Sitting down for a meal we glance down and notice we have whole grains, lots of colors, good source of protein and fat, feeling pretty good about it so far, and smile.
But wait, what is that?! Oh my gosh, its all over the plate and seeping into the food! It’s making my stomach and throat tighten along with my heart pound faster and faster. What will happen if I eat anything on this plate?! What if I eat EVERYTHING on this plate? My heart is beating so fast I can’t even see straight, I might faint. Deep breaths-“I can do this, I have done it before!” I say to my self. I close my eyes take one more deep breath and up from the table shaky and walk away in fear.
For many of my clients that struggle with eating disorders and disordered eating, this is a reality for meal times. The intention to enjoy food and be present is where the meal begins, yet sometimes all the best intentions is no match for the eating disorder mixed with anxiety. According to the NIH, over 40 million Americans suffer from anxiety related disorders. Anxiety is a natural human response that serves a purpose, and we shouldn’t aim to dismiss it, yet make peace with it and learn how to have anxiety become a manageable part of our lives. Even if you don’t suffer from an anxiety-related disorder, you’ve likely had a personal experience on some level.
We know that anxiety is part of the body’s stress response, also known as your fight or flight response. Once your body/brain is triggered your system is flooded with norepinephrine and cortisol, which gives you a super charge for perception, reflexes, and speed in dangerous situations. But what about food that we are not allergic to- why is the DANGER signal being tripped in the brain? There are many theories among psychologist. “When working with someone with an eating disorder, the anxiety at meal time or around food can stem from a multitude of things ranging from memories, social settings, overwhelm of the situation, etc.” according to Bridget McCauley, LPC in Austin TX. Bridget went on to say how the detachment from the food is a possible protective mechanism from the anxiety in the moment.
In the scenario above with a someone who is struggling with anxiety around food, what’s the roll of the dietitian, and how can food help? The RDN has many rolls when working with clients that suffer from mental health issues, and the works begin and will continue in building a positive relationship with food. In our office, we have a saying, ” There is no such thing a Good, Bad, Right, Wrong food. From cookies to kale all foods fit to fuel your body and brain.” We also want to educate clients on the biochemistry of food and their brain to build trust. Sometimes we as RDN’s forget that not everyone trusts food. Building and creating trust and safety in food is the foundation for building the positive relationship with food. There are many theories and ideas on how to go about building trust in food, and my favorite is explaining the sciences. In my experience, empowering clients with the sciences of their bodies bridges the gap between what we are saying how they are feeling.
Where I like to begin is talking about the value in consistent fuel throughout the day helps to regulate blood sugar which in turns provides constant fuel and nutrition to the brain and central nervous system allowing us to be more present and mindful when anxiety is present. Without carbohydrates in our body through out the day our blood sugar drops which begin the cascade of warning signs. Along with carbohydrates looking at the vitamin and mineral content of food. Low levels of potassium, from low intake of potassium foods or a high salt intake, can result in elevates anxiety, stress and depression.
Building trust, correcting any malnutrition and bridging the gap between food and knowledge helps to SLOWLY move anxiety off the plate.Do you use other techniques in your practice? We would love to learn and share with others to best support those struggling at meal time.
Adrien Paczosa is a Registered and Licensed Dietitian practicing in Austin, Texas and the surrounding counties.
She is the owner and founder of I Live Well Nutrition her Dietitian practice which started in 2007 and serves clients in the Austin, Texas area in two locations. Fearless Practitioners, the division of her business that offers training to dietitians and wellness professionals.