As with much of life, how we are around food is determined by our previous experiences with it, says psychologist Mary Grogan. Those experiences can come from family (was Mum always on a diet? Did Dad make negative comments about people’s weight?) and picking up on societal messages – for example, in some women’s magazines it seems the most important thing after giving birth is to regain your pre-baby figure.
These factors all influence our thoughts and feelings about food. Will it make us fat? Will we be able to control ourselves? What results is commonly an adversarial reaction to food – it is viewed as a battleground, a struggle, a choice between good and bad foods. Occasionally it can become an obsession.
In recent years, psychologists have tended to favour a treatment model called Cognitive Behaviour Therapy (CBT). Focusing on modifying cognitions (thoughts) and behaviours, CBT has a strong evidence base for treating a number of problem areas. However, mindfulness-based approaches have now been gaining traction in psychological circles, partly because they provide a way of working with strong emotions.
One such mindfulness-based approach, Acceptance and Commitment Therapy (ACT), has been effective in helping people develop a healthy relationship with food. The aim of ACT is to help create a full and meaningful life, while accepting that existence involves pain and struggle at times.
Any goal approached from an ACT perspective will ask why the goal is worth it, given the discomfort it may bring. The answer to this involves figuring out what your values are. That is, to explore what sort of person you want to be in relation to an area of your life, be it love, work or health. Identifying your values provides a ‘big picture’ idea of who you want to be in your life.