“Enjoy food for what it provides us”: Becoming aware of your food-body relationship
April 25, 2023
Imagine a relationship where someone is obsessing about something, acting differently around people not in the relationship, pulling away from social circles, feeling anxious when they think about their relationship, or even getting physically sick from the toll the relationship has taken on them.
These are all signs of a negative relationship — not a romantic, friendly or familial one, but one with your body and food.
Although signs of an unhealthy relationship can be tough to spot within yourself, they are not impossible.
According to Nancy Farrell, registered dietician nurse and spokesperson for the Academy of Nutrition and Dietetics, eating disorders among college students is significantly present. The academy is the world’s largest organization representing credentialed nutrition and dietetics practitioners, founded in 1917 in Ohio.
Farrell noted some studies suggest 10-20% of women and 4-10% of men present eating disorder symptoms.
Disordered eating is classified as unhealthy and hyper focused relationships with food, often the precursor to an eating disorder; which is categorized by symptoms and criteria defined by the American Psychiatric Association.
“Signs and symptoms of disordered eating can include rigid rituals and routines surrounding food and exercise; anxiety associated with specific foods; skipping meals; chronic weight fluctuations; frequent feelings of guilt or shame associated with eating…” Farrell said – and the list goes on.
According to Farrell, one of the most difficult aspects of spotting these warning signs is a change in eating patterns where the individual sees the new eating patterns as acceptable – creating the danger for disordered eating.
“Recognizing weight fluctuations or weight shifts largely in one direction should set off an initial ‘awareness alarm’ in any one of us,” Farrell said. “This is where honest self-talk about self-care is a good first step, yet so hard to do when accepting the pattern as normal.”
Farrell elaborated that these “honest self-talk” conversations can help a person to notice what is going on in their body; to pay attention to what exactly they are noticing when they take a step back to look at what they are feeling and what is going on in their lives.
An honest self-talk, according to Farrell, might sound like: “I can’t understand why I keep gaining weight. I’m getting nervous and depressed. I don’t want to go out with anybody anymore. I’m mad; I’m just not myself.”
…Which Farrell notes should end with, “maybe I should see my doctor”.
According to Ozge Akcali, director of training and a psychologist with Oregon State University’s Counseling and Psychological Services, talking with someone you trust is an important first step in preventing disordered eating habits from turning into an eating disorder.
“The sooner the person addresses these behaviors and associated feelings, the more likely they will develop a healthy relationship with food and with their body,” Akcali said.
Farrell advises to first and foremost be open and validate the feelings of the loved one struggling with disordered eating if they come to you as a trusted person.
“There are many feelings, emotions and thoughts wrapped up in these diseases,” Farrell said. “This illness is first and foremost a psychological one that manifests itself around control of food and eating.”
Eating disorders most commonly develop between the ages of 14 and 25, hitting their peak prevalence just at the age of typical college students. But the added stresses of college, work, and classes, in addition to figuring out how to manage and buy your own food, make it no wonder that building a positive relationship with food and your body can be difficult.
“One of the biggest issues (for college students) is that food is everywhere on campus – specialty sandwich, coffee and snack shops, dining halls, college rooms, fast food, midnight pizza runs and late-night cookie deliveries, etc. Managing all of this is new and can be overwhelming for students,” Farrell said.
Farrell noted that people make more decisions on food each day than on various other aspects of life, and this makes their relationship with it even more important.
“It is estimated that we make over 200 decisions each day on food and eating. And the resultant outcomes of those decisions shape who we are physically, physiologically and mentally today and in the future,” Farrell said.
Farrell offers some ways for students to mitigate potential triggers or set a good foundation for a positive relationship with food.
○ Create a structure for eating around your academic schedule. “Set basic times for breakfast, lunch, snacks and dinner. This routine will help you avoid the fast food, eating out of a container on the run pattern,” Farrell said.
○ Do not go out to lunch everyday – Farrell notes that there can be other ways to stay social with friends without hurting your wallet or creating unrealistic eating expectations.
○ “Make the most out of your snacks,” Farrell said. Include snacks with high fiber and protein such as berries and yogurt, veggies, lean jerky sticks, hard cooked egg, fruit and an ounce of nuts.
○ Avoid using food as a mechanism to work through your emotions – “Feel your emotion and work to solve the issue at hand,” Farrell said.
○ Keep snack foods out of sight in your room
○ Stay hydrated
“Just like you work at becoming good at math or tennis or speaking a foreign language, for example, work to become good at following, and role modeling, healthy eating patterns as you shift through various stages of life,” Farrell said.
Akcali encourages people to find and explore activities that work preventatively on a positive relationship with your body.
“Explore activities that would increase protective factors, such as developing a self-definition that is not focused on appearance and developing intuitive/ mindful eating practice along with respect for the day-to-day functions of their body,” Akcali said.
For someone who is actively struggling with their relationship with food, Farrell said it is sometimes difficult to bring the issue to light, especially when disordered eating and warning signs of unhealthy relationships are not often talked about.
“It is scary to admit what is perceived to be a deficiency, defect or needs improvement in life,” Farrell said.
No matter where someone is, whether it be struggling to see the warning signs or trying to ask for help, remember that these feelings are not forever and you will be okay.
“Enjoy food for what it provides us,” Farrell said.
If you are struggling, reach out to the national helpline ( 800-931-2237), OSU CAPS or find a registered dietitian and nutritionist at https://www. eatright.org/.