unpacking health, well-being, & food relationships

 
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Hello, dear reader friends! It has been awhile. I had to take a life break that isn't totally over, but this post has been in limbo for awhile and reflects my current circulating thoughts. So into the TMT blog roll it goes :). 

With NEDA week coming and going last week (and then International Women's Day this week), I've been reflecting a bit as 1) a woman with a lot of privileges and 2) a woman with a disordered eating past.

This year has been the first time that I really allowed myself to identify as someone with a history of disordered eating. That part was initially scary, but calling it out, I think, reduces its hold. This has been several years in the making, and is a result of what I can only call my recovery process. Honoring the truth in this, in acknowledging my own recovery process, has made reading and learning all of the amazing content and awareness campaigns put forth for NEDA much richer. 

Lately, what has emerged from all of this is the realization that expanding and challenging my understanding of health led to big shifts in how I see food and my body. It also led me towards focusing on my relationships, with myself and others, and that that is more indicative of my health. Health, by the way, is such a ruined term. So I'm throwing it around but not totally trying to :D.   

Today is my attempt to articulate how my understanding of health has shifted from a purely physical focus to a more inclusive definition, and how my food relationship has become healthier as a result. It is a much smaller, but much more enjoyable, part of life. Don't get me wrong. Food is a HUGE source of joy for me. Increasingly so, actually. But food overall has been lessened in terms of the mental energy that it consumes. And I truly think that this is because I am finally trying to pay attention to things that affect my well-being outside of physical health. Novel stuff. 

For the purposes of this post, I'm going to offer definitions of well-being and health:

 

well-being (v.): the process of learning to care for our whole selves, i.e. our mind, body, and spirit

health (n.): a culmination of mental, spiritual, and physical factors reflected in beliefs, attitudes, and behaviors, that constitute well-being for an individual (is this a run-on sentence?)

 

Seeking well-being means caring for our whole selves; caring for our whole selves includes paying attention to our health; and paying attention to our health means prioritizing our mental, spiritual, and (lastly) physical selves. Three halves make a whole, yes?   

 

When we eat, we are nourishing ourselves physically, mentally, and spiritually. This is observable in the various roles that food plays, often in a single day. The comfort of a morning coffee, the haphazardly eaten breakfast on the way out the door, the lunch eaten at a desk without much thought or attention, the snack offered by a coworker, the dessert shared with friends after dinner. Food isn't just energy. It is a physical need; an experience; a memory; a feeling; a communication. Hence the concept of being in relationship with food. Food can, and does, affect all aspects of our well-being. Daily.

 

So, why the emphasis on the relationship part of food? Relationships inherently act as buffers for examining our thoughts, beliefs, attitudes, and behaviors, because how we engage in relationships is a reflection of our own self. Because our food relationships are a way that we engage in relationship to ourselves, it indicates how we feel about ourselves. And how we relate to ourselves in our food relationship is more likely than not how we relate to ourselves in other ways. For example, if you are completely unforgiving of yourself over a food choice, would not it also be worth exploring if you are unforgiving of yourself in other ways? In this way, our food relationship is a looking glass into the state of our well-being. As an example, here are some thoughts that, in my opinion, are indicative of a not-so-healthy well-being:

 

Are you stressed if you didn't prep your lunch and it threw off your diet? Are you guilty over what you do eat if it doesn't fit the mold of what you are "supposed" to eat? 

Are you distracted throughout the day trying to figure out how much you would need to exercise if you went out to dinner? 

Is dessert enjoyable, or are you too focused on only eating a certain amount?

Is there guilt about eating dessert because you had a coworker's homemade cookie earlier in the day?

Does each eating occasion leave you feeling good or bad, depending how "in control" you feel?

Do you feel bad or good about yourself depending on what, when, or how much you eat?

 

None of these examples, however culturally "normal" they may be, support well-being. In the name of putting on my own oxygen mask before attempting to help others put on theirs (cliche-but-so-true self-help analogy FTW), I will not even try to pretend that caring for my whole self rather than just my physical self has gone swimmingly. Or that my food relationship is flawless. Rather, I am continuing to learn how my food relationship reflects overall how I relate to myself, and how that effects my well-being. As I try to be more observational with myself, it has become more evident that many of my food-related behaviors are symptomatic rather than causal. I am learning that, more often than not, that it has been past experiences, thought patterns, self-perception or objectification, and relationships are the negative forces affecting my well-being. Not so much the food. 

It has taken a long, long time to recognize that it isn't some tweak I need to make to my diet/body that will radically result in a healthier me. Rather than see food or the food-behaviors as the problem, it has been a process of recognizing them as symptoms of something deeper. Choosing well-being has also been a process of recognizing disordered eating behaviors, like restrict-binge cycles or orthorexic tendencies. And this is blurry -- clearly, there is a very fine line between self-study and a need for outside help. In the case of disordered eating behavior, even if not clinically diagnosed, time and outside help is likely needed.  

No one will dispute that clinical eating disorders have serious physical and mental health consequences (as they are indeed a mental health disorder), but we hear less about how disordered eating behavior, in any form, does too. I really like the analogy that I first heard on the Food Psych podcast, that we all fall somewhere along the disordered eating spectrum. On one end, there are extreme, clinical eating disorders, and on the other end is intuitive eating. Most individuals fall somewhere in between the two, and can move closer to one end or the other. I won't say it is normal to be free from disordered eating, because our culturally normative patterns of eating are disordered. This is the really stupid part, that our whole culture and system promotes disordered eating behaviors. Especially in the diet/health/wellness culture, which totally SUCKS because wanting to be well is a good thing.  

 

Regardless of what is considered socially acceptable or "normal" eating behavior, disordered eating is disordered eating is disordered eating. It does not bring us to a place of well-being, where our whole selves are being cared for. Disordered eating affects all three halves of our health and is harmful, so someone who is "well" isn't engaging in them. The horribly tricky part is awareness, and recognizing at different moments how deeply ingrained thoughts and beliefs can be (at least, this has been the case for me). This is why outside help is likely needed, because we can't always be aware of how we may be hurting our well-being.

 

This has been a long, sticky process. I'd like to say that I magically became self-aware, but it was because the behaviors horribly backfired that it became clear that they weren't helping me be a healthier person. It is a long, sticky process. Recently, I came across an old email exchange between myself and a friend from 2013. In the email, I was writing about my body image and food relationship, and things that I had noticed and no longer wanted to do because it was hurting me. All I can say is "well...shoot." I've been contemplating this stuff for 5 years. And I have so much more growing to do!  

 

My hope with this post is to remove the shame from being unwell. That it is okay to say that all is not well, and nope, I am not entirely sure how to care for myself in this moment, so I'm not entirely sure how to care for you in your moment. What I do know is that I can work towards identifying and reducing the behaviors, habits, beliefs, and attitudes that do not help me be well. To recognize when they come from a place of fear, from culture, or self-criticism. To talk about the process and encourage self-compassion, and self-forgiveness. I am working on being compassionate with myself because I implore with my patients, family, and friends to be compassionate with themselves. It is hard effing work, this being nice to ourselves business. One of my biggest difficulties with this has been letting go of the things promising a path to perfect health. And accepting that my previous ideas about health well-being are actually not health or well-being. At all.

 

As I've mentioned before on TMT, the past year or two have been huge growth years for me in deciding whether or not I wanted to give my whole self the time of day, rather than just my physical self. I'm not going to act like I'm 100% there. But I am committed to seeing and caring for my whole self, because I want to be able to see and care for the whole selves of others, in both personal and professional settings. There is so, so much more to us than our physical bodies, and being more rounded with people, and recognizing that the physical sometimes stems from the mental or spiritual, is so, so important. Our physical behaviors really may be indicative of hidden or less tangible behaviors that need unearthing. Things like how we talk to ourselves, think of ourselves, and see ourselves in the world. How sensitive we are to the messages around us. How adept we are at setting healthy boundaries. Accepting what we have gained and lost from our experiences and circumstances. 

 

To only change the physical behavior, with only the promise of physical health, is not well-rounded health care. It is reducing our needs to a singular thing, and it will not yield the desired result of better health and well-being. Because if we don't dig for these roots, how can we expect to truly be well? I would argue that we can't. 

This is why practicing something like intuitive eating and health at every size is so flipping difficult. They poke at our mental and spiritual health, because they are far more holistic in their approaches than "eat well! move! look a certain way!". The women who developed these models recognized and demonstrated that physical health isn't all there is, and trying to address only physical health backfires in the worst ways. Again, there is so much more to us than our bodies. 

I think a lot about the individuals that I interact with at my job. I am fortunate in that I see them regularly over the course of a year, as their "health" counselor. I am uncomfortable with the title, because I am not certain that I am truly helping them with all aspects of their health. Within my scope of practice, I am certainly hoping to. Like I said, all of this is very sticky. And I'm educated in food-related behaviors, so...yikes. I do believe that our food relationships can be a window to our mental health and sense of self, but I also know the remedy isn't to try and modify the food behavior. It is to address the roots. 

I want to be encouraging of caring for well-being, and in doing so that we more often consider our mental and spiritual health. To look at the "why's" behind the actions, and learn that like how food is not just a source of energy, our health is not just our physical bodies. It's nothing new to say that humans are highly complex individuals physically. We have unique bodies, genetics, histories, and physiologies, which is why we have so many specialties in health care (and p.s., nutrition science has a long way to go in this). It blows my mind to think of how complex we may be mentally and spiritually, as well. 

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To bring these thoughts back down to earth, I will leave with a comment on where I am at in my food relationship. I am trying to honor the many roles that food plays in my life. Not to overplay or to minimize, but to simply watch. And to recognize that it has a multi-faceted, but relatively small, role in my well-being. 

 

And with that, I hope you have a wonderful, wonderful weekend, dear reader friends! I will be back soon. 

 

xox

Alyssa