Last night, I watched a film in the centre’s movie room. As I settled on the couch, I proceeded to eat a Mars Bar and buttered popcorn. Halfway through the movie, I was struck by how relaxed and free I am about my eating now. It’s been years since I’d thought anything about it, since I’d obsessed about everything I ate.
Eating a Mars Bar without calculating the kind of ‘damage’ it could have on my body is so liberating. I have been on countless diets in the past, obsessively counting calories, carb portions, fat grams, weighing myself, measuring myself, scaring myself with the imagined effects food could have on my body shape – wrecking my sense of self-worth with massive guilt and self-beating, and then neutralising the effects with diet pills, stimulants and appetite suppresants.
I now allow myself to eat whatever I want, and have found great freedom. When I was trying to control what and how much I ate, I became out-of-control. Now I have the most liberating relationship with food where I am able to enjoy the pleasures of eating without feeling guilty or getting out-of-control. My weight is healthy and stable, and I am totally rid of all stresses around food and eating.
I call the way I now eat “intuitive eating”. It requires one to develop the practice of being fully present in the body. When we’re present in our body, we would intuitively know what our body wants. The body has an intelligence, and it is giving us information about ourselves all the time. If we were to tune in to what it is saying to us, we would gain a lot of self-awareness.
To get to the point of intuitive eating, however, we need to first address the issues that drive us to have an unhealthy relationship with food (see below). Throughout my struggles with eating disorders, I’d measured my entire self-worth by how I looked. Since my image of my body was so bad, my self-worth was virtually zero.
Food was a scapegoat. If I didn’t have food to focus on and blame for all my insecurities, I’d have to turn my attention onto myself and examine what exactly was going on in me. That is why attempting to change our habits around food without examining our deeper issues rarely works in the long run.
My way of intuitive eating extends to the rest of my life. When we are present and attuned to the needs of our body, that strong connection to ourselves enables us to be guided by our own innate wisdom – through our bodily responses, emotions, inspired thoughts, knowingness, premonitions, visions and spiritual insights. By relaxing into and trusting the wisdom of our body, life becomes a joyful experience where we are simultaneously in control and in surrender to a greater intelligence.
Following are excerpts from a chapter in my book ‘Flowing Through The Void’ which examines the psychological motivations behind eating disorders:
Food is sustenance and nurturance. As babies, we could not feed ourselves and depended on our parents to feed us. Feeding times were the times when our parents held us close to their bodies and showed us affection, so we learned to associate food with love. If by the time we were able to feed ourselves our parents neglected us, we would feel deprived of love and turn to food to evoke feelings of being loved by our parents. Food has becomes a source of comfort.
Sometimes, as we grew up, our parents continued to use food to express their love. In some cases, food is used as a substitute for love, especially when the parents have problems expressing their love. If food is a central theme in the household, it would be assumed that everyone understood that love is being shown when food is shared. This is fine if it is balanced by some expression of love and affection. But when the parents show no love and keep shoving food at us, we can develop an unbalanced view of food.
Those who grew up in poor families may end up seeing food as a scarce commodity, and end up either having an inflated value for food or a resentful attitude to food. If they have an inflated value for food, they may later use food as a substitute for love or eat excessively to make up for not having enough in the past. If they have a resentful attitude to food, they may later ‘take revenge’ on food by being extremely choosy about the kind of food they would eat, or reject food by undereating, or use food to punish another.
All these dynamics can give rise to eating disorders. For those who suffer from eating disorders, food is often a shameful subject. They know they have an abusive relationship with food and feel ashamed of themselves around food. To begin healing the eating disorders, their relationship with food needs to be explored deeper.
1. Begin by asking yourself, what’s your truth? This is your truth on a conscious level. What are your eating habits?
“My truth is, I don’t want to be overweight anymore. I love to eat fatty foods and then I neutralise it with stimulants and laxatives.”
“I want to be able to enjoy food more. I cannot seem to put on any weight and I feel sick when I think of food.”
2. Explore the belief you have behind your habits. Your habits are either to avoid something or to gain something. Is there anything you are running away from that your habits help to mask? What do you think you’ll gain from it?
“Why do I eat foods that make me fat, and why do I tend not to be able to stop eating? I’m afraid it will run out, so I’m taking in as much as possible while it’s still there.”
“Deep down, I feel bad for eating. If I eat, I’d deprive my siblings of their share.”
3. What does food mean to you? What does it represent?
“Abundance, comfort. As I eat, I’m hating myself, and feeling lonelier and lonelier.”
“Food to me is a source of unhappiness. I hate it.”
4. What thoughts go through your mind as you’re eating? What emotions go along with those thoughts?
“Inadequacies. As I’m eating, I’m replaying scenes from the past where I’d been rejected, judged, looked down upon, etc. Feelings of being unloved and low self-esteem. These feelings drive me to eat more, and the more I eat the worse I feel.”
“Guilt, bitterness. I’m judging myself angrily as I’m eating. I feel I shouldn’t need to eat and feel angry that I am eating.”
5. Sum up your relationship with food.
“I eat to get love. Food is a substitute for love.”
“I equate eating with putting unhappiness inside me.”
When we eat more than our body needs to function healthily, we are overeating. When we overeat excessively and obsessively, we are bingeing on food. In these cases, food is being used to numb our pain like a drug, or to counter an emptiness we feel inside.
If deep down we feel deprived of love, we may eat as if this is the last time we get to eat, to try to take in as much as we can this time because we hold a belief that there is not enough food, or love, to go around. We become greedy around food, hoarding food in our body. Except our body can take only a certain amount of food before we feel uncomfortable or get sick. If we do this repeatedly, we will likely manifest a variety of symptoms in our body, such as obesity and heart problems.
No matter how much we eat, it won’t leave us satiated. Our appetite is for something less tangible. What is it that you need? When you can see that food is a substitute for something else and you understand the irrationality of stuffing yourself with food, you can begin to reverse your habits.
What is the emptiness inside? What are you deprived of? People often stuff themselves to fill an emptiness inside – a feeling of loneliness and disconnectedness that creates a vacuum inside. Food is solid and grounding; it gives us an immediate sensation of being full and the flavours of food stimulate our senses so that we feel more connected to ourselves. But it cannot fill the emptiness inside, and so we eat more and more. The more we eat, the more we feel the emptiness, which drives us to eat even more. This vicious cycle spins with increasing intensity and we become out of control, until our body cannot take any more food.
At the end of a bingeing session, we are often left feeling guilty and shameful. In an attempt to neutralise the effects of our bingeing, we may make ourselves throw up or take laxatives to purge what we’ve taken in. We may isolate ourselves in shame or engage in destructive activities to distract ourselves from guilty feelings.
Overeating can be a form of self-abuse. We may know the negative effects overeating can have on our body and somehow want to bring those effects onto ourselves. Was food used as a punishment in your household when you were growing up? When food was used as punishment and the person has also been conditioned to feel shameful about himself, it is likely that he will develop the habit of abusing himself with food. In such cases, we stuff ourselves to get to the pain of having eaten too much, believing that we deserve to have pain inflicted upon us.
In all the scenarios mentioned, the relationship with food needs to be changed; our attitude towards food and our beliefs around food need to change. There is nothing wrong with seeing food as love, but not as a substitute for love. As food is sustenance, when we give sustenance to someone it is an act of love. So when we feed ourselves, we are loving ourselves. But when we are operating from a mentality of scarcity, we may see the value of food in general but unable to appreciate its true value. Hence, we stuff ourselves with huge amounts of food without deriving its true value. This is one reason why we are unable to feel truly satiated no matter how much we eat.
The key to changing our attitude to food is to apply the concept of Full Immersion to eating. Slow down and appreciate every morsel you take in with more depth. Instead of putting huge amounts of food quickly into your mouth (stretching across on a two-dimensional platform), increase the depth of the experience by opening up to the depth of the taste and flavours of the food.
Every morsel of food can sustain and nourish us more than we’ve allowed ourselves to recognise. Reflect on the true value of every morsel: the sensory stimulation from the flavours, its nutritional value, and spiritual nourishment. This way, you can train yourself to derive more out of smaller amounts of food, and eventually cut down the amount of food it takes to satiate you. Stretch the process of eating by slowing down the time between picking up the food and putting it into your mouth, and between chewing and swallowing.
When you eat mindfully this way, you become more grounded in your body and have body awareness. With body awareness, you’ll begin to hear what your body is telling you and eat according to what your body needs. Tune in by noticing the energy of the food in your body as you eat. This way, you’ll cultivate a habit of listening to your body and knowing intuitively what to feed it. You’ll begin to choose healthier foods that nourish your body and a balance of various foods that feed your soul.
Undereating, Anorexia, Bulimia
People who tend to eat less than their body needs to be strong and healthy do so due to a variety of reasons. In one of the examples in the awareness exercise above, food was associated with pain. It triggered unhappy feelings for the person and was therefore a source of pain for her. She might’ve had been abused around food as a child and developed shame, guilt or anger around food. On the other hand, a person who associates food with love might be rejecting love by rejecting food. The underlying issue is a strong belief that he is unworthy and undeserving of love.
Another issue behind under-eating is fear of losing control. Firstly, if you tend to over-eat, you may go to the other extreme in an attempt to control your over-eating: you believe that if you allowed yourself to eat, you would lose control and eat too much; and you end up starving yourself. Usually, this fear of control goes beyond eating and is prevalent in the person’s life in general. Not eating, therefore, is a way of gaining control. This is especially prevalent in those whose childhood environment was chaotic and unpredictable, and the person had no sense of control over his environment. To counter the fear of losing control, they control the only thing they feel they can, which is eating.
Children who undereat may do so to manipulate their parents. They may want attention from their parents, if they’d felt neglected. It is common for children to ‘act up’ and do things that anger their parents because they don’t feel safe to tell their parents what they really need, which is their love. They expect that if they caught their parents’ attention, they’d automatically be shown love. Children may also rebel against eating to get back at their parents. As kids, we had few options for punishing our parents. Intuitively though, we knew that our not eating would have an effect. A lot of our upbringing is centered around being fed and given food – we were constantly reminded to “eat this” or “finish your food’, so much so that we knew how much it mattered to our parents that we ate.
Sometimes, a person avoids eating to avoid facing the feelings she has. Eating immediately grounds us in our body and make us aware in our body (before we start bingeing, in which case we become numb to our feelings). The person may have stored a lot of pain inside which she is afraid to face. She may feel that putting food inside her would rock the boat of ignorance and open a pandora’s box of horrible feelings she would then have to deal with. At times, a person is simply terrified of gaining weight due to issues with body image.
When undereating is taken to the extreme, a person may develop anorexia, a condition which is also a body image disorder. People with anorexia see themselves as overweight even when they are obviously underweight. Somewhere along the process of under-eating, we might have developed a distorted image of our bodies – we fear eating so much that we’ve convinced our minds that we don’t need to eat by believing that we are fat. We wanted to believe this so much that we’ve created a distortion so that we won’t ever see it any other way.
Another form of eating disorder is bulimia, in which a person forces himself to regurgitate the food he had just eaten. Superficially, it is done to avoid putting on weight, but it has deeper psychological motivations. It is often preceded by bingeing, which suggests that a bulimic person may be driven by two opposing sets of fears – for example, a desperation for love as well as unworthiness. Control is a common issue behind bulimia – a person who fears losing control manifests that fear through eating uncontrollably and then ‘proving’ to herself that she can control matters by making herself throw up.
Doing the exercise of applying the concept of Full Immersion to eating as described in the previous section will change your attitude towards food and help heal your relationship with food. By recognising the true value of food, you learn to see food as sustenance, nurturance, nourishment and love. The act of eating mindfully and lovingly will begin to heal feelings of unworthiness that caused you to reject food. As you heal yourself, you’ll begin to eat more healthfully and adequately.
Update: There is now a workbook available to guide you through this deep self-awareness exercise around food. See Heal Your Relationship With Food Heal Yourself