Releasing my Emotional Connection to Food

I knew that ashram living wasn’t going to be easy for me. Out of everything I expected to experience during the course of my trip – the meditation, curriculum, 4-5 hour yoga classes, traveling through a foreign country alone, it was the two meal a day schedule that shook me up the most.

Being limited to eating twice a day meant that I’d be faced with having to work through remnants from my disordered eating past. I knew I was ready to deal with these straggling bits, but it scared me nonetheless.

One of the emotional hooks I’ve had to work on throughout my pursuit to healthy living, has been addressing my anxiety around situations where I have little control over what I eat and the timing of my meals. While I’ve healed much of my disordered eating patterns with the education I received in holistic nutrition, fantastic therapists, self inquiry and hard work, teaching myself to remove this emotional attachment to food hasn’t been an easy task.

When you eat, it feels good. When I eat… it feels good. But how do we eat and just… feel nothing?

In yoga, food is seen as fuel, nothing more, nothing less. Food gives us what we need to survive. It doesn’t need to be fancy, complicated, or pretty looking. It just has to be nourishing and useful.

This isn’t to say that one can’t take pretty pictures of food, create recipes, enjoy meals with friends and family, or plan plating arrangements for hours on end. It just means that when we do choose to eat, that we do so in a way that detaches our current mental state with the food we’re ingesting.

I interpret releasing my emotional connection to food as finding a space within myself where I can nourish myself without becoming attached to the food I’m putting in my body. Where I can eat out of love for myself instead of an act used to overcome frustration, sadness, loneliness or guilt. And where I’m confident that I’m giving myself exactly what I need instead of what I want.

To me, it’s about connecting with myself, eating what’s right and caring about little else. It’s a hard pill to swallow, but so amazingly freeing once you’ve grasped the concept.

Granted, it sounds all good in theory, but how does one go about it?

Engrossing myself in the study of yoga in the country that started it all seemed like a pretty good plan to me!

I’m an all or nothing girl, as you will learn.

The first couple of days at the ashram were hard for me. I tried eating only two meals a day but I was hungry all the time, so I started making breakfast for myself and eating fresh fruit in the afternoon.

I learned how to live in the moment and focus on other things that didn’t involve food. I didn’t plan my meals, I didn’t think about future meals and I tried to remind myself that there was always going to be food available, that I didn’t have to worry.

I learned to build patience. I sat in silence in front of my plate for 5 minutes before I began eating.

I learned how to listen to my body. I ate what was on my plate, took 5 minutes to meditate, then assessed whether or not I was still hungry.

… and I took a picture of every meal so that I could remind myself that it’s possible to attain happiness, contentment and fulfillment from so many places in my life than just with the food that’s on my plate.

Here’s a rundown of the soul food I enjoyed during my stay at Sivananda ashram, Neyyar Dam, starting with the meals served in the dining hall,

the snacks from the health hut (the fruit shop located at the ashram),

the snacks I took with me on my adventures,

and the breakfasts I prepared…

Once I let go of the fear of being unable to locate gluten-free foods, or worrying that I’d go hungry, I was surprised by how happy I was, healthy I felt, how free my choices had become, and how well I became at dealing with my emotions instead of relying on food to do it for me.

Have you struggled with an unhealthy relationship or emotional connection to food?

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  1. No, I really haven’t. Even after being in culinary school, I ate for a reason, not as an addiction (which I think is hard for a lot of people who are around food all the time). I’ve had some health issues in the past that have led me down a road that left me way too thin, but my issue has never been food. I love good food, but my focus with eating has always been to eat as fuel. When I eat, I eat for my body. Everyone always says I’m so disciplined in how I eat and I always eat so healthy. I do this because I get that “high” of feeling good when I eat well, much like others do when they eat brownies. It’s kind of strange to think about it that way, but it’s true. I’m glad you’ve found a great path for you Leanne!

    • Good for you, Serena! It’s awesome that you’ve found what works for you and maintained a healthy relationship with food throughout your culinary career. Thanks for sharing your outlook, very refreshing and inspiring!

  2. Wow, out of all your India posts, I think this is my all-time favourite. Like Serena said above, I get a ‘high’ off of eating good food, so really, that’s pretty much what I eat all the time. To some, that might appear to be orthorexia or an ‘eating issue’ of some sort. To me, it’s just eating in a way that makes my body feel its best. But like you Leanne, I’ll admit I’ve felt anxiety in the past about getting myself into situations where there won’t be healthier fare available, and where I’ll be left hungry. Maybe I need a trip to an ashram!! I like your comment about sitting in front of a meal for 5 minutes, and waiting 5 minutes after as you meditate. I’m always trying to eat more mindfully, so I might adopt those habits!

    • Wow, thank you Ange! It’s comforting to hear that many of us have that anxiety around food choices. I think it has a lot to do with our adaptability to change, also. A trip to an ashram sure did me good, I’ll tell you that. Hard to believe how much I learned about myself in just under 2 weeks. It’s insane!

  3. What a wonderful post! I think many people forget (or don’t realize in the first place) how much of an emotional connection we tend to make with our food. I know it’s something I struggle with quite often. It’s hard to break the habit of associating food with comfort, but I’m so happy for you to have started that journey! I’m hoping to start the separation between eating and emotions as well, although I know it definitely won’t be easy. Thank you for sharing!

    • Thank you, Alicia! You’re right, many of us don’t even realize it. I’ve caught myself on numerous occasions turning to food for comfort instead of running myself through the emotions I’m feeling and learning to just accept that I’m human and go through ups and downs. Thanks for sharing your view!

  4. I can identify with what your saying so much! I use to get so nervous when I couldn’t plan exactly when to eat and what I would be eating, after learning about Ayurvedic principles, I am much more able to go with the flow (most of the time) and eat 3-ish square meals…sometimes I start to get anxious though now if I found myself snack in between…my attachment has gotten a lot better though.

    • It’s too cool that you’re into Ayurveda! I really need to delve deeper into the practice. There’s something to be said for a science that’s been around since the beginning of time. Good for you for working on your attachment and freeing yourself from planning!

  5. I relate to feeling uneasy about lack of control when it came to food timing or options. These days I rarely ever feel that way and I think what helped me was seeing food as fuel and nourishment, especially in regards to workouts. Most of my meals these days are throw together, satisfying, and very simple. I really like eating basic meals and just moving on after, not putting much thought into them. Great post Leanne!

    • That’s such a great approach, Katie, I love that! Throwing meals together, not putting much thought into it all… a great way for us to get in touch with our innate wisdom I’m sure.

  6. Thank you for this post! I’ve been struggling with anorexia for over a year now and I’ve been fighting through recovery since January. Your blog has been a total inspiration to me, I’ve been following your blog for awhile and have found your posts like these so inspiring. I’ve been trying to find ways to stop thinking about food and this post made me realize; I will always have food and will not go hungry. Being vegan, I always worry about finding options but I need to realize that there will always be options. Thank you!

    • I’m happy I could be part of your journey, Hallie. What you said is very powerful, “I will always have food and never go hungry”. I’ve realized that saying something similar to that message over and over to myself really help me get over that fear. Yes, there will always be options. Heck, there were option in India so there’s bound to be something around every corner during our day to day.

  7. I think this has been one of my favourite posts of yours. I struggle with that same anxiety – I could be going to a new place, all by myself, and the ONLY thing I would worry about was the food available for me. I have to eat gluten-free, dairy-free, and my stomach feels calms when I also eat sugar-free and when I eat properly-combined food. All this to say, it is much easier to make food for myself!

    Anyways – I have seen that on these trips, it really does help to slow down and remember that food will always be available and not to be shy to voice my concerns about food. Also, I keep reminding myself that food, while very important, is not the most important thing – that being happy is also crucial…

    I am very thankful to have found your blog, Leanne. I am going through a deep bout of depression and somewhat of a relapse in my eating disorder, so having someone like you “around” has really helped. I don’t feel so alone. Thank you.

    • Thanks for sharing your thoughts, Sophie and for your wonderfully warm comment. It sounds very similar to what I struggle with too! I think the key, what you said, “food, while very important, is not the most important thing – that being happy is also crucial…” so, so, so true!

  8. What an honest and soulfoul post. Thank you for sharing and I think everyone can relate, to varying degrees and to varying levels depending on the flow of their life, to emotional eating and emotional attachment to food. Thank you for your lovely ashram & food pics, too.

    And on a random aside, yesterday was the first day I ever got a comment reply from you directly in my inbox…thank you for that plugin!

    • I have to thank you for telling me that you weren’t getting email responses! I installed the plugin over a year ago and thought it was working just fine… all of those responses, no one to read them. Doh!

  9. I’d just like to say how very VERY inspiring it is for me to hear your success story about getting over an unhealthy relationship with food. I say this because it gives me hope for me to find my own success story.

    I’m 19 years old and and recently (3 years ago) recovered from anorexia. I’ve gained back the weight I needed to, but the most emotionally frustrating (and frightening) thing to me is that I haven’t gotten back my period. I know its because I’m still over-monitoring what I eat…and I never realized how insanely difficult that is to stop doing!! However, I’m slowly teaching myself to let go of that fear & anxiety that comes with eating meals & snacks, so this story of yours really made my day. I’m taking baby steps, and it seems like it’s an agonizingly slow and endlessly frustrating process, but you’ve proven that you can do it, and that means I can too.

    Thank you.

    • Hi Michaella, sounds like you should be proud of all the work you’ve done in the past 3 years. Often people assume that once you’ve gained back the weight that everything seems to just be better, but there are deep, deep roots to address and yes, it takes loads of time! Baby steps are by far the best way to go, at least for me they were too! Thanks for sharing your story and struggles with all of us :)

  10. I really loved this post and it made me think deeper about the way I think about food. I do worry about eating at specific times, having a “balanced enough” meal, etc. I don’t think that I “eat emotionally”, but I do worry about what and when I will eat. I have realized this though and try to relax at times, but it can be hard too! I love food, as I’m sure all of us here do, but I know that there is much more to life than food, so when I find myself thinking about food for hours on end, I try to just release all of those thoughts and focus on other things that can tend to other parts of my life. Thanks for this post Leanne!

    • Thanks great, Andrea. I love the idea of shifting focus to other things that don’t revolve around food. There’s a whole world out there just waiting to be realized!

  11. This is a great post. I’m struggling with this very issue now. I used to have enormous anxiety about food and I NEEDED to have control over what I was eating. I’ve come along way since then, but it’s still great to have a post like this to read through to keep me moving forward. Thanks for such a thoughtful write-up!

  12. Thanks for this post. I appreciate being able to read your thoughts on your journey towards freedom and more intuitive eating, especially since I just got home last night from a 4 week trip abroad where I was definitely nervous about not being sure of what foods would be available and when. It was certainly a challenge to figure out how long I needed each meal to last me and how to enjoy it, even if the culture I was in did not have foods that I have, due to disordered eating, deemed “good” or “bad.” I understand what you mean about how challenging situations like visiting the ashram, good therapy, and hard personal work certainly bring about positive results. Even just a year ago, I don’t think I would have made it through my travels without a major breakdown, if it hadn’t been for the recovery work I’ve been doing. Thank you for your site, it’s definitely an encouragement to me and helps me to keep moving forward.

  13. I love that you meditated before and after the meals. My biggest issue right now is how fast I eat. I can’t seem to slow down until it’s gone and then afterwards I remember I wasn’t supposed to be eating fast! Somehow thinking about it as mediation makes sense to me and seems like an easier way to remember to slow down. I love also that food = fuel. Nothing more. It’s so hard to remember that, but I’m going to tuck that away in the back of my brain next time I want to mindlessly snack.

    • If you’re a fast eater (as I am) sitting in front of you food before you eat it and just closing your eyes will be one of the hardest things you ever do! haha so interesting. But I found when I did it, I ate so much slower. It’s a really cool experiment!

  14. Such a great post- sometimes I find myself in the same boat, worrying about whether or not I’ll be able to find something I can eat when I travel. This is a nice reminder that as long as there’s SOMETHING I can eat, that’ll do until I can find the healthier option I prefer. No need to let something so little get in the way of a wonderful experience.

  15. You really inspire me. I have struggled with my eating for 8 years, recently having a very bad period. I only function when i have a structure and totally struggle when i don’t, which i havn’t for the last week and have been out of control. But ready your posts have inspired me to turn over a health new lease- that food is for fuel that can be enjoyed and not to stress over eating out or what the scales say. Thanks! :)

    • I’m glad I could be part of that realization :) Good luck, Abi!

  16. Thank you so much for this post! It has come at a perfect time for me. I’m ten days out from a big overseas adventure which involves me being absolutely in the middle of nowhere in a developing country and being physically active all day every day for two weeks. Apparently the diet will be entirely meat (which is really good) and potatoes (which won’t work well) and dairy (disastrous). Have been doing lots of planning about how to take enough food of the right nutritional value, how NOT to seem paranoid and precious to the other people travelling, how to not be in control…basically all the things you talk about!

    • I totally feel you on the control piece! My gosh, I was a wreck before I left for India. When I do it again… I’ll just let GO of all of that stress because even in the smallest villages, I was able to find something – fruit, rice, arrowroot, heck, I even got a box of puffed rice cereal. There will always, always be something and it’s so much better to just accept that so you can move on to enjoying, what sounds like, an AMAZING trip! Wow!

  17. I thought this was a great post. I am dairy intolerant and I really went through a stage in my life after being diagnose of being scared I would not have anything to eat and that I would go with out. It was a stressful time and I understand going to an unknown country and being fed 2 meals a day would probably of set me off as well. We went to europe and I nearly had a breakdown over the stress of trying to eat things not containing dairy and not being able to speak the language. It has take time to come to terms that there will always be something that I can eat…. even if it’s a piece of fruit! ;-)

  18. What a fascinating post and experience. I have a much healthier relationship with food now than in the past but I could never get as zen about it like you’re supposed to in yoga. I do see food as fuel but not as simply as you described. When I was in treatment for my eating disorder was actually when I felt the most freedom and peace about food because it was totally out of my control what I was going to eat and I just surrendered. So I can relate to that, it WAS amazing but I’ve found a practical balance in my life now. Not so zen but not so crazy ;) It’s workin’ out. Thanks for sharing this.

  19. This too, is my favorite post! I really connected with it. I still struggle daily with food issues (even with knowing better). i’ve tried to force myself into situations where I didn’t have food readily available, just so I could actually feel hunger, or see that i’d be ok without carting food around with me. I tend to graze (especially when i’m anxious) because it’s scary to think about being hungry or not having “my kind of food” somewhere… unfortunately, this practice leads to eating even when full, feeling bloated and gross often. I justify it by saying.. well Its vegetables or it’s healthy, although the behavior isn’t . I’m really trying to listen to my body.. not continue “picking” after i’ve eaten a meal. I really want to learn a better practice of mindufl eating… not just shoving different “bites and tastes” just because they are there. Following through with what the inner voice is saying is the toughest. I’ll hear it, but ignore it. Almost feel an entitlement to whatever food I want, just because it’s healthy…… I’m trying to let go and not let food run my life in that way. Your experience sure is helpful and gives hope.. thanks for your insight and for opening up!

    • Hi Trisha, I love the idea of forcing yourself into those situations to learn how to deal with them in a healthy way. I think that’s a great approach! Thanks for sharing your struggles with us :)

  20. Thanks for this post, Leanne.
    I’ve been lurking on your blog for the last few weeks and felt moved to comment! I understand exactly where you are coming from. I have overcome my emotional eating (mainly – nobody’s perfect) and stopped using food as an emotional crutch, losing 40kgs in the process. However, sometimes I feel that the pendulum has swung too far and now I am obsessed with eating right (is it orthorexia?). I also get panicky about when I’m going to eat and whether there are healthy choices. I have to be mindful of my tendency to think about food too much and planning everything. So glad to see others understand how I feel!?
    Yay.
    Awesome blog btw.

    • Thanks for stopping by, saying hello, and sharing your thoughts, Madeleine. You’re right, it is nice knowing you aren’t the only one going through something. That’s why I like being open about struggles and challenges on the blog. It always results in learning that there are SO many people out there on a similar path!

  21. Yes, I have– and still do, although less than I used to. In fact, this post really hit home with me, as i’m going to a 10 day meditation retreat in two Weeks… And the idea of eating two times a day frankly has me more than a little freaked out, and I find myself reflexively and preemptively eating more now. I’ve love to hear any more details about how you dealt with it internally, and thank you for sharing!

  22. Thank you so much for this post – it helps me to realise I’m not alone in feeling anxious about lack of control over what I’m eating. I’ve had problems with disordered eating for around 20 years now. I go through periods of being incredibly strict and obsessive over my diet, and then every so often I loose control. Sometimes I enjoy the freedom that comes from this, and sometimes it scares the hell out of me! I really hope that one day I’ll be able to overcome my problems, and reading your blog gives me that little bit of hope that maybe one day I might beat it. Thank you for being so open and sharing. x

  23. This post resonated for me in a few ways, mainly that I am always wondering about my next meal too. This is because I have severe food allergies, which sadly excludes me from ever going somewhere like India. I am also gluten free now as well. What I took away from your post though was that I need to learn to release the worry and fear surrounding my eating, because you’re right, it’s not healthy.

  24. Ive struggled with emotional eating in the past, and now I still suffer with anxiety when it comes to food choices and meals. I worry and plan ahead far too much sometimes, and actually I often find that when I step back, stop planning and thinking about food so much I make much healthier choices. This post is great, it’s nice to know others have felt this too. Thank you for sharing!

    • Thank you for mentioning that, Zoe, it’s one thing I forgot. I notice too, when I step away from it all and stop worrying that I just make better choices overall!

  25. I love reading about your experience at the ashram and plowing through your attachments and issues! I’ve dealt with food issues for many years – i’d say to a mild/medium degree – and am much better now than I used to be as a result of much inner work. I can totally relate to you with the planning/thinking about food. It can take me over. It’s like “Heather, it’s ok, you’re not gonna starve if you don’t have my own approved snack every x hours or don’t have something in your purse.” lol. I’ve actually grown up going to an ashram : http://www.yasodhara.org/ . It’s an experience like no other!

  26. I waited a few days so that I could read this post and comment without being in a rush. :)

    What you describe sounds a lot like the mindful eating I try to practice, though of course, modified. I don’t always succeed but I find that it helps me cut back on over eating which has always been my problem. I especially like the idea of living in the moment and not planning each meal way in advance. As much fun as it is to plan meals, it definitely gets me into trouble because I start obsessing over food, then find myself feeling hungry and ultimately chowing down on something I don’t need to eat.

  27. what a honest and lovely post and what what perfect timing! this is the exact same thing i am nervous about with my trip to the ashram. with every journey i’ve traveled overseas, i have taken/learned something that has helped me with my path on recovery. this trip, seems the scariest yet though because this is the first trip i’ve taken where i’ve been this far along in recover (free from “behaviors” for 1 year 1 month!!)
    i think my fear of going hungry stems back to days when i forced myself to go hungry, so part of my “recovered” mind deems hunger as bad. i need to work on this. learn how to be ok with hunger. and also, knowing that it may be a different kind of hunger i am experiencing. ask myself, what am i really hungry for??
    the meditation before and after your meals is such a great idea. i’m going to implement this. starting, next meal!
    i feel more at ease now about my trip after reading this post, so thank you!!!
    <3

  28. I stumbled onto your site from a search for gluten-free naan. I am just beginning to follow through your posts about India as I have time. I am touched and can relate to all of them I’ve read so far. I am going to India in December and have wondered if I will be able to find gluten-free options without starving. I have grown up with food issues and have begun the journey exploring vulnerability and loving myself, as well as healing from past harm. Did you bring any gluten-free food staples with you, or did you find what you needed was available?

    • Hi Christal! I’m so happy that you found me! Have you tried the gluten-free naan? I make a fresh batch weekly and have since I came back from India. Whereabouts are you headed to in India? Regarding the gluten-free situation in India, it was pretty easy for me to find gluten-free options. There is always rice, always, always. In the south, they had things like dosa, idly, and boiled arrowroot to keep me full. I felt like I was always fine on the starch front, but craved oil. Because I couldn’t have a lot of the curries (dairy allergy) I didn’t get to eat much oil. Happy I brought packets of coconut oil and nut butters along. Another thing I’m happy I brought was packets of gluten-free oatmeal. You can find dried fruit and toppings for your oatmeal easily, but gluten-free oats or hot cereal was impossible to find. Other than that, I had snacks with me like protein bars and such which were very helpful when it was late and I didn’t want to go out to find food, or just on the go and didn’t want to stop. One thing I wish I would have done was study some classic Indian dishes and which ones had gluten/dairy etc. so I felt more prepared when looking at a menu. Things like Chicken tikki masala, baingan bharta, aloo gobi, biryani, should all be naturally gluten-free. Feel free to check out these posts I wrote about packing for India, too: http://www.healthfulpursuit.com/2012/03/traveling-through-india-the-basics/ and http://www.healthfulpursuit.com/2012/03/healthy-travel-103-backpacking-essentials/

      • I haven’t tried it yet but am looking forward to making it this weekend, as I’ve really missed naan since finding out I’m gluten intolerant. My going away party at work is Indian themed, at my request. (I am moving within Alaska at the end of the month.) Having lived in Alaska, with NO Indian restaurants nearby, I have learned to cook all the delicious food I love myself. I am also allergic to dairy (and soy) but have not been as strict in avoiding that as gluten (one step at a time). I am headed to Bharatpur, Rajestan for the first half of December with Habitat for Humanity, and then will probably head to Rishikesh for some yoga study for the rest of the month. Thank you so much for sharing your information! I’m not sure how useful it will be, but in addition to paying more attention to classic Indian dish ingredients and what is gluten/dairy free, I plan to bring these cards along in the languages available for the areas I’ll be in: http://www.celiactravel.com/cards/
        I’m so glad I found your site, it is both beautiful and informative. Thank you for taking the time to put it together.
        Shanti!

        • Wow, sounds like you’re going to have quite the Indian adventure! I’d love to hear about it when you return. Great idea on the diet cards. I’d love to know how it goes for you for the next time I travel to India. For some reason, I didn’t think of bringing something similar along with me!
          Dairy is challenging to avoid in India. I tried my best, but come the end of the trip I just said to heck with it and drank my fair share of milk tea, had loads of tikki masala and let my fear of tummy pains go. Thankfully, I didn’t experience many side effects other than a lot of acne which is slowly going away now…it was worth it though!
          Have a very, very lovely time and be sure to stop by when you get home to tell me all about it!!

  29. Thank you for this post. It was so insightful. I am planning on visiting an ashram in Bahamas for a month. I am quite nervous because I have so many food allergies. For example; gluten, dairy, & soy- I also stay away from sugar because of body sensitivity. Is this going to be impossible for me? If you have any insight it’d be greatly appreciated

    • I’m happy that my story has resonated with you, Jekka :) Hope you’re having a mindful day!

  30. I truly love your blog.. Excellent colors & theme.
    Did you build this website yourself? Please reply back as I’m hoping to create my very own website and would love to find out where you got this from or exactly what the theme is called. Appreciate it!

    • Hi Morris – thank you! I use Thesis Theme so that I can design it all myself. I hope that helps :)

  31. It’s a pity you don’t have a donate button! I’d most certainly donate to this brilliant blog!
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