I want to start this post by saying that I love Robb Wolf and believe that the health community, in particular the field of Ancestral Health, owes a great debt to his investigative mind and tenacious curiosity.
And now, with his latest book, “Wired to Eat” (link) I genuinely believe that yet again he has produced a guide to the nutritional landscape that is instructive, constructive, balanced and personalised. It is a ‘non-diet’ book which rationalises its way through a lot of the macronutrient wars of the last decade, without coming down on one side of the calories vs. insulin hypotheses. It simultaneously provides real tools for gauging one’s unique dietary and carbohydrate ‘sweet spot’…
This book also provides the ammunition of forgiveness to hoards of serial dieters, and basically anyone who eats. In his investigative rampage through hyper-palatability and primal instincts, Wired to Eat helps us comprehend our behaviour and our ‘failures’ when it comes to healthy eating’.
Forgiveness and Food
I am not going to repeat his arguments surrounding the evolutionary advantage of bingeing on highly calorific, nutrient rich foods, and why we should forgive ourselves for being unable to resist processed products. His years of research and writing offers an clear insight into how the specifically calibrated sugar-fat-salt ratio of modern foodstuffs taps into our ancient instincts to hoard these artificial “franked-foods”. A lot of his argument is that in this nutritional environment it is inevitable that we can’t stop eating. This is work I often find myself doing with my clients – building understanding and compassion into our relationship with ourselves by explaining the biological predisposition to overeat.
Understanding what lies behind our behavioural drives is an important part of self-compassion, and ultimately healing. In his latest book, Robb Wolf provides the manual to help us understand why find dieting difficult and act against what we think is our ‘health goal’.
And yet there is one part of Robb’s book with which I both wholeheartedly agree, yet simultaneously disagree…
Food As A Relationship
PLEASE DON’T STOP READING IF YOU THINK I’M GOING TO TAKE ISSUE WITH ROBB WOLF FOR HIS CLAIMS ABOUT FOOD RELATIONSHIPS – Please read on and let me try to explain…
I am incredibly impressed that Robb Wolf had the balls to say what I think is true about our relationships with food.
He discusses in the book (and on various podcasts on which he has appeared) that when people say they desire ‘a healthy relationship with food’ these individuals’ issues are actually with something other than food – something which has nothing to do with food itself.
I see this regularly, and know that Robb’s take on this is fundamentally accurate.
We are all know the idea of eating to fill a void, eating to cover emotionality, eating to stop yourself feeling pain, eating because we associate food with love, with our parents, with comfort. Additionally, we are all familiar with restricting foods as a means of control, avoiding eating through distorted body image and attempts to make oneself smaller – whether for aesthetics or deep psychological desires to ‘disappear’. In neither of these arenas is the issue ‘food’ – the issue is body image, relationship to oneself and complications around love, emotions and (often) intimacy.
BUT I believe that in lecturing about this to people who comment on their desire for ‘a relationship with food’, Robb is ignoring a subset of people for whom the real issue IS their relationship with food itself, which has directly and overtly become a ‘thing’ in their life.
When Food Really Is “A Thing”
I see people every day for whom their battle has become with food itself.
Not food masquerading as daddy issues, not playing with food because of a self-love issue, and certainly not childhood memories of food representing love and therefore adult life becoming a binge-fest of overeating. (Though I’ve witnessed all of this in my time.)
And yet – when your body has been turned upside down with illness, for whatever reason and to whatever end, food itself can become a real issue.
When the literal process of consuming food has caused you pain, misery, fear, confusion, doubt, symptoms, suffering – and when every practitioner, healthcare provider and diet guru is recommending elimination and avoidance protocols as curative strategies – a distorted and emotionally-loaded relationship with food itself can begin…
In the very field in which Robb moves (as do I), food, and the avoidance of certain foods, is sold as a route to healing from illness or issues. Wired To Eat itself contains prescriptive approaches to nutrition in order to regulate one’s body, behaviour, choices and physiology. No matter how often you stress that these rules should be held lightly, food meritocracy is still present.
Robb himself becomes incredibly symptomatic when exposed to gluten. For him, gluten avoidance is a healthcare strategy. And for him, this has not caused any undue distress or distortion of his relationship to the nutrition he takes in. And many people are just like him.
However, I see so many individuals who embarked on a nutritional manipulation program in an attempt to resolve what they have perceived to be symptomatic responses to nutrition. Years, sometimes decades, later – without true symptomatic resolution – food has become a minefield fuelled by an obsessive acquisition of (often conflicting) data from (questionable) sources on the internet. Every food has become potentially harmful.
For these clients, the health issue that they were trying to heal through food may arise from a number of sources – but what has resulted in their efforts to deal with it is that complications have developed which are all about their relationship with food.
Their perception of food and their relationship to the way they take in nutrition (and its effects) have become so distorted in the pursuit of health that their emotions around nutrition itself are far from neutral. For these clients, Food equals Fear – and I have seen as many nutritional neuroses develop in the pursuit of “health” as I have in the pursuit of thinness, or with an emotional conflict causing overeating.
This concept of health dogmas creating nutritional neuroses may be just as controversial, if not more so, than the contention that dieters’ food issues aren’t about food.
However, nutritional neuroses are an easy place to fall into when illness has formed part of your life, especially if part of moving through that illness included some form of dietary manipulation. When every food has acquired a host of mental associations/information, our perception of it becomes distorted. This takes nutrition meritocracy – i.e. ‘good’ and ‘bad’ or ‘naughty’ and ‘healthy’ – to a new level.
Carrying an encyclopaedic knowledge of nutrition, food, digestive health and immune system interactions in your head can paralyse you around food. And when eating becomes place of paranoia, reactions and symptoms are not only likely, they’re a given…
What Do You Do When Food Is An Enemy?
So much of my Nutritional Coaching revolves around moving clients beyond the “safety” of an elimination diet. For clients who have got themselves down to five or six foods which they are ‘comfortable’ with, there is an enormous amount of inner conflict which relates directly to everything they have been told about food. My role is to move them to a place of physical comfort – within their bodies, in their lives and in the way they feel about food itself. There are always other issues involved, of course. But the foundational piece is all about shifting the perception that food itself is an enemy. This is ENTIRELY to do with transforming relationships with food.
It is true that we are facing a greater toxic burden than ever before which is challenging many ‘sensitive’ people’s digestions and immune systems. However, as one of these ‘sensitive people’ myself, I do not believe that the external toxic burden alone is enough to make our bodies fall into complete meltdown, unable to tolerate or digest a wide array of foodstuffs. Yes, protocols might be required to deal with toxic metals, moulds or environmental pollutant build up – by far the bigger journey for these clients is to rid them of something that is much more toxic than any of these external factors:
We first have to tackle what has become an intensely toxic relationship with food.
In my work, it is common to see people who, through their attempts to feel healthy, have arrived at a nutritional relationship where every mouthful is a traumatic experience due to their fears. This, through a host of neurological and immune connections which I won’t go into in depth here, creates the very immune and digestive reactivity they are trying to avoid.
For these individuals, tackling the relationship with food is literally the first and most essential thing we can do. When you have learned and entrained that food is the enemy, nothing we work on using protocols and treatments can provide the foundational shifts required to heal without ALSO addressing the thoughts, feelings and distress around food.
So whether I offer solutions for healing the gut or supporting hormones, boosting adrenals, helping the liver or assisting the thyroid, I am also working directly and fundamentally on people’s relationships to food. Because in the world of immune and digestive distress, nothing is more important. Our brains are vital allies in the journey to wellbeing.
It really is quite simple: if we are freaking out psychologically about food, our immune systems will react accordingly – we are sensitising it to do precisely what it is designed for – protect us against threats. Sensitising our immune symptom to all food will automatically give us the symptoms of inflammation and reactivity that we are trying to avoid.
Whilst Robb Wolf’s book is admittedly not designed for this audience, I believe it worth stating that for an ever-increasing niche of the population, whilst we may originally have been “Wired To Eat” – our life experiences have precisely ‘wired’ us to fear eating. My work is designed precisely for this population – those for whom the body has, at some deep and profound level, said ‘No” (see link here to Gabor Mate’s phenomenal work on this topic). Those for whom the “No” is to food itself, for whatever reason.
In my own journey I had to work out the plethora of reasons why my internal reactions were set to ‘No’… But I also had to understand that my relationship with food was not something to be discounted or diminished because it was informing my immune response. I am someone who has moved through such elimination restrictiveness and reactivity to absolutely everything – and out the other side. My training and expertise provides me with the tools to empower others to do the same. This begins with the first, essential steps of recognising that our mental and emotional relationship with food will build the foundations of allowing our body to digest, process and absorb the nutrients from it.
If you, or someone you know, is struggling with their relationship with food, please know that it is natural and completely understandable to have this response when there has been trauma and pain around it – for any reason. But also pass this article on to anyone you think is suffering… Because life doesn’t begin when you have enough restrictions in place to feel ‘safe’. Life begins when you are able to address your relationship with food head on, and in doing so transition to a place where you feel safe eating the food that will truly can nourish your being (with no rules necessary…)