It should be easy to eat, right? After all, we literally all need to do it in order to survive. It turns out, however, the unchanging necessity of ingesting nutrients doesn’t guarantee that it’s fun or easy to do. Instead, our relationship with food vacillates based on our moods, our mental health, and the presence of outside stressors, to name a few factors in the equation.
Hmm—bad moods, worsening mental health, and plenty of outside stressors. Does that kind of scenario ring any bells to anyone else? For the last few weeks, I have felt so utterly disinterested in the process of coming up with things to put in my body that my relationship with food has become downright adversarial. I’m frustrated that I need to eat, and embarrassed that the task of frying an egg, spreading peanut butter on a piece of toast, or roasting a few sweet potatoes and plopping them onto a pile of greens has become arduous and revolting.
Apparently I’m not the only person fighting demons in the kitchen, especially almost one year into nation-wide lockdown. “Some people might have come into [this pandemic] with no previous challenges with food and developed them simply because food was there,” Ashley McHan, a therapist who specializes in working with clients on disordered eating and trauma, said. “If everything else that was good for you wasn't there, you reached for what was there.”
Just because food is linked to trauma or stress right now, though, doesn’t mean all is permanently lost. VICE talked to a few experts about why the way we feel about food might be pretty complicated right now, and what to do to untangle negative associations and emerge on the other side, hungry and excited.
Food shouldered way too much of our pandemic stress
As the country shut down in spring 2020, our need to eat didn’t. That’s a big part of why food became such a focal point: grocery stores stayed open when basically nothing else was, meaning the kitchen became one of the only places to break the scary monotony of life indoors.
Initially, registered dietitian nutritionist Jen Bruning said, this was a boon for many people’s relationships with cooking and eating. “With more time at home and fewer plans, people are picking up kitchen skills they didn’t have before or hadn’t used in years,” Bruning, who serves as a national media spokesperson for the Academy of Nutrition and Dietetics, said. “Having the confidence and time to try new foods/recipes can be very freeing, and help improve our relationship with food.”
But as lockdown has dragged on, McHan said the reason cooking enthusiasm is waning for so many people is simple—and chemical. The prospect of making a meal no longer fills us with dopamine, the neurotransmitter that she said is released when we anticipate how good a future event will make us feel, therefore motivating us to do it. “Before you had baked and cooked all those foods, there was excitement about doing it. The imagined experience of, this will make me feel better! was able to drive the behavior.”
Now, though, we all know a lot more about what it takes to make our own loaf of, say, sourdough bread—which seriously diminishes the novelty and makes it harder to get motivated to turn that starter into bread. In short, food used to be a convenient coping mechanism. Now, it’s more like a burden.
We’re all exhausted (and probably depressed)
Here are, according to nutritionist Bruning, a few teeny tiny things that could potentially sour someone’s relationship to food: “Weight changes, changes in health status or a new diagnosis, past or current trauma or abuse, financial constraints/unemployment, (mis)information or exaggerated claims about potential harm from foods, ingredients, or methods of food production, peer pressure/social media shaming, disordered eating or an eating disorder.”
If you have not experienced at least one of those things in the past year, I am envious of—but sincerely happy for—you. For the rest of us, those are some concrete reasons why food might be a little less appealing right now. “The word that I give to it is fatigue,” McHan said. “When the things that we used to enjoy stop being enjoyable, when we can't find anything that is appealing, or brings us into excitement, when everything feels dulled, it's a sign of depression—it's this low level, chronic depression in our culture.”
McHan said there’s more than one food-related reaction to this kind of depression. The only thing that’s certain is that something is probably going to change, especially if food used to be a source of joy. “Some people in that state will eat more mindlessly, because it’s just a part of filling the space and the time and what feels like a void,” she said. “Other people in that same state won't eat. It's more like nothing sounds great, and that lack of interest leads to a lack of eating.”
Start small to build new habits—inside and outside
Obviously, there’s only so much we can do to alter the cultural reasons so many people feel so low right now. But there are things we can do on an individual level to strengthen more positive coping skills, and regain a neutral position with food and eating—even if we’re not like, jumping for joy at the thought of a white bean bake right now. One of the biggest things is making a concerted effort to focus on the positive. McHan said positive thought is a process, and you’ll have to make the effort to practice it before it becomes automatic.
“The more time we spend thinking about the things that we actually want our brain to look for: the good in the world, people being connected, people having fun, ourselves enjoying life, all the good stuff…The more we think about these things, the more our brain learns to think about these things,” McHan said.
She also plugged the power of positive thought in order to get your dopamine flowing once again and build up your motivation to make food you actually want to eat. “If I want to cook again, I'm going to imagine myself either in the process of cooking, if that's what I love, or in the process of eating, because that's what I love,” she said. “I might also have to imagine my kitchen cleaned after.”
Still, knowing that you’re caught in a loop of negative emotions about food isn’t everything. McHan said resisting your subconscious, habituated urges, the habits you’ve cemented in your daily life that your brain now anticipates and prompts, is still a challenge. It is, however, the necessary first step towards building new, healthier habits. “The more you don't do it and you sit through the discomfort of not doing it, the more you do something else instead, you build a new habit,” she said.
Those new habits can be external or internal. Bruning said reframing the way you think about food is a step into reframing the way you feel about it, too: “Can you see food as your partner? As a friend that’s there to fuel and satisfy you? Can you have a relationship with your own body that honors what it needs, wants, and is best supported by?”
Dialing down your adversarial relationship with eating is a great first step—but McHan cautioned against expecting too much to change too soon. Instead, incremental adjustments are more likely to set you on the path to success. When it comes to changes, “it's not going to be the hardest, biggest best thing that I know would be wonderful for me,” she said. “It's got to be the smallest, most manageable thing, because your mind and body have been through the wringer, and we have to build slow.” Basically, instead of trying to become a meal-prep wizard overnight, start by actually making a grocery list versus wandering the aisles in a stressed-out fugue state.
Remember what food can do for you
Taking small steps towards reframing your food habits and food mentality should help bring you closer to all of food’s great and necessary qualities—both physically and mentally. Remembering everything food does for us on a daily basis can help us cope with other daily struggles, too.
“Food is one of the most grounding things that we've got,” McHan said. “You know, that feeling when you haven't eaten, and your mind is just running wild? And then, have you ever eaten and then suddenly, you're like, OK, I'm back! It does ground us. It does give us energy, it does give us clarity. It's when we do things out of balance that it becomes a maladaptive coping strategy.”
The key is balance: Don’t put food on a pedestal or straight into the garbage. “Food is foundational,” Bruning said. “We all need it, and our set of likes and dislikes are uniquely our own. Feeling free to honor your body’s likes, dislikes, needs and wants can help release stress around food and eating, which can help lower stress in general.”
Lowered stress levels, energy, clarity, grounding in reality? OK, that’s it! I’ll have what they’re having.
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