Written by Anna Maria Márquez //
Food is life. Like blood and water, we all need it to survive. Food can also do more than help us survive. Food can bring us joy, connection, nourishment and love. It is a powerful force, but today, so many people are disconnected from these life-giving qualities of food. In the U.S., food is most commonly used for profit, punishment, and reward: profit, gained by the food companies; punishment by means of restrictive diets; and rewards in the form of treats for good behavior. These roles force people to have a toxic relationship with food that is hard to break free from. This is particularly damaging because our relationship with food is one of the few that we are bound to for life. As a Holistic Health Coach, and in my personal life, I teach others how to develop a loving relationship with food.
My own relationship with food has been a turbulent journey. Like most people, my first association with it developed when I was a child. Coming from a Mestiza family in New Mexico and Southern Colorado, where the food is a pillar of our culture, I learned early on that food signified more than eating. Food was sorting beans with my grandma, rolling fresh tortillas with my Mom, sharing Pozole with my Aunts, and gathering around the table for hours laughing with my cousins. Food involved thoughtful preparation, spontaneous celebration, and soulful connection. Food brought my family together. We used it as a vehicle of love to show how much we cared for one another. We used it as an excuse to see each other even if there wasn’t a holiday to celebrate. We used it as a way to build our relationships even when life felt too busy. As I became a teenager, and my life rapidly changed, this loving relationship with food shattered.
A string of unexpected traumatic events happened between the time I was 12-17 that dramatically flipped my world on its head. I never felt that I was in a safe and secure place to process these events, so partying and eating became my coping mechanisms. I gained weight, and people started to comment on my physical change. They called me chubby and thick and told me I needed to exercise. These comments were hurtful because they completely missed the point of what I really needed at that point in my life. I needed to feel cared for, comforted, and encouraged. Instead, these comments made me internalize the pain I was going through as shame. I felt ugly, unworthy, and ashamed I had “lost control.”
Looking back, I know that none of those things were true. Sure, I developed an unhealthy relationship with food, but that was only fueled by people’s negative comments about what they thought my body should look like. This was especially confusing because, in my family, and in New Mexican culture, it’s encouraged to be curvier and eat multiple rounds of food. At least that’s what I thought. Yet, I was getting mixed messages about how I was supposed to eat and look from everyone around me, without ever allowing myself to decide what made me feel happy. I couldn’t please anyone, and I certainly wasn’t pleasing myself anymore because, anytime I ate, I just felt embarrassed. By the time I went to college, I set out with a mission to take control of my life by taking control of my diet.
Instead of gaining the “Freshman 15,” I lost it. With access to a gym, and the independence to make all my own food choices, I was in bliss. At first. What started as a positive intention to eat healthier and workout, quickly turned into restriction and obsession. By sophomore year, I was counting calories, only eating a Luna Bar for lunch and working out for at least an hour every single day. My weight kept dropping. As the numbers went down, people noticed and cheered me on. They told me how great I looked, commented on how skinny I became, and asked “what’s your secret?” All this positive attention made me feel like people liked me better when I was thin. I kept up with my obsessive behavior, and yet again, allowed external opinions to dictate my relationship with my body and food.
In my free time, I dug through the internet to find articles on “how to get a flat stomach,” “skinny arms” and “get rid of back fat.” When I should have been studying, I was meticulously planning each meal so that I wouldn’t “slip up.” Food became my enemy, and had to be minimized or avoided at all costs. I was finally in control of something in my life, but it didn’t last long. I became malnourished, and my body wore down from the excessive exercising. One night while dancing at a party, my right leg locked and I collapsed on the floor. I chipped a bone out of my femur and couldn’t properly walk for 10 weeks. This injury was like hitting the reset button. I was forced to rest my body and re-evaluate my relationship with food. I decided that I needed to become friends with food again. I needed to learn to take care of my body in a way that was right for me and not dependent on other people’s judgements.
Over time, I returned to one of the first concepts I ever learned about food: food is love. It dawned on me that food could be more than a vehicle of love shared between people. It could be self-love, and this was even more empowering. When I discovered this, my relationship with food completely transformed. I began to cook nourishing meals that were right for me. I developed the ability to drown out other people’s judgements and comments on my physique, and tune inward to decipher what was best for my body. I began to focus less on calories, and prioritize food that gave me energy. Even though I was eating healthy, I wasn’t being restrictive or obsessive. I allowed myself to enjoy indulging in celebratory meals with family and friends without feeling ashamed, because I knew feeding my soul was more important than following a diet. I let myself try new foods when I traveled because the experience was more valuable than the attempt at being perfect. My weight ebbed and flowed, and I welcomed these fluctuations without blaming food, because that’s how my body naturally shifts. This is how my relationship with food looks to this day. It is one of the most loving relationships I have, but not by chance.
Our relationship with food is one of the only relationships we have for our entire life, so it’s worth putting in the effort to make it a positive one. Like myself, many people first interpret this as learning to eat healthier. Surely this can be one component, but it is not the end point. I learned the hard way that eating healthy is only a symptom of having a loving relationship with food, and that having a healthy relationship with food is a byproduct of having a healthy relationship with self. It cannot be isolated from the other areas of life. At the Institute for Integrative Nutrition, where I obtained my Health Coaching Certificate, I learned that the way we eat is often a reflection of everything else that is going on in our lives. When meaningful areas of our life are off-kilter, like our relationships or career, our relationship with food suffers. However, when we become more fulfilled in these areas, we can easily form a nourishing connection with food. At the same time, this can also work in the opposite direction, with food being the catalyst for either balancing or imbalancing other areas of our life. Therefore, the path to a loving relationship with food is to not actually make food the focal point. It’s to focus on self-love.
We can do this by looking at every action we take as an opportunity to increase self-love, or deplete our self-love. Since we eat every single day, mealtime is an easy entry point to practice this. Before eating, we can ask ourselves “will this make me feel more love, or less love?” and choose the more loving option. I’m not talking about momentary pleasure. I’m talking about long-lasting, life-giving love. Sometimes that might look like sharing a delicious cinnamon roll at our favorite restaurant with friends. Other times it might look like preparing a scrumptious quinoa bowl loaded with veggies instead of getting takeout. We learn what decisions are best for us by noticing how something makes us feel afterward, not just in our body, but in our heart and soul. Once we apply this loving decision-making process to our food choices, we can apply it to every aspect of our life, making our life more fulfilling and meaningful.
As we each make the individual choice to fuel our lives with self-love, we take back our power to develop a loving relationship with food. One that works on our own terms, and is not dependent on the judgements or expectations of outside sources. One by one, we lead by example, and together create a culture of food that is life-giving. A culture that dismantles society’s toxic relationship with food, and reclaims food as joy, celebration, connection, and above all, love.
Anna Maria is a Holistic Health Coach and Nia Instructor. She teaches women how to take ownership of their health and harness the powers of self-love. In her free time, she loves exploring the world with her fiancé, dancing with her family, and taking herself on dates. She is also like the energizer bunny when it comes to positivity and enthusiasm. If you ever need a boost of inspiration, be sure to visit her blog “Anna con Amor,” where she shares her best kept secrets on improving your self-love, relationships and health. You can follow her journey on Instagram @anna.con.amor and explore her blog at annaconamor.com.