How to find true freedom with food

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by Lisa Byrne

Lisa is the bestselling author of Replenish and founder of WellGrounded Life. She's got a big-hearted vision of a world where moms are fully equipped to live calm, healthy, and vibrant lives. She lives in New Jersey with her husband, three kids, and 110 pound yellow lab.

The other day I was working with a private coaching client and listening to her share about her struggles with junk food cravings.

I was listening to this smart woman share about her struggles and I heard things like, “Oh, I just totally gave in“, “I knew I shouldn’t be eating it,” and “This was so bad but I ate it anyway….and then I just couldn’t stop.”

And though those were her literal words, what I heard was something much deeper. It’s something that so many of us do all the time. We use food as a weapon.

We use food as a numbing agent.  We use food as a coveted illicit pleasure in a game where we test how long we can resist it to prove our strength.  We use food as everything but how it is meant to be used… an enjoyable, health-giving tool.

If you know my work, you know that I’m a huge anti-diet advocate. But many of us who don’t believe we are “dieters” still fall into the same traps by deeming some foods “bad.”  If you peek underneath—these foods are bad because we have made the rule that if we eat them we are bad.


Brene Brown, the brilliant vulnerability and shame researcher who explores how to live wholeheartedly, talks about a crucial difference between shame and guilt. As she says, guilt is “what I did was bad” and shame is “I am bad.”  The difference is subtle, but the impact is hugely different.

Guilt gives us an opportunity to learn from our mistakes, grow, and do better next time.

Guilt self-talk around food might be: “Wow, eating that slice of cake after such a big meal made me feel sick and bloated. That is just not worth it, I’m going to remember next time to take a few deep breaths and really check in with my body before I order dessert.”

Shame destroys our self value and self worth.

Shame self-talk around food goes something like: “I can’t believe I ate that slice of cake. I can never control myself. I deserve to be this overweight, out of shape mother. It makes me sick that I gave in to dessert again.”

And then, all too often, it’s followed by a late-night binge to try and numb the pain of how bad you feel about yourself.

Food is a neutral tool.

Instead of seeing food as a neutral tool to help us live vibrant lives, we give it deeper meanings. And in a diet-crazed society, that deeper meaning is that there are some foods that make you a bad person when you eat them.

Here’s the thing—until we see food as a tool and disengage it from the emotional dark place of shame, we will be kept in a psychological struggle with it our whole lives. Become aware—deeply aware—and curious about how foods make you literally and emotionally feel.

Not whether the food is bad or good. Not whether it is right or wrong to eat it. Instead, every time you eat something ask yourself does this make me feel…

  • Light?  Energized?  Clean?
  • Strong?  Focused?  Scattered?
  • Anxious?  Calm?  Comforted?
  • Warm?  Sensual?  Delighted?
  • Weighted down? Bloated? Thirsty?

Get curious, not judgmental.

Once you’re used to making connections between the food you eat and how you feel, ask yourself that question before you eat it. “How is this food going to make me feel?”

When we release the restriction and the judgement that food is good or bad, we can also release the deeper judgement that we are good or bad for choosing those foods.

From this place, we can relearn how to use food as the phenomenal tool that it is.

One of my favorite ways to reacquaint myself with life-giving, healthy, vital foods is through periodic, whole-foods cleansing. I know that like anything, cleansing and detox can be used as a weapon—I’ve heard many stories of women starving themselves in the name of detoxifying, and resurfacing hungry, weak, and irritable.

A personalized, whole-foods, vital-living cleanse.

That is not the kind of whole-foods cleanse I’m talking about. What I love to do is lead others through a whole-foods, whole-life cleanse that takes into account your whole person.  The key elements of a healthy foods based cleanse is that you give your body an opportunity to be drenched in foods that are targeted to scrub out, flush through, and nourish your cells and your detoxification organs.

In fact, in preparation for my spring cleansing course, I’m putting together a free video workshop called How to Create Your Personalized Whole-Life Cleansing Plan. If you’re interested in gaining access as soon as it’s ready, head here.

I have seen women find tremendous freedom around food issues by taking a decidedly feminine approach to disengaging the emotional underbelly. Instead of trying to force your way to eating well, release your judgement, turn a loving gaze of grace and kindness toward yourself, and get curious about how food makes your body feel.

Then practice using food as a vitality-giving tool. Make food choices based on what you want to bring into your body versus what you want to keep out.

Do you find you fall into shame talk with food?  How you ever tried simply being curious about how foods make you feel?

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Comments

  1. This is an interesting view on food. I definitely have strong associations with food in terms of guilt and I think I’ve eaten that way for so long that I am not always aware of how my body feels from food, because my emotions override those signals. I am interested in seeing how your cleanse works.

    • Hi Alia Joy,

      Great insight- that your strong emotional responses to food “override” hearing how your body feels from it– It truly can cloud our ability to get those body-level messages when we are wrapped into an emotional response around food.

  2. I’ve been thinking of how to explain food to my daughters. This was very timely. Thanks!

  3. Absolutely! We have been working our way to a whole foods diet, but it hasn’t been easy. Easier for my babes who haven’t known anything different, but my husband and I still fall back on what is comfortable, or we get lazy and buy takeout when we know that our bodies won’t like it. Interesting thoughts!

    • Thanks, Heather…It really is a journey, not an overnight thing. Small intentional actions produce huge results in the end, though :)

  4. I know I use food improperly: as a reward, a comfort, etc. Over the last year or so I’ve been taking baby steps towards a better view of food, noticing how different foods make me feel and trying to incorporate real food into our lives in a much more intentional way. I like the word curious. I didn’t have a word before to focus on how I should feel towards food and this is a great one.

  5. I absolutely LOVE this Lisa. I actually just finished reading a book called Women, Food and God and the author talked about a lot of things you mentioned. The fact of the matter is, MOST things in life are neutral and we apply our meaning to them based on our perceptions and learning. Food is no different. We have to first become mindful of eating and eating what and when our body tells us. So very hard for me to trust a body that society (even the medical community) typically view as untrustable. But after all, our bodies were designed to live and be healthy so I’m learning to have a little more faith in the body God created and a little LESS reliance on what my mind says to do. Thanks for sharing!

  6. I think I might be the only man on the planet that enjoys reading a couple of mommy blogs, but how can I resist when the contributors of this site consistently put such great stuff out there.

    Men have a terrible time with overeating, guilt, and self-image as well. Why else would P90x have such tremendous success?

    Ironically, our senior pastor preached a sermon on overeating this past Sunday. It was fantastic, and here is a link if you want to listen: http://www.gracecc.org/sermon/self-indulgence-temperance/

  7. This is fantastic! I’ve been working through my own emotional issues surrounding food, and your post today gave me a lot to chew on as I make my body healthier. I have 119 lbs left to lose (yes, I’ve already lost some weight!), and it wasn’t until I changed my thinking about why I eat that I could purposefully begin to lose weight. Tucking this away for future encouragement! :-)

    • Hi Laura! Congratulations for the weight released already! Our minds are simply our most powerful tools of change- love hearing you are bringing your thoughts into your physical health goals!

  8. This was great, and this isn’t even something I struggle with terrible. But I am going to keep it in mind the next time I feel guilty when I load up my cart and still have some processed food in there. We are getting close to all whole foods, but I should make sure I am doing it for the right reasons. Thanks!

  9. What a great perspective. I think I need to adopt this approach to my eating habits. Thanks!

  10. Lisa – this is beautifully written! Food is such a gift – it sustains us, gives us energy, helps us connect to people and place, and can be a beautiful taste experience – and yet we’ve come to see it as such a potentially negative and harmful thing in our lives. Many years ago, I had a number of inexplicable health problems; it was suggested that I go through an elimination diet to see if food was the cause. It was. For the first time in my life, I became conscious of my relationship with food. The experience caused me to begrudgingly track what I ate, how it made me feel, if it caused any reactions – good or bad, and how my health changed over time. A side-effect was that I began to pay attention to what I ate, what I enjoyed most, how food looks, and to notice differences in how things tasted; it became a sensory experience – not just a test of health. It was the best training I could have had and has become second-nature. It is what helped me reach a point where I gladly eat what I want to bring into your body and no longer worry about keeping things out. I will be sharing your post, because I think it is a message that more people need to hear!

  11. Some of those “naughty” foods just taste so delicious. I know I need to learn some self control. Yes, I can have some, just know when to stop.

  12. I know that as a marathoner, when I get into high mileage training my view of food changes, I start seeing it as fuel and find myself reaching for things that are going to give me more energy for the run. However when I am not gearing up for a race I find myself just digging into food without much thought, and I am always amazed at how more sluggish I feel. I want so badly to keep the food as fuel mindset all the time.

  13. This was an A+++ post! Thank you! Well written and so full of TRUTH that so many of us need to hear and know.

  14. While I’ve struggled with weight/food issues most of my life, I no longer fall into shame talk around food. I like how you have drawn attention to the differences between guilt and shame and yet, guilt is not the healthiest motivator, either – particularly because as women we are often bombarded by messages or feelings of guilt. The idea of questioning, however, is brilliant; it is empowering rather than destructive. And yes, I do much more of this these past few years as I’ve learned to further trust and love my (imperfect) body.

  15. Hi Lisa, I’m subscribed to your newsletter and love your posts here as well. I’ve got very strong associations with food and what’s really helped me is paying attention to my meals. I’d posted about it long ago here http://www.themomwrites.com/2010/04/eating-mindfully-to-experience-food-and-lose-weight.html
    But I LOVE your approach to being ‘curious’ about food. I think I’ll start doing that as well. Thanks for sharing this Lisa!

  16. This was a very helpful post. The emotional pull is so tough. I have been thinking recently, also, how I may need to think of food like I do my budget. One reason I have my “blow money” in my budget is so that I don’t deprive myself so much of something fun and enjoyable so that I end up going out and splurging. I have found in my budgeting that when I have a little blow money I can spend I sometimes am actually more mindful and am not as tempted to throw it out.
    I have been trying an approach, of trying to have one meal a week where I make dessert, etc, and just enjoy the meal and not worry too much about the nutritional side. Knowing that is coming helps me not “splurge” all week long. And then I have also found that when that meal comes I am more aware of how I feel so I tend to eat less of the bad stuff than I would have had I been eating it all week.

    It probably is a bit crazy to compare it to budgeting, but I can be all or nothing. I get all paranoid about eating (the shame you talked about), deprive myself of everything good that I like, then get tired of that and throw it all out the window (binging as you said)… and the cycle continues.

    Thank you for your helpful post, and I am going to check your blog out as well!

  17. I really enjoyed this post Lisa! It reminded me of a book I read awhile ago, “Made to Crave” by Lysa Terkurst, that dealt with the ways we use food emotionally. Thanks for the reminder!

  18. Thanks for sharing your perspective. With a culture focused on weight and shape, it’s encouraging to see food issues addressed in this way and I appreciate your positivity and hopefulness. My only addition would be that many individuals require (and benefit from) professional treatment to fully recover from chronic dieting, disordered eating and eating disorders. It’s this type of post that may move someone from considering help into taking the brave step to seek it out.

  19. I anticipate absolutely apropos this and along adulation arrive on this admired point. In cases area promising, back get expertise, what close best thoughts face-lifting the blog folio that includes added acutely specifics? This can be actual acclimated for people.

  20. I grew up with the Italian-American culture of using food to comfort. I was determined not to use food to sooth or reward my kids. It is constantly a struggle for me to remember to give a hug instead of a treat and say lets go to the park instead of for ice cream as a reward. We definitely go for ice cream sometimes, but my kids do know there is a balance when eating.

  21. This is a great post! I absolutely agree that focusing on whole foods and how foods make you feel is important. I don’t like “diets” either. Thanks for sharing in such clear words- I think a lot of us are looking for this path, but it can be a bit hard to define.

  22. Awesome article, I agree with each word of it!

  23. It is so interesting that as a foster carer (mostly of little babies) I see such differences in their bodies and know that it can ONLY be their dna. Cos I pretty much feed them the same healthy, varied diet. I recently cared for a little girl who was a voracious eater and also a tiny little pocket rocket. I now have a little one in my care who has been a big boy right from the get go. He’s NOT a big eater but has the thunder thighs of doom! The little girl at 10 months was tinier by far than the boy at 6 months.
    Also, on a totally different point. There are cultural values attached to weight/size etc. In first world countries we see someone who carries more weight as a ‘weak’ person with no will power, some one who cannot control themselves. Third world countries (and I’m generalising her, so forgive me) sees the same person as successful and fertile (if she’s a woman).
    So, it’s hard to not only combat the voices in our head who got there based mainly on the values our parent attributed to food, but also the cultural imperatives of the day. It’s a minute by minute challenge. Now, back to my hot cross bun & cup of tea!

  24. I have been thinking about this a lot lately, reading books, taking courses, etc. I appreciate and try had to stop and think before eating. The trouble I have is that I often KNOW that a food will not make me feel good and will not be good fuel for my body… and yet I CHOSE to eat it anyway. This is where I struggle. Why do I still make that choice? It’s frustrating to me that I seem to knowingly make bad choices. I wonder if this is the shame you mention. I think I need a therapist :/

  25. And I think moderation is key..

    I’ve really been trying to cut back on coffee. (I used to not drink coffee on the 4 days a week I exercise).. but I got out of the habit and can’t seem to break it. So I made a decision, fine! I’m going to have coffee every day but I only use one tablespoon. And I think I now actually drink less in a week because of the measured tablespoon.

    dee

  26. Reading this post is very timely for me. I saw a hypnotist a week ago and am listening to nightly meditations on focusing on being healthy. I have been a junk food addict my whole teen and adult life and my 10 year old son has become accustomed to regular junk food and fast food. As I was packing his lunch (his school is peanut free), I was feeling bad about the processed foods that always get added. I’ve added some things to my grocery list to make some healthy, sugar free, oatmeal treats that the whole family can enjoy. We will definitely benefit from a whole food cleanse. Thank you!

  27. My problem with food is that the foods that are on my don’t eat list are foods that make me feel bad. I eat them tho because I like how they taste. I am getting better at this slowly.

  28. Thank you so much for this post! I love how you explained the difference between guilt and shame and how it applies to our eating (and I love Brene Brown!)
    I monitor a private FB group of women who have long-time struggles with losing weight, I will definitely share this with them!

  29. Great post! As a dietitian, I’m always teachinh people to aboid the “good and bad” trap — which as you say, make them feel good or bad. Instead the nuetral food approach is best. Food is just food — and when we are more objective about it, I believe the natural wisdom of the body takes over.

    I think it’s also important to know where this comes from which is usually a combination of how people are raised and constant dieting. As kids, food is usually presented as good or bad — eat your veggies before you can get dessert (the reward). And we have a dieting culture (how often do you see “guilt-free” desserts?).

    So nice to see someone else talking about this important aspect of eating habits!

  30. wow- this is a very important post for most (all?) women…..facebooking, twittering, bookmarking, etc, etc

  31. Thank you for saying this in a grace-full way. I’ve never taken the time to think about it in this way. I’m sure that this article will stay with me as I am making food choices from now on.

  32. such a great perspective on our relationship with food. i agree that we often forget that food is fuel. we see it as some sort of friend or foe. it is important to keep it in the right perspective.

  33. I really appreciated this post. I have struggled with these thoughts in the past, and went through a similar process as you outlined in order to cleanse my mind of damaging thoughts about food. Food if fuel, but it is also fun. We shouldn’t deny ourselves either of those things.

  34. Lisa,

    Thank you for this post! I love the idea of looking at food from the perspective of how I feel after I eat it! Do you have suggestions for teaching this perspective to children?

  35. I’m sad to say my daughter sent me this post via email with the statements: Food is fuel. Food is fuel. Food is fuel. She has watched me struggle with food issues her whole life. I’ll think I am delivered from this, then BAM! it hits me again (which is where I am right now!) I loved this article and have signed up for the whole foods cleanse in the Spring. You hit the nail right on the head about guilt vs. shame. I am a women’s ministry leader and teach on this all the time, but had never applied it to my food issues. Thank you so much for giving me a new, healthier perspective. I’ll be sharing this one!

  36. I usually don’t feel guilty about eating anything until the next day when I check the scale. Even then I don’t feel the guilt about what I ate, It is usually the portion size. Pizza is my “I just couldn’t stop” food. And with two boys in the house, we eat A LOT of pizza. Thank You for the great post!

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