Food Anxiety & Tips for Finding Balance
Let’s face it, us humans think about food a lot. I mean we eat it everyday, multiple times. We have to make decisions on what food we want to eat at each of those meals and quite often think ahead about what food we want to eat next (foodies, am I right?!) We think about food when we buy groceries, meal plan, eat out, travel, and through bombardment of food marketing and advertising on TV, billboards, in print media, social media and more.
That’s a great heck of our thoughts focused on food.
Now think about what it would be like to experience anxiety over food choices…
To feel worry and fear about food; something we need to eat everyday to sustain our life. To feel guilt and panic that maybe you made the wrong food choice, maybe you could have chosen better.
Imagine each time you had to make a decision about food you were consumed by thoughts; ‘What does my body need?’ ‘What’s the best food choice I can make right now?’ ‘Is this healthy enough?’ ‘Is it free from hidden nasties that I don’t want to put into my body?’ ‘Have I made the right choice?’… Plus many more thoughts running circles through your mind.
Imagine experiencing anxiety each time you had meals at family and friends or ate out, having to go online to check the menu beforehand, and often not being present when socialising because you’re too busy stressing about food; ‘Will they have the right food I can/will eat?’ ‘Will I feel pressured to eat something I don’t want to?’ ‘Am I being difficult or am I just dedicated?’ ‘Should I pretend to be sick and not go?’… What a burden.
That was me and that was my life only a few years ago.
Rewind back to life throughout my 20’s and that’s how I spent a lot of it.
For me, these consuming thoughts about food choices were never about dieting or trying to lose weight, although I did go through phases of fearing putting on weight.
I just wanted to be healthy; I wanted to look after my body
(Especially after being diagnosed with PCOS). But being a perfectionist and a worrier, I ended up obsessing over every food choice and let it consume my thoughts. Ironically the emotional and mental stress I placed on my body undid all the healthy food I was putting in.
I think that mostly this food anxiety I experienced stemmed from a general anxiety and unease I had about life, about being unsure what path I was on, what my future looked like, about fear of making the wrong choices. Food was one thing I could control. But here’s the thing, we can’t and don’t need to control everything in life.
I remember back in 2013 I travelled to London, Italy and Paris for 3 weeks with my Mum and sister. It should have been an amazing experience (and a delicious culinary one when I think back now!). Unfortunately, much to my Mum and sister’s angst, I spent far too often fussing about where and what I was going to eat, than being in the moment. I spent most of that trip feeling stressed and unwell.
After I returned I spent the next 2 years training and competing in fitness model competitions; something I’d wanted to achieve for some time.
Competing had both positive and negative effects on my food anxiety.
I was lucky enough to find myself a great experienced coach who eventually not only became a good friend of mine, but was a good mentor.
He taught me that food was just food, not something to fear. We eat it; it nourishes us, fuels us, gives us energy, and sustains our life. He taught me the importance of enjoying food as part of enjoying life. That enjoying a meal out without thinking about what’s in it, what the macros are, or needing to “train it off” afterwards isn’t going to make us unhealthy or overweight. In his words;
‘if you can’t enjoy something you need to sustain life, you will never sustain a life or enjoyment through food.’
The positives about competing for me were that I learned I could eat a lot more than I had been (guilty of overtraining and under eating for many years – I even got my period back during this time after amenorrhea for 2 years), I ate a variety of nourishing wholefoods, and because I was tracking my macros and following what my coach advised I felt more at ease about food because the decisions were mostly out of my hands. I also had to put on weight to gain muscle which helped reduce my fear of weight gain.
However it enabled me to use competing to control food habits, which didn’t help my already negative relationship with food. I used competing as an excuse to not eat out with friends and family (even when I could have made choices to fit my meal plans). Yes I needed to weigh and track my macros during comp preps to elicit the physical changes on my body for competition, but I literally obsessed over every gram, and then would stress about whether I measured my food accurately.
It took some time after I finished competing to find balance.
You see nobody really talks about what happens after competing. Whilst I loved every moment of competing, it’s not always easy to adjust after focusing most of your life, your time and thoughts on training and nutrition.
There’s nothing wrong with making healthy food and lifestyle choices, I still continue to do so everyday and it makes me feel good and happy. Healthy living, eating, and training are all a priority in my life, alongside many other sides of me. I believe in the power of whole foods and also appreciate (and am passionate about!) the science of nutrition, macronutrient balance, tracking macros, and using other nutrition strategies for fat loss, muscle gain, and preventing or healing diseases. I still continue to use nutrition strategies for my goals as part of a sustainable lifestyle, all whilst loving the food I eat and loving my lifestyle. Food anxiety is different to this.
There is a distinct difference in eating healthy through enjoyment of food, to eating healthy through fear of food or a need to control everything. It’s all in our mindset. Healthy eating should be a positive experience and enhance our lives, not negatively affect our mental wellbeing.
2 years ago I met my partner who showed me what life was all about. To me he is the epitome of living a happy, healthy, balanced life. He enjoys nourishing his body with wholefoods, he loves training and getting outdoors, and he places importance on his health for now and his future. He also loves spending time with family and friends, sharing a meal and a beer or two; anywhere, any time. Not because it’s “cheat meal” day or because he’s been “perfect” with his diet all week or trained extra hard that day. Not because he is being slack or falling off the wagon until Monday. But because this is him living a balanced life that makes him happy. This is how we both live and what balance is for us.
That healthy, happy, balanced life is going to be different for everyone of course.
Overcoming food anxiety has been life changing for me. I feel free and relaxed. I feel confident. I’ve learned to love and appreciate my body more than ever before. I don’t get anxiety over social situations. I am more present. Although, I’ve become a bit of a foodie and my wallet doesn’t appreciate it as much!
My Tips for Finding Your Balance:
Remember, balance looks different on everyone. Strive for it, but don’t expect to reach it day in, day out. Life happens.
Be present and enjoy this precious thing we have called life. Your presence is your greatest gift to yourself and to others.
Ignore the feeling of external pressures. Be confident that only you know what’s best for you.
Get in the kitchen and cook, even with your partner, family or friends. Try out new recipes and foods. The more I did this, the more I enjoyed cooking and eating food.
Remember that food nourishes our body, but also our mind, our soul, and ultimately, our life. Eat for life, not a meal plan.
Eat mindfully. Actually sit down, chew slowly and enjoy the smell and taste of each bite. It helps you feel relaxed when eating and actually enjoy the experience – so important.
Be flexible about food habits and understand that there is no magic perfect diet. Our bodies are amazing, adaptable, complex things.
Treat yo-self! Eat the damn dessert or pasta or whatever you’re craving (only if you want of course!) and don’t feel guilty for it. One treat isn’t going to make you unhealthy/gain weight, just like one salad isn’t going to make you healthy.
Forget the latest food trends and simply eat real food that you enjoy, and a variety of it.
Give up the magazines (and social media) promoting the latest diets and juice cleanses #sorrynotsorry
Be kind to yourself and go easy on yourself. Change takes time.
Health + happiness + inner peace