3 Surprising Ways Your Mother Still Controls How You Eat, Part 1: The Emotional Eater
With the holidays coming up, I’ve been reflecting on why I have developed healthy eating habits, such as avoiding refined sugar and fried foods, which were a result of my mother’s influence, and later giving up all meat, dairy, and gluten. In the latter cases, it was due to scientific knowledge that I came across, and for part of it I had to go against my mother. I went plant-based and gluten-free for cognitive and overall health, to reverse or reduce risk of lifestyle diseases, to help reduce climate change, to support animal rights, and several other reasons. Importantly, I didn’t let what others thought of me and said to me change my mind. This can be really difficult when the people who oppose you include close family, like parents. In some cultures, it’s considered disrespectful not to follow what our elders advise, but when it comes to wellness, sometimes parents can learn from their children.
Remember that historically, mothers have been gatekeepers into what is purchased and what families eat, healthy or not. While this is changing now, with awesome dads taking the lead in preparing meals for their families, many adults today could probably still trace their eating (and cooking) habits to their moms.
After last week’s epiphany about belonging as a universal design principle, I am framing this series of posts as grounded in love and acceptance of all of us as we are. This love provides a foundation for us to change if we want to and are motivated enough. Each person’s body is different, has different gut bacteria, and responds differently to various foods. What works for me may not work for you, so let’s keep these thoughts in mind as we explore this series together.
My story is one of millions. I share it simply to illustrate how we change our behavior – sometimes we can change immediately, and sometimes, it takes a long time. There is no wrong way, only the ways that work for each person. My goal is to provide insight based on case studies, and a set of principles based on behavioral science that anyone could try.
After much trial and error, I have successfully achieved optimal health as a vegan of 6 years and before that, a vegetarian for over 15 years. However, I had opposition. As my mother has written about in a previous post, she was against my decision to go vegetarian at age 16. Her medical training (which has mostly been deficient in nutrition education, as is typically the case) stipulated that I would have a protein deficiency, which I have yet to experience. Now, as a vegan for over 2 years and gluten-free for a year, my mother has transformed her health and her life. How did she do this at age 66 when many parents and people in general have become well settled in their routines and habits? Let’s look at three case studies, beginning with two mothers from different backgrounds, and then returning to our story. As we delve into these case studies, certain archetypes emerge, such as the emotional eater in this post.
Case Study 1: The Emotional Eater
Situation: Mandy* raised her children to be strong in the face of adversity. All her children are now successful professionals, having overcome many ups and downs as immigrants. Mandy and some of her children are obese. Digging deeper into this situation, we see that Mandy has an emotional eating habit; she eats when she is stressed, and associates sugary foods and meat with comfort and good times. She also tends to eat one type of cuisine, and is less receptive to deviations from her norm (think: Mexican food only, or American food only). Her identity and self-confidence are linked to her ability to cook and provide for her children, as she did during their shared hardships. None of her children cook much at all, as Mandy has always been there to cook for them.
The current situation is difficult for Mandy because she knows she needs to lose weight, but it’s hard to exercise with post-cancer recovery pain, arthritis, back pain, swollen feet, and knee pain.** She is changing her eating habits slowly, which is good, but she only follows this healthier regimen once or twice a week.
Another challenge is that Mandy and her children are highly stressed due to their work, family, or personal health issues. Because they associate meat and sugar with good times, they continue to eat in ways that harm them. Whenever one family member tries to bring positive changes to the family diet, resistance is strong from Mandy.
Analysis: Mandy’s identity and sense of wellbeing is tied to unhealthy food: eating is a perceived stress reliever. As she struggles to lose weight and improve her health, she is conflicted because she is unable to associate healthy foods with good times. Healthy food feels foreign and threatens her sense of self; it also feels like a sacrifice. Let’s look at some action steps Mandy and her family could take:
- Mandy would first need to start over with a deeper association: food can have the power to make us sick or heal us. Making a better choice, she could opt for foods that could heal her at every meal, such as fresh fruits and vegetables. This would empower her in the long run, despite some short-term discomfort.
- The next step would be to boost her self-efficacy by learning to make healthy meals of different genres to offer the variety of flavors that might help her not miss meat and sugar. Currently she cooks in one dominant style, which limits her in terms of flavor and variety, so she tires of vegetarian foods quickly.
- Mandy could also try the plethora of meat substitutes (not necessarily processed ones but options like beans and legumes), fresh fruits for a sugar kick, as well as loading up on greens and other low-calorie, high-nutrient, and high-fiber veggies to keep her feeling full.
- Her children could join her in eating healthy so that together, they can start a new social norm of healthy eating and reinforce each other’s good habits. It would be important to keep going if anyone falls off the bandwagon, as we often do with eating and working out. It’s only human. The important thing is to take a long-term view and keep on keeping on.
- To address stress more directly, and not with food, they could start a mindfulness practice around food, for example not multitasking while eating, focusing on chewing each bite, and sensing when they are full to avoid overeating.
- Of course, it’s not easy to overcome stress on our own, so seeking the support of friends, a community support group, keeping a gratitude journal, or trying therapy or a wellness or life coach would all be excellent strategies to reduce stress effectively.
Ultimately, Mandy can succeed by changing her habit from eating when stressed to cultivating healthy eating habits at all times. Her identity can then change from “emotional eater” to “healthy eater”. This will not only benefit her but also her children, who cannot help but be influenced by her. She is, after all, their mother, and they have grown up under her care. Even though they are adults and have their own children now, they practice childhood food norms whenever they get together and at their respective homes.
Mandy’s grandchildren may also benefit, as she and her children could transfer their new and healthier habits onto the next generation, giving them a better shot at good habits for a lifetime of wellness, cognitive health, longevity, and reducing risk factors for lifestyle diseases. Sometimes, no matter how hard the task, our children and grandchildren can provide the motivation we need to change our own behavior. Look around you: there are families like this in your social circle too. It is common to turn to food when we are stressed or experience trauma.
Share with me which helpful and harmful associations you have with certain foods in your family, where they come from, and how you want to change them or already have. For free recipes from our cookbooks to get you started with some delicious and healthy holiday meals, check out our website.
Stay tuned for Case Study 2: The Traditionalist, next week. In this case study, I will tackle the problem of cognitive dissonance (having contradictory beliefs and actions), and what happens when we pick one good habit and use that as justification to embrace many bad habits, despite possessing expertise that would suggest we might know and do better. This is the story of a mother who does things the way she has always done them. Also in the next two segments, I’ll address how dads tend to cope in all this…
*Names have been changed to preserve confidentiality, and characters are composites based on real people (including some of my previous clients) and their stories.
**Cancers have different causes. For example, breast cancer (and prostate cancer) has been linked to dairy foods, and Fiji, where my mother lives, recently celebrated Pinktober to raise awareness of breast cancer. Cervical cancer is linked to a sexually transmitted virus, and vaccines are available.