The Unbothered Mind

Peeling off the laminate on your stories about food

Updated December 1, 2022

Your relationship with food is comprised of the ways that you think about what you eat, the ways you behave around food, the beliefs and judgements you hold about certain foods or qualities or quantities of food.

In other words, your relationship with food does not actually have that much to do with the food itself; the relationship is mostly about the stories you tell yourself about the food, and the beliefs you hold about the food. 

What’s most useful about this concept of being in relation with food is that it provides a little bit of breathing room around food that otherwise just isn’t there. 

Ordinarily, the meanings that we attach to food are just laminated right on to it, without any kind of inquiry. 

Green vegetables, for example, are “good,” and xyz is bad, according to whatever diet is currently all the rage. And then we hold these judgements about various bits of food, food groups, macronutrients like it’s religious knowledge, and so the notion of a “relationship” with our food makes space to inquire about that knowledge, allowing us to explore the stories that we laminate onto food, along with our own beliefs and thoughts and memories, fears and judgements.

Let me give you an example: in our diet-obsessed world, there are a lot of people who hold very strong opinions on things like RICE. Brown rice vs white rice, the glycemic index of rice, cutting out rice from low-carb or paleo or keto diets, etc. etc. etc. And then there are the countless cultures around the world for whom rice is a staple of their cuisine. 

When we make space to pause and think about our relationship with food, we create space to kind of pry ourselves away from diet-obsessed narratives around rice (“don’t eat white things!”) and we can create room to reflect on things like: what role did rice play when we were growing up? Did rice sustain my ancestors? Was a bowl of rice a comfort food for me when I was a broke university student? How have diet-based narratives about rice interrupted my enjoyment of rice? How has any guilt I may have had around eating rice undermined my own relationship with myself?  

That’s what I mean about reflecting on your relationship with food.

So the reality is that whether or not you “eat healthy” has very little to do with whether or not you have a healthy relationship to food. “Eating healthy” and having a healthy relationship with food are two totally separate concepts.

I would characterize a “healthy” relationship with food is one that is at ease. Think about how you look at Barack and Michelle: you see the ease, the relaxed sense of safety and love they have in their relationship. That’s the kind of relationship that you are entitled to have with food! It’s loving, it’s respectful, and it is fundamentally relaxed and unguarded.

Now, I know that for a lot of you, you might be thinking, “If I had a relaxed and unguarded relationship with food, I would go so hard on the sour cream and onion chips and dip that I would never emerge from their embrace.”

But “going hard” is not what a loving relationship with food (or anything else) is about. That is what an obsessive, grippy relationship is about, one where you are scared of your own needs and whether they will ever be met.

Someone who has a healthy relationship with food doesn’t judge themselves for their food choices. They are relaxed about what and how they eat, because they feel neutral about what they put in their mouths. They feed themselves what they know will make them feel good, or what will fuel their race, or what will sustain them physically or emotionally through a particular moment. So they feel pretty impervious to the wall of noise and judgement around a lot of food.

Opening yourself up to a different relationship with food isn’t about changing your diet or changing what you eat, necessarily. What you eat may change when you shift from a controlled, controlling relationship with food to one of Barack and Michelle levels of ease, or it may not, but either way, you can’t tell from your external behaviours whether or not you have a relaxed relationship with food. You only know by tuning in to your thoughts and feelings while you’re eating, or while you’re meal planning or while you’re grocery shopping, or while you’re sitting in your chair digesting after having had your meal.

Ultimately, shifting our relationship with food is about you deciding what kinds of meaning you want to make out of this daily eating experience, that the food secure among us engage in multiple times a day. And yes, if you’re not food secure, shifting your relationship with food is undeniably harder. 

If you’re food secure, you can make your eating experience relaxed, joyful, calming or even just plain neutral, or you can make this experience pinched, tense, worried or fraught. If you’re not food secure, your relationship with food—and your food itself—is a whole other ball game. That will be my topic for next week.