Our food choices: are we surviving or thriving?

We all have an emotional relationship with food. From the first sup of milk as a hungry baby, food becomes our comfort and reward. Our survival entirely depends on our caregivers providing us with sustenance. As we grow older our relationship with food becomes more complex. Even for a toddler food wields bargaining power in negotiations between parent and child. As teenagers and then adults our self esteem, body image and eating patterns become inextricably linked.

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Food has never been so topical, or so polarising. Our food choices, and the impact these have on ourselves, our relationships and the environment, are fundamental to whether we survive or thrive. When it comes to the choices we make in the supermarket, ordering in a café or restaurant, or celebrating a special occasion, are we surviving or thriving?

Increasingly we are bombarded by opinions concerning what we should and shouldn’t eat. In addition, social media creates pressure to attain an ideal of perfection. When our energy and attention is consumed by these pressures we lose focus on the enjoyment and fulfillment eating can provide. Food, and our choices around it, becomes a source of stress. If food is creating stress in our lives we are no longer thriving.

It isn’t a simple matter of making healthy or unhealthy choices. Our choices are influenced by our upbringing, habits and environment. We also face deeper psychological risks such as using food to deal with the emotions of loneliness, emptiness and shame. Feeling acceptable to ourselves and others - our self-worth - becomes associated with the food we choose. If we obsess about controlling our food intake we have little chance of moving beyond survival. We are tightly and protectively furled like a bud; there is no possibility to bloom and thrive.

To thrive is to be the best we can be. To thrive is to grow, to embrace change, to be resilient to adversity, to be able to cope with the inevitable stress of life and to prioritise our well-being and self-care. How many of us consume without tasting or savouring what we are putting in our mouths? How often do we truly engage with what we eat; with the colour, texture, smell, sound and taste of our food? In order to thrive we need to experience the joy and pleasure of eating: the creative, nourishing and social aspects of cooking and feeding ourselves and others.

As a therapist I meet with clients who are struggling with the problems of disordered eating and I see the devastating effect that has on their lives. In the safety of a therapeutic space they can start to understand the complexity of their emotions and connections associated with eating. They see how limiting it is to be in survival mode.

Survival does not leave room for curiosity, creativity or sensuous appreciation. If we are constantly hypervigilant to, and in fear of, the risks surrounding eating there can be little room for anything else. Furthermore, we become disassociated with our physical bodies, our intuition, and the realisation of what makes us feel well, vibrant and content; we get caught up in destructive habits and behavioral patterns.

In the continuing journey we all have with food, a first step is eating mindfully. We need to be present, in the moment and cultivate awareness of the choices we make that involve food: buying it, preparing it, serving it and eating it. Mindful eating can help to anchor ourselves in the physical body, to reacquaint ourselves with our individual, and very particular, physical needs; it is only then that we are able to make the right choices.

With the freedom to choose we can thrive, we have options and a vision; we can look outwards rather than inwards which is so much better for ourselves, those around us and society as a whole.

Mary Wood

“Food is much more than just a matter of fuel – it marks us as human, situates us in time and place and shapes our relation to each other and the rest of the world” (Polly Russell) Mary Wood has over 15 years of experience working with individuals and families to treat the full spectrum of eating disorders, weight management and body image. Mary helps clients move beyond the established diet myths and beliefs, to a new and mindful relationship with food and eating. Mary helps clients understand and address root causes, which may include trauma, stress and low self-esteem and she understands how disordered eating can blight happiness, relationships and self–belief. Mary empowers her clients to achieve greater vitality and resilience by challenging destructive patterns and establishing new routines and relationships, and teaching new skills to cope with everyday situations. Mary uses an integrative and multi-disciplinary based approach to focus on the unique journey of each patient. When appropriate Mary works with clinical practitioners, dieticians and nutritionists. Mary sees clients in West London and online. She also runs online group programmes for weight management.