Understanding your Psychological Relationship with Food  - Skylark Counselling

Food for Thought.  

In all my years as a clinician, I’ve yet to meet someone that hasn’t commented on wishing they exercised more, ate healthier, ate less, ate more, were slightly stronger, slightly smaller, slightly bigger all because of the burden of food. In fact, in all my years as a human, even outside of the therapy world, it comes up with relationships, friend groups, family commentary. The topic of food is in our Netflix histories, on the news, on our social media, it’s in our Zoom calls, on our kitchen counters and in our cupboards. We walk to the fridge just to open it, close it, and turn right back around where we came from, motivated by boredom, restlessness, procrastination. It gives us energy, can exhausts us, pushes us, pulls us, confuses us. Food is now a political decision, an ethical standpoint, a form of love or abuse on our bodies. Our relationship with food is a complex decision-making process – from planning, goal setting, preparation, to actually eating it, or to just resorting to the old Skip the Dishes account because today just isn’t the day.  

Our relationship with food shapes us. Nourishes us. Heals us. And breaks us.  

Food is a universal connector and is fundamentally tied to emotion. With food, we learn from each other, create with each other, talk with each other, and laugh with each other typically involving some sort of snack or meal. We use it to cope, gravitating towards it to de-stress, giving us the dopamine hit that our stressed brains are craving. It reminds us of our childhood dinners, what we hated but were told to eat as kids, it reminds us of the treats we traded at lunch time as kids, and how we now can purchase for ourselves as adults, so sometimes we lean a little hard into that feeling of empowerment with the tasty delicacies of life when we deserve that one reward for working so hard.

Our experience of food highlights our need for sensory stimulation: the crunch, the shape, the ease, feeling full, feeling hungry, and our brains light up when our body needs a distraction from how we’re currently feeling. Food is family legacy: the famous family recipe, the crock pot, the stir fry, the roast, the fundamental sandwich. Food is celebration: The birthday cake, the prayer service, the wedding, the potluck, the celebration of life. With every word, memories come back to us as we recall past events, and inevitably, the act of generosity is established through the crumbs and slices, the roasts and dishes, and defines who we are, and who we want to be.  

We use food to demonstrate our identities.

Our interactions with this substance are often non-consensual and often quite public. Feeling judgement from at the grocery store, as we navigate the world of expensive blueberries, plants versus meat, organic, GMO, healthy versus unhealthy, addictive versus controlled, salad versus hamburger, what our bodies need or don’t need, how much we care or don’t care, positive versus negative. The world of food is so polarized, so often by default, so are we.  

We often feel observed with the food decisions we make. Judgement from the number of delivery orders from our favorite restaurants, or from the type or lack of food we have to offer the unexpected guest within our homes, to the missing bag of chips our partner just purchased. Trends come and go with what’s the best way to navigate the world of food, but one thing remains constant: we aren’t what we eat on just a molecular level, but a psychological level as well.  

Food is a symbol of our value system: what we believe to be true, what we believe to be right, what we strive for, feel guilty for, what we regret, what we are proud of. The glass ceiling of food perfection can feel impossible to overcome as we could always eat healthier, research more, plan better. Food is kindness, as we offer to pick up the bill. Food is organization: what did we think of in advance. Food is self-care: the type of food, the quantities, when we eat or don’t eat. Food is a characteristic we are known by: the co-worker with the allergy, the friend who doesn’t eat sugar, the cousin that binge eats, the one that orders the salad. It can be claustrophobic and feel so frustrating as we are met with the same commentary about the same disclosure, or sometimes even worse, what people don’t say. Food is a symbol of our financial status: The budget we should’ve made, the restaurants we choose, the credit card bill shame, the drinks we pair it with.  We often want to escape to a place where food isn’t required, where we don’t struggle with decision paralysis or self-negotiation, or pressure to present the essence of our identities.  

The Rebellion.

And now enter my proposal on the importance of discussing our current relationship with food and the relationship we want to have. If you’ve made it this far in the article, there are pieces of this that relate to you or a loved one, pieces that you encounter on a daily basis as we fight the internal battle within ourselves and with society on how we want to push back with how much food dictates who we are in a negative way, and shift it to a place where our minds are at peace with the nourishment decisions we’ve made and are currently making, while being supportive to others around us as they navigate the same relationship founded in a different way.   

As a therapist, I couldn’t resist the urge to throw a few questions out there to shift away from food being such a focal point in whether we are good or bad, responsible or chaotic, controlling or lazy. I propose, we are not psychologically what we eat, and that food shouldn’t dictate the private pieces of who we are, it shouldn’t automatically be linked to health disclosures, financial circumstances, or assumptions of self-worth. Similar to a Michelin Star chef, our emotional relationship with food can be created, crafted to the experience of the food consumer or the food preparer to decide what the food means to them.  So, the therapeutic work lies in psychologically disconnecting food from the labels we don’t want to be affiliated with and connecting it towards the labels we do want. The good news is that labels are typically pretty loud, and as such, we often are pretty solid on what we don’t want to be known for.  

Back to the food for thought pun for a moment:  

  1. What identifiers do you want to connect with when it comes to benefits of food? I.e. I do want to be known for being vegan, or I do want to be known for being generous with food 
  1. What judgments do you want to distance yourself from? I order take-out too much, I waste money on food 
  1. Self-disclose the minimum and no need to justify: What would it be like to simply state: No thank you. Unapologetically, and without the reasoning of “No thank you, I can’t eat sugar, that’s why I’m passing on birthday cake.” Or “No thanks, I’m allergic to peanuts”.  The second part of the sentence is the disclosure, and we often feel pressured to disclose medical information or personal preference. Try leaving it out and monitoring other people’s discomfort if you don’t share the details. 
  1. How can you support those around you with food shame by saying something? Partners, parents, siblings, co-workers. People comment on each other’s meals, comment on themselves, or even avoid the topics.  
  1. How can you support those around you with food shame by not saying something? I.e. By not asking into the “no thank you,” by not commenting on the bag of chips, by not taking a second glance.  

If you’re wanting to discuss your relationship with food further, please reach out to our clinicians below. We’ve had these discussions over the years, and really do believe that we should be able to have a positive relationship with food, without feeling triggered, without judging ourselves, and utilizing it to what we need it for. We’ve worked with nutritionists, naturopaths, physicians, and psychologists, to further pinpoint how can we shift such a fundamental resource back to what it used to be: connection, identity, healing, and nourishment.  

Book Now with our Food Relationship Specialist:

Profile Picture of Kaitlin Harvey

Kaitlin Harvey

Kaitlin is an approachable, open, and friendly counsellor. Kaitlin specializes in substance use and addictions and is comfortable supporting sober-curious clients in exploring substance use patterns in counselling. Kaitlin offers individual counselling and relationship counselling to adults. Kaitlin is comfortable supporting a wide range of clients and is happy to collaborate with clients on either a clinical or non-clinical plan. ⁠

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