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How is Your relationship to Food Like Your Relationship to People?

Updated: Jul 22, 2021

Are you a risk taker when it comes to eating new foods, do you eat very routinely or try new foods all the time, are you into spicy, exotic foods, or do you like very simple and plain. Chances are your relationship to food and people will have similarities and this is something I help my eating disorder clients explore. I also train eating disorder coaches and in their final exam I ask them about this topic. When grading an exam today I came across a very good answer from a soon to be certified coach that i wanted to share.

6. People with eating disorders fall into one of three categories in terms of their relationship with food. Describe these three categories as you would describe them to a client and include how you would use the assignment “How is Your Relationship With People like Your Relationship With Food.”

Having an eating disorder means that we have an unnatural relationship with food, but what does that mean and what does that look like? Carolyn uses three categories to describe this relationship with food: too rigid, too chaotic, or both.

Being too rigid would describe someone with a lot of food rules and who exerts a lot of control over their eating behaviors. Those who restrict are too rigid. They might exert control in order to reduce their anxiety by using strict rules around food, portions, and weight. In reality, being too rigid over food and weight actually leads to being out of control. That’s when an eating disorder takes over, giving us a false sense of safety and security.

Being too chaotic might describe someone who still has a lot of rules in their head, but might not follow them all the time or to the extremes of someone who is too rigid. Their thoughts or behaviors around food could feel chaotic and messy - or they might not have any rules and are impulsive. Someone who binges has a chaotic relationship with food. They likely feel chaotic and out of control, but they desperately want to feel in control.

Someone who struggles with both switches back and forth between rigidity and chaos.

They might restrict during the day, bound by their food rules, but then after having one cookie (which breaks a “rule”), they might binge. They broke a “food rule” so it doesn’t matter anymore - even though they were rigid during the day, breaking a rule could make them feel out of control and chaotic, which could lead to a binge. People with eating disorders often oscillate between being too rigid or too chaotic during different phases of their recovery.

So where do these relationships with food come from? We have talked a lot about how our eating disorders are a unique puzzle - one component of the puzzle is our temperament or traits. Our basic temperament impacts everything about us and how we interact with the world. This is because our temperament guides our behaviors like our choices around food or how we interact with others. The way we feel and our decisions around food often mirror how we deal with money, relationships, or sex because they are being driven by the same underlying forces (our traits). Our relationship with food reveals a lot about us. Understanding our temperament and our traits is therefore very important for understanding our relationship with food and our relationship with people. It is also interesting that our traits usually fall into these same categories as the ones we talked about with food - they might cause us to be too rigid or they might lead to too much chaos. For example, someone who is obsessive, and critical might be too rigid with their food and with others. On the other hand someone who is impulsive might be too chaotic with their food and with others. These traits affect how we experience the world whether through food or through our relationships.

One assignment that will help us understand your traits and how they play out in your life is: How is my relationship to food like my relationship to people or to life? Write down the ways in which how you relate to food is similar to how you relate to people or in life.

If your relationship with food is too rigid, you might find that you are strict and have a lot of rules around your relationships too. Or maybe you are very selective with who you interact with, maybe only being friends with one person at a time. If your relationship with food is too chaotic, you might “binge and purge” men, wanting someone so badly but as soon as you have them you get rid of them quickly. Understanding your relationship with food gives us a gateway into the rest of your life and understanding other areas of your life will give us a gateway into your relationship with food.

I think it is helpful to know that your temperament is not wrong or bad, and our goal is never to change it. Just like we aren’t trying to get rid of the eating disorder self, we also are not trying to get rid of your temperament or personality traits. Rather we are working on bringing them from the darkness to the light, and this often means adding flexibility and balance not only in our relationship with food but also in our relationships with others.

Our goal is to change our thoughts and decisions in different areas of our life so that we aren’t guided by fears, misconceptions, emotions, or external rules. Whether we are talking about food or our relationships, we always start with awareness. Once we are aware of our traits and how they impact different areas of our life, we can see where we want to make changes. The good news, is that since our relationship with food often mirrors our relationships with others, working on one will have a positive impact on the other, and vice versa. The goal is finding balance and flexibility in all areas of our life instead of living in the extremes of our eating disorder or relationships. It is not within the scope of coaching to give advice or explore past relationships, but having some insight and completing this assignment can be very valuable in bringing it to the “here and now” as we work on healing your relationship with food.

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