By Nathalie Mat, Registered Dietitian
Food plays many important roles in our lives. We eat and drink for physiological reasons for example to satisfy our hunger or to optimally fuel ourselves for sports. We also eat and drink for psychological reasons: to mark special occasions such as birthdays or to celebrate achievements. The way you think about food and the role it plays in your life forms your food language.
Your food language has been shaped by many factors from your family to your schooling; from your first job and even different communities in which you have lived. I spend a lot of time as a dietitian helping people identify how their food language may be affecting their ability to achieve their health goals and what they can do to change their food language if necessary.
Think of your parents. Are they overweight? What is their relationship with food like? These are some of the most revealing questions when it comes to food language. Your family provide the first environment in which we eat. Children copy the behaviours their parents’ model and children most often copy their mother’s behaviour around food. Our parents teach us important food behaviour like eating regular meals; eating a variety of foods and even how to eat with a knife and fork. Parents also teach us the social and cultural meaning of food. My parents are both Belgian. This means I grew up in a household where chocolate was considered “everyday food”. It was quite a shock for me to learn that other families do not eat chocolate every day.
You too may have preconceived ideas about food that are not only markedly different from the average South African household but also different from the food behaviours associated with health. Let’s consider some of the most common but detrimental food languages/misperceptions and how we can overcome them.
Food is a reward.
Are you one of those people that like to reward your hard efforts with something delicious? Do you finish off a big project or survive a particularly trying day and feel like the best way to celebrate is with food? This type of behaviour is something we often learn from our family when we are young. Perhaps your mom gave you chocolate to celebrate good school marks or you were treated to a special meal after you excelled at something. Think back in your past, where did you learn that effort can be rewarded with food? Feeding yourself is an inappropriate reaction to success, especially if you are trying to control your weight.
To overcome this behaviour, try to identify ways of celebrating or rewarding that do not involve eating. Consider rewarding yourself with clothes, a new book or a new gadget instead of the food you would have had. Sometimes simply running a bath and having some quiet time is all we need as reward for making it through the day.
Many people use food to express affection, love or appreciation. You give chocolates to your partner on Valentine’s Day. You make your parents a special meal on Mother’s Day or Father’s day. Making a special meal is one of the most common ways we show those dear to us that they are special to us. As a result, we appreciate not only the time and effort spent on the meal but also the food. This means we tend to eat all the food dished up for us, even if we’ve had more than enough! Think of how upset our grandmothers get if we don’t take a second helping. Rejecting a second helping is interpreted as rejecting all the love and effort that went into the food.
Next time someone is pushing food on you, try diffusing the pressure by saying something like: “The meal was delicious, I really enjoyed it. Thank you so much. I wish I had space for more food but I really have had enough, thank you.”
The word diet conjures up pictures of deprivation and going without foods people love. Losing weight feels far less deprived if we concentrate on nourishing our body with the foods we know are bursting with vitamins and minerals instead those laden with sugar and fat. Feeding yourself healthy food can be an act of love and nourishment rather than deprivation. Focusing on the positive rather than the negative can be a powerful motivating force.
Food as entertainment.
While many women will tell me they’ve gained weight because they are comfort eaters, I hear many men say they have gained weight because they are boredom eaters. These people tend to get up from the couch or their desk to have a look in the fridge or the pantry and see what’s there. They may take a biscuit or a slice of left-over meat and go back to the couch or the desk only to return a bit later to repeat the process. By the end of the day half a pack of biscuits or all the left-overs are gone but the food has been eaten so slowly that it hardly feels like one ate.
Eating when bored can be quite an easy habit to address. As you find yourself in the kitchen, get a glass of water or make yourself a cup of tea and walk straight out of the kitchen – without anything to eat. Having good meal structure with three small meals and two small snacks (think a piece of fruit or a yoghurt not biscuits or sweets) can really help to differentiate between hunger and boredom. If it is not a meal time or snack time, you shouldn’t be eating. All habits take time to break but by consistently taking a glass of water instead of food, you are able to “rewire” the snacking behaviour that may have led to weight gain.
There are many other food languages that influence what we eat, when we eat and how much we eat. Some food languages like boredom eating can be easy to change whereas a food language that has an emotional component may take more effort to address.
The good news is that the way we view food and the role that food fills in our lives is subject to change; we can actively work on how we view food so that our food language does not sabotage our health goals. A dietitian or your coach can help you identify ways in which your unique food language is preventing you from reaching your health goals. They can also help you identify the steps needed to change your food language and eating behaviour. Simply being aware of why you are eating is a powerful exercise in identifying your food language and any areas of difficulty.
About the Author:
Nathalie Mat is a dietitian who sees herself as a mix between a scientist and a “foodie”. When she’s not translating the science of diet into delicious food that makes a real difference to her clients quality of life, she is also studying towards her Masters and presents to academics and professionals as a guest lecturer. She sees a wide range of patients, especially maternal and child nutrition including teenagers. For more information please contact Nathalie via us.