its time to pee. Each time you wait until you are hungry before you eat, you are teaching your body to become “food fit”, thus extending the time when you extract energy from the food you ate previously, and letting your body burn fat for fuel. This will give you lots of energy, which I believe you will love.
  • Notice how good you feel when you eat salads, fresh fruits, unprocessed food, and a variety of colorful veggies. When you compare this to the feelings of bloated, gassy, stuffed, puffy, brain-fog, and tired, the choice becomes clearer. Again, choose on purpose. Bonus item, you decide what you need to nourish your body. Not the people around you. Their choices are theirs and yours are yours. Practice being strong when you see others eating or drinking until you are secure in your ability to choose for yourself.
  • Think and plan ahead. Knowing how you want to feel can be a tool in picking what food you eat. One of my clients got so hooked on having plenty of energy to start his day off with a good workout at the gym, that he naturally chose healthier food the night before and made it a habit to get a good night’s sleep.

There is not a single pill, practice, or product that will change your relationship with food. This is work that is done on the inside of you. This is where the transformation lies.

Visualize this: Feeling relaxed around food, confident in your choices, and free from risky behavior. Having weight loss be the side-effect of your healthy practices instead of something upon which you are fixated. Choosing practices that help you feel better and better, and with which you can live and thrive for an indefinite period. And loving your body and getting your body to love you back by eating food that nourishes your body, and also your mind and your spirit.

It doesn’t matter if this is easy or not. The fact that this approach of working on you is so incredibly worth it makes up for any challenges you encounter along the way. Actually, you are worth it. Food is divine. Eating healthy food that provides nourishment is incredibly fun and pleasurable. As Michael Pollen says in In Defense of Food and Omnivore’s Dilemma,

Eat food. Not too much. Mostly plants.

Eating in this way is incredibly satisfying. This satisfaction translates to your ability to be free of needing food and obsessing about food after you complete a meal that is nourishing, balanced and complete. If you think you love food now, just you wait until you taste it on your tongue while practicing these distinctions. I learned about this from a friend who told me that she loves food so much, she wishes she could eat it all day. I suggested that she try this as an experiment. What if she gave herself permission to just eat whatever she wanted to eat, whenever the impulse occurred, for a couple of days to see how much she really loved food. She balked immediately. She knew that if she did that she would get sick of food. My point exactly. It’s awesome to love to eat food that give you natural energy and a healthy, vibrant body. It’s natural because eating in this way is a sublime experience.

Rosie Bank

Board Certified Integrative Nutrition Health Coach

Author Health Matters and Health Matters Podcast

Founder Bank on Your Body. Learn more.