6 Ways Food Can Be Used as Therapy

close up of a bowl of food

Food. For someone with an eating disorder or recovering from one it can be a controversial subject. It seems we have become collectively obsessed with and at times, very afraid of, what we eat.

When you are struggling in recovery, perhaps you can think about what you need from food, other than just physical sustenance. It is rare that we talk about it and it may sound a bit strange. Yet food is not just ‘fuel’. It offers help with certain psychological needs as well and has therapeutic potential!

More than just “fuel”

Food not only has the kind of nutritional value (the kind you’re used to examining on a label), it also carries the weight of psychological value.

Each and every food we eat reveals a feeling, a personality, a focus, a way of experiencing the world and what it could be if you magically went to a different place, a different country.

Take the tangerine. Nutritionally, it has calories, fiber, sugar and so on. But psychologically, it has also ‘ingredients’. It is a fruit that ‘speaks’ (quietly but elegantly) of things like the sun, maybe a warm and beautiful landscape, getting up in the morning and a burst of the simple. Or imagine a chestnut. Again, full of nutrition and body sustenance value. But at the same time the holder of such things as Autumn, a fireplace, certain kinds of music perhaps. It involves almost, a personality.

Food contains ideas and memories about your life. Memories you may discover in recovery. By doing that most direct and understandable of things: eating. You are putting elements into the physical body. And also trying to bring into your soul the spiritual and psychological nutrients you have been missing or never had in the first place.

Sometimes you may want more of one kind of food. Especially when you have deprived yourself for too long and discover a deficit. Giving in to your need may feel like a sign of being ‘weak’. Like a nomad in the desert walking too long without water, when you find what you have been starving yourself off, for a while, you feel like you literally can’t get enough. This is completely normal. 

In recovery, eating any food is about so much more than just restoring the body, it’s also about re-balancing your scattered soul.

What if you could become a little more like the foods that you eat? What if you could, for example, take on the features of food and imagine what they’d be like? An example could be grains. Think of them being harvested over time. Their many millennia of longevity and durability, sustaining and continuously be growing in the sun. Or maybe a papaya’s smooth sensuality? You could try potatoes to feel more rooted and connected to the earth. Or slice tomatoes that represent vitality and joy.

So what are some ways food can re-balance you after you have been depriving yourself of them for so long?

1. Food Restores

Most people who have engaged in eating disorder behaviors will be able to relate to this. You’re too cautious around “trigger foods” because you have learned you can’t moderate them. Or maybe you are too vigilant and restrictive so the minerals and vitamins your body need are all out of whack.

The foods you may be used to eating are not necessarily the ones you need. When you’re in recovery you have to eat a variety of foods! It can be so scary, but you can try to think of it as a way to obtain a good amount of ‘qualities’ that you need more of in our lives. The foods you have avoided and missed can give you vital clues as to what is missing in your psyche, not just your tummy. It’s in the power of food to help you recover more holistic versions of yourself.

2. Food rejoins you with parts of ourselves

When you’ve had an eating disorder you can sometimes lose sight of your playful side and your humor gets buried. The capacity to be moved by simple things may be forgotten as you have met the daily demands of your illness.

Certain foods eaten in recovery may become powerful conduits for memories and associations. The right food can provide access to neglected psychological regions. You might enjoy, for example, eating a club sandwich brought from a deli. And then link it internally, to your seven-year-old self, who used to eat in a similar place with your grandmother. Maybe you need to recover some of the joy of being alive you had at that point. A particular food can help you to remember. Or maybe you discover that roasting marshmallows takes you back to camping with your family, when you sang songs around the fire and looked up at the stars.

Thanks to food, you can reconnect with such important and easily forgotten parts of your own personal history.

3. It can change you

When you are trying to heal from an eating disorder and change your life, food plays a huge role. Of course, you need to fill yourself up with other things. Books, classes, therapy and teachers which can pull you in the right directions. But food plays a big role in this inner transformation as well.

It isn’t simply a case of ‘eating like a normal person’, as if the only thing you ever needed to change about your life is what you eat. You might ask food to nourish parts of yourself that have been avoided. To aid your brain in helping you have enough energy to be engaged with your life, your communities, and your hopes.

How and what you eat represents those desires and the way you’d like to be in the world. Think of sampling fresh bread from a bakery in Paris. Or having a slice of pizza in Milan, or even just a piece from the pub down the street. It’s possible to bring new experiences of healing into the self by trying anything new; as scary and risky as it seems at first.

4. It can be a sacred experience

One of the pulls of an eating disorder is to provide structure; to make you set ‘goals’, as unhealthy those goals may be. Without those, you must lean new ways to set healthy goals which can symbolize the way you want to live in the world.

You could, for example, imagine going to a place where everything you consume is prayed for. Think of spending a few hours with a significant other, growing friendship over a delicate tea. With each sip, the warmth of love and connection nourishes. The precise things the eating disorder would have wanted to tell you about how to lead your life (without the help of food) is changed

Instead of using food to punish yourself, you now use food to encourage personal growth and connection. 

5. Food as a path to individualization

Part of becoming an ‘individual’, (as opposed to merely existing), is learning how to arrange parts of the outer world around you in unison with your internal world. In recovery, learning how to cook and eat new foods has a huge role to play. It helps you line up what goes in your body with your true hopes and beliefs.

No longer ignoring the calls of your physical self, you take chances in tasting the new. Learning how to feel secure and trust your brain, muscles and bones follows.

6. Food is communication

As we know, an eating disorder removes you from situations that cultivate intimacy. Sharing a meal with someone is more than eating. It’s an expression of self, words, language and heart when you feel safe and cared about by the other person. Food is amazingly conducive too, to love. If you can break bread and eat it with someone, you have learned how to share not just the food, but also the experience. 

Trust that each bite leads to connection and healing.

Image Source: Flickr

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