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Monday, October 25, 2010

Exploring Anxiety: Food and Emotion Pt. 1

There's no doubt that food carries with it a great deal of connotation. Our relationships with food are something forged very deeply in us, often during our childhood...and like anything cemented during our formative years, this relationship can shape and define us. This relationship, in America, is made even more complex by the glut of food that is available, and the conflicting nutritional information available around every turn.

The sheer availability of food is huge in our culture; we have so many options put before us and galvanized with so much advertising that choosing how we are going to eat and live becomes an every day battle. Food can be a very disheartening part of an anxiety disorder and the combination of the two can lead to eating disorders and unhealthy deprivation habits. There's a medium that has to be struck between monitoring your daily diet to optimize your mental and physical health and obsessing about it, and for many, that can be a very difficult medium to reach.

So if you are struggling with food, with eating things that are unhealthy or eating "too healthy", with eating portions that are far too large or far too small, with binging every few days and following it with days of deprivation, or any other mentally-based, unhealthy food-related activity, there are a few things that you can do to try and self-correct. Of course, you need to use your judgment and seek medical help if necessary, but if you catch any problems early enough, it shouldn't need to come to that.

It's important to focus on food for what it is...not what it's been made out to be. Food is, at it's most basic level, sustenance. It's the fuel that keeps us going. You need certain nutrients in your diet every day, and you need a certain level of calories consumed every day. Strip all the pretense away and you're left with the very basics...which is a great place to start!

I fear that we often project great amounts of personal emotion and perception onto our diets, our perspectives often tempered by our feelings about ourselves and how we were raised. My clearest personal example of this is the story of my grandparents.

My grandmother was extremely overweight as a young child. She was a genius, a prodigy who skipped so many grades that the teachers were concerned about her being so much younger than her classmates. They hardly knew what to do with her! On top of that, she was a brilliant pianist...even at a young age. However, her weight kept her away from everyone else. This was before obesity was commonplace among Americans, and she was ostracized...though whether her isolation was her own doing or that of others, no one knows. Anyway, around the beginning of her teens, she became ill and lost quite a bit of weight. Suddenly, she realized that she could lose the weight that had plagued her during her entire life, and she went on something of a self-made crash diet and lost an enormous amount of weight in a short time. She went to college early, tiny and svelte and working hard never to gain a pound of that back.

My grandfather was a farm boy, handsome and wiry, intelligent and witty, lovable and popular with all who knew him. He was a fun guy with a great sense of humor and a head of black curls, and he grew up during the Depression. He met my grandmother in college and she became his war bride, just before he went off to fight in the second world war. Between the farm and the army, my grandfather probably never even thought about weight during his younger wasn't an issue at all, but because of the Depression, food certainly was.

Decades and decades later, I would meet my grandparents...some of the most wonderful people I've ever known, truth be told. They were both quite healthy, highly respected members of the community with long, brilliant careers teaching music at the local college and a lovely, hardworking family. And yet, looking back now, I can see how those young experiences shaped the way they dealt with food. My grandmother worried about her figure every day, and she was always willing to invest in her health before anything else. She insisted that they not keep unhealthy foods in the house, and every day she took a whole host of vitamins, supplements, and minerals. Her strivings for health's sake didn't fail her...she lived a long life, and she was more or less healthy until the day she died.

On the surface, my grandfather seemed to go along with all of my grandmother's healthy habits. But he had one desk...a great roll-top desk, and it was full of incomprehensible papers that we were told were very important. In fact, all of my cousins and I were warned never to get into that desk, for fear that we would irreparably ruin everything in one fell swoop. So of course, one day my cousins opened the desk, and what did they find? Cookies, Dr. Pepper, candy bars...all of the things my grandfather was never supposed to eat. We've shared that story many times with laughter, but it illustrates my grandfather's feelings about food rather clearly...just as clearly as my grandmother's daily vitamin regimen.

My grandparents had lived huge, full lives and nevertheless, the things they learned in their formative years about food were the things that they inevitably clung to. I feel that this is true for nearly everyone. In fact, it might be impossible to change your deepest held feeling about don't try. Instead of focusing on completely changing your emotional connections to food, focus on modification. Is food your anti-stress? Then create something that you can have in times of stress, something to calm you down without causing later guilt. Do you eat too much habitually? Take your normal portions, then remove one third of them, until you can determine a better portion automatically. Do you eat to little? Keep track of your calories and plan to eat snacks between meals...whole grain protein bars, fruits, or vegetables.

Don't be afraid of analyzing your relationship with food...and don't deny yourself the attitudes that are deeply ingrained within you...just modify them until they are healthy. And if you do have moments of weakness here or there, know that they are normal, and that you are perfectly fine.

Stay tuned for part two!

The Calm Cook

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