Thursday, July 15, 2010

It's Not About The Food

Eating is such a symbolic act. For years, in working with teenaged girls in my counseling practice, I have observed what a big concern eating and body image are. Food, unlike other substances that people can avoid if they need to, has to be dealt with daily.In the Orange County Register this last month, I read a story about the skyrocketing obesity numbers for children and teens in Orange County, California, where I live and work. Clearly, there are some odd things going on with eating and food, and some of it isn't even about the food. It is about unexpressed emotion, boredom,family mealtimes becoming extinct, inactivity,exhaustion,emptiness and even spiritual needs.

Why do so many teen girls in our area overrestrict, binge,or misuse food? Why are so many adult women so at war with themselves over their weight and body image? Girls with eating disorders get skewed thinking about food, about control, and about their value. The social/media impact of a celebrity-focused culture and the picking apart of any imperfections doesn't make it any easier to grow up a girl here. How high do girls set standards for beauty and thinness when air-brushed magazine covers deliver fantasy that even those stars can't approach in person? Girls need a lot of support from parents to develop their skills, talents, and selves on other deeper levels. Most teens struggle with feeling that they have very little control. Let's help give our daughters positive ways to feel some leadership and control, rather than reducing their value to their weight.

As adults, we all have our own story with food. Many people have comfort foods.(What do you eat when you are upset?) Role-modeling healthy emotional patterns and not numbing emotional distress with eating is so important. This is one of those accountabilty areas where it really is what you do, not what you say. Teens will often tell me they are taking notice of their parents' food and exercise patterns.

As a family therapist, I am a big fan of family dinners, as often as you can. Light a candle, and have everyone share a high and low point of their day. You'll be surprised how much closer you will feel as a family. Little kids and teens, too, tell me they love this time to reconnect. I am realistic. I know it can't happen every night---not even in my family--- but do it as often as you can. Never use the dinner time to lecture, nag, grill, or berate the kids. Make it fun,light, and enjoyable, even if it's for 10-15 minutes. Try not to be the food police and monitor the amounts. As a family therapist, I am concerned about the connection between you and other family members. As children grow into teens, the connecting moments are fewer, so don't less these wonderful opportunities slip by.

I really enjoyed reading Geneen Roth's new book this week,'Women, Food, and God'. Geneen shares her own struggles with food, being overweight, losing the same pounds over and over, and coming to her own realization that it's not about the food. Facing our worst fears and dealing with what we really need emotionally and spiritually is the answer. Sometimes eating is the easiest or quickest response to a negative feeling, but it's not the best. Like most things in life, the easiest solution isn't the best one in this arena.

Weight is a complicated issue for lots of reasons. Some people lack accurate information on food choices, how to work with your metabolism, and plan meals that are convenient, fast and healthy. Some need better information on how many calories they can consume daily, how many calories they need to burn, or what a healthy weight range is for your body type. When this is the case, I often refer to my favorite dietician to work out a plan with my client.

Relationship issues also impact emotional eating. Your partner commenting on your weight or food choices makes some people mad. (Where are the brownies anyway?)
Parents and friends comments push girls to sneak eat or otherwise go underground on their use of food. Partners can sabotage healthier food or exercise patterns if they find the change threatening. Every relationship has a homeostatic set point, like the set point on your thermostat on your heating and air conditioning at home. Anything too far from the normal range gets your partner's attention.

Whether you are a permitter or restrictor with food, you want to be mindful of eating in a reverent way, with awareness and intention. Try not to work out feelings with food. Eat when you are not distracted or driving. Make food a social event when possible, remembering that the nutrition is only part of what you are needing. When grabbing for food, ask yourself if that is what you are REALLY needing. Many people eat late at night when they may need to go to sleep, or when feelings bubble up from the day.

Eating and connecting ourselves to others are potentially great rituals in our day. It's all about how you play it.And it's about so much more than food.

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