"Have I got a story for you....."

By Adam Glasgow - 7/11/2016

What’s Your Food Story?

Over the last 11 years of performing weight loss surgery, I have talked to a lot (and I mean A LOT) of people about their relationship with food.  I’ve talked to over 2000 patients, to many doctors, nurses and nutritionists, and of course to my own family and friends. And perhaps more important than talking, I have listened. As I think about these many interactions, one theme becomes clear:  Food means different things to different people. People eat for different reasons. People think about food differently, and they interact with it differently. Everyone has their own personal relationship with food – their own “food story.”

For each of us, understanding our own food story is crucial to developing a healthy relationship with food. If we can unlock a little bit of the mystery surrounding why we eat and the patterns we have developed over time, we can start to take away some of the power that food holds in our lives.

Do you understand your own food story and how it impacts your life? Here are some guideposts to start thinking about your story.

WHAT DOES FOOD MEAN TO YOU?

Food & Childhood – What role did food play in your life when you were a child? Did your parents show you love through food? Was food ever used as a reward (you can have dessert if you clean your room) or punishment (you hit your brother so you can’t have dessert)? Were you forced to eat “healthy” foods you didn’t like (finish your broccoli) or clean your plate? Were there ever times that you didn’t have enough food or went hungry? Thinking about the role that food played during your childhood can be key to understanding the eating patterns you have as an adult.

Food & Love – For many people, food represents love. When we are young, we are nurtured by our parents through food. Maybe a parent or grandparent cooked special dishes that they knew we loved, or we felt nurtured during family gatherings. That strong emotional pull can stay with us and eating may recreate that feeling of happiness and safety.

Food & Emotion – Many of us over-eat in times of stress, and sometimes are not even aware we are doing it. Eating can be an escape -- it seemingly takes our minds off our troubles and provides a temporary distraction.

Food & Hunger – For some people, eating is less emotional and more physical. Does it seem like you are always hungry? Is your drive to eat motivated by just not feeling satisfied?

Food & Fun – There is no denying that food is associated with good times – social events, family celebrations, dinners out, summer night ice cream runs.  Sometimes the desire for an “experience” becomes intertwined with food.

WHAT ARE YOUR EATING PATTERNS?

Over-eating – Do you find that once you start eating, you eat until you are completely stuffed? Do you eat large portions without regard to whether you actually feel full? For some of us, our pattern is just to eat and eat and then eat some more. We only stop when we feel nearly ill (think pants-unbuttoning Thanksgiving dinners).

Mindless eating – Many people eat because they are bored, or the food is just there. They are grazers, eating all of the time, without really even thinking about what they are doing.

Stress eating – If you eat excessively when you are having a bad day, or your kids or your spouse upset you, or you got in trouble at work, you are stress eating. Given that many of our lives are almost always stressful, for many of us, stress eating can become an every day event.

Addictive eating – Certain foods can trigger the release of highly pleasurable brain chemicals like dopamine. Foods that are high in fat and sugar, and most often carbohydrates, can actually become addictive. Do you have strong cravings for certain foods that pre-occupy your thoughts? Do you find yourself unable to resist them? Do you offer yourself justifications for eating something? Do you hide your eating? Does your eating cause you to feel shame? It is important to recognize these addictive eating patterns in order to overcome them. If you are an addictive eater, supplementing your weight loss with a program like Overeaters Anonymous can be very helpful.

Cultural eating – Many religious and ethnic cultures have a strong focus on food which is a meaningful part of tradition. Do you find yourself eating because that is the custom of your community?

Eating while drinking – As we all know, consumption of alcohol lowers our inhibitions. If you are a frequent drinker, that may also correlate with eating excessively or unhealthily.

Current Family and Social Circle – Think about the eating patterns you have developed within your family unit and your broader social circle. Are you more likely to eat in a dysfunctional way with certain people, or in certain social situations? What eating practices have you developed in your own home, with your children or your spouse? Is food a cause of tension in any of your relationships? Are any of your relationships focused around food?

SO WHAT DOES ALL OF THIS MEAN?

These are not easy questions and there are certainly no easy answers.  The first step is to understand your own history and identify what food really means to you. As you begin to understand what food represents, think about how it relates to your current eating habits. You likely will find connections between what food symbolizes and how you are “using” it in your current life.

Jot down some notes about your own “food story.” Self awareness is a powerful step towards change.

Then when you feel yourself gravitating towards an unproductive eating behavior, STOP and SLOW DOWN. Think about your food story and what you are really looking for and why.

Also think about the following additional steps to make change:

  • If you identify certain situational triggers to your eating patterns, such as mindless or stress eating, put a structure or diversion in place to avoid eating at those times.

  • If you have childhood or emotional connections to your eating patterns, consider meeting with a therapist who can help you understand these issues and heal the wounds that underlie them.

  • Don’t place yourself in situations that are likely to spur unhealthy patterns. If you make poor choices when you drink or dine out, do something else instead. Do things to make your battle easier, not harder.

  • If you are eating because you enjoy the social or cultural experience, recognize that you can attain those same goals without an unhealthy relationship with food. Enjoy the “experience” not the consumption.

  • If you are eating addictively, consider adding a treatment program or therapy to your weight loss plan. Overcoming an addiction is not easy, but it can be done with support.

Our goal is to make food just “food,” and your food story just a “story!”  We want to eat to live and not live to eat.

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