Nutrition can literally and metaphorically give us a strong taste of healing.
But sometimes, we still don’t eat well. Even when we’ve had a taste of healing, we still don’t reach for the foods that will heal. Why? Why would we ever go back to our old ways of eating once we’ve learned of the impact of food on our moods?
To access more healing, we need to augment our understanding of nutrition with a better understanding of how we deal with stress.
Fourteen years ago, I put the physical pieces together from my decade-plus battle with depression: my gut had been destroyed from the chemotherapy I received in my teens.
Discovering that depression was a symptom and not a diagnosis changed everything. I started to cook real food, got off gluten, and learned how to balance my blood sugar. Tapering off Wellbutrin put me in awe and gratitude of my body’s resilience and self-healing capabilities.
Even so… even knowing that my food choices kept me feeling decent and off medication, I would still return to binge eating and gluten. Why? Was I just so weak, so uncommitted, that I couldn’t control my eating even while it was helping me heal?!
Diet culture had taught me that my inconsistency in nutritional choices was only about a lack of willpower and discipline. This is exactly what my clients believe whenever they fall off track or can’t stick to their healing protocol. It is a pervasive and limiting vantage point.
Over time, what I learned about my own healing journey is that when it came to nutrition, I had one foot on the gas and the other on the brake.
Truth tells us endings are beginnings.
I had reached as far as I could with changing my diet.
I knew pizza and peanut M&Ms were bad for my depression. And when I was “good”, I could stay away from them. When I fell off my gluten and sugar-free lifestyle, the pizza and peanut M&Ms hadn’t changed. I had.
Just like my depression wasn’t a serotonin deficiency, my ‘falling off track’ wasn’t a discipline issue. It was an invitation to find out more.
The Invitation within Inconsistency
Through my personal, professional and Masters degree experience at the University of Pennsylvania, I discovered that our culture’s collective “battle” with food and our bodies isn’t just a word. It’s a strategy.
We resist our depression. We fight our emotions. Or as one client said, “There is so much gearing up to not eat, say or do the wrong thing.”
In effect, we relate to our food, body and life from a conflict perspective.
We are in a psychological battle with food and our bodies when we use the words ‘should’, ‘have to’ or ‘must’. The underlying assumption is there’s a conflict between our wants and what we believe we ‘should’ be doing to prevent looking and feeling bad.
These fears are the car brake on our healing. We want to eat well. We want energy to meditate and move. We also don’t want to fall behind, be disliked or be judged.
The drain and unfulfillment from being constantly on guard turns food into a refuge.
According to the Thomas-Kilmann conflict model, there are clear ways we react to conflict. When these patterns become conscious, we can then stop battling and choose differently.
Conflict Modes (adapted from the Thomas-Kilmann conflict model)
When we compete with our bodies, we compare them to our ‘old bodies’, or to the others we see. We see someone else ‘winning’ at cutting out gluten and dairy or at staying thin, and we can’t figure out what’s wrong with us. We feel like we’re losing at life.
We make choices in terms of getting ahead or not falling behind and isolate ourselves when we aren’t succeeding. Competitors’ finish lines are always moving, and we end up feeling emotionally drained. We sabotage our own progress when we fear healing or weight loss won’t happen for us. We can’t imagine we’ll ever cross the finish line, so why bother?
Many Competitors also find that they’re at the top of their fields because they compete with themselves – always chasing a new Personal Best. Stress goes hand-in-hand with high standards. The stress of falling behind at work, at life, and with our bodies causes us to eat more, drink wine… and we fall further behind in the race. And around and around we go…
Avoiders will think “diet starts tomorrow,” or jump from plan to plan. They procrastinate on healthy living and the emotional work around food because they see it as overwhelming and complicated. They over-dramatize what’s involved.
When avoiding, we make choices like not speaking up for our dietary needs, or picking dramatic, restrictive plans like Weight Watchers, Whole30 or keto. We believe there’s so much ‘gearing up’ necessary for success. This dramatic and restrictive view of food and healing requires perfect conditions that never happen. We often think: “chuck it, f#$@ it”.
Avoiders’ efforts to avoid the imperfection of life and pursue the “magic bullet” fantasy lead them to feel emotionally resentful that others appear to have it easier with their food, healing and life. We sabotage our healing by thinking the discomfort of getting started – with food, or the stressful things on our to-do list – is how our entire experience will feel. When it’s not easy initially, we believe it will be hard forever. The procrastination check we wrote eventually comes to find us and we’re overwhelmed by the experience… “proving” why we avoided in the first place.
Accommodators view eating healthy and weight-loss as difficult because we use food to treat and reward ourselves. We get excited about ‘being bad’ on weekends, holidays and special occasions. These breaks from real life are our well-deserved cheat for making it through our stress.
When accommodating, we feel life will be more fulfilling as we choose more of what we really want instead of accommodating someone else’s food and healing plan ‘shoulds’, ‘musts’ and ‘have tos’. Because food is a constant source of stimulation, entertainment and bringing people together, we eventually feel bored, deprived and low energy on our restrictive food plan. We resent missing out on a more fulfilling time.
Over time, Accommodators look for more and more reasons to cheat or reward themselves by forgetting our packed lunch or because we had a hard day accommodating everyone else. Accommodators will inflate the importance of food, because it’s serving as a source of meaning well beyond taste. As we rely more on food to be the way we reward, connect and spend our time (nutrition often becomes a hobby for Accommodators), we divert resources away from seeking other fulfilling pursuits.
The Collaborator, a New Paradigm
When we stop framing our relationship with food as combative, we find the freedom to be Collaborative. In spiritual terms, collaboration could be called surrendering to our authentic selves without the armor of ‘being on’. It’s where we decide not to battle and, rather, choose to soften.
When we do this, we identify and work to get our emotional needs met. We come from a place of looking for the emotional win-win, instead of assuming the all-or-nothing, winner takes all, zero sum battle plans of competing or accommodating or avoiding.
Slipping on your healing protocol is an invitation to stop the emotional battle and find a deeper sense of belonging to yourself, and to cultivate an emotional life that aligns with your true nature.
For me this meant a career shift. For some of my clients, it embodies a new way of leading in their organizations or businesses. For others, it’s choosing to parent and be civically engaged in their own way. And for others still, it’s releasing old stories, patterns and habits, and, finally, calling a truce with food.
Are you stuck in Conflict Mode?
What are your triggers, feelings and patterns when you’re dealing with stress? Take the Comfort Eating Style quiz to find out. Your results will provide clarity, relief, and your first step towards a new way forward.
Ali Shapiro, MSOD, CHHC, is the founder of Truce with Food®, host of the top-ranked podcast Insatiable, a holistic nutritionist, integrated health coach and rebel with a serious cause. She created her Truce with Food® healing modality while earning her Masters in Organizational Dynamics at the University of Pennsylvania and is a 27-year cancer survivor.