Relationships with food

When we are babies, we associate our parents with love, and with their love, the nourishment they provide for us. As children, we may be rewarded with food, or maybe punished by taking it away. We may be taught to clean our plates, and taught that over stuffing ourselves is preferable to wasting food. As adults we may use food to comfort ourselves when we are down, or reward ourselves for a job well done. For those enmeshed in the diet culture, food may incite a myriad of emotions.

Although, biologically speaking, we only need food and drink as basic nourishment to fuel our bodies, we, as a culture, have expanded the use of food far beyond that. We learn to use it in many ways other than its actual purpose. As a result, our bodies are fed inappropriately, and we overfeed or underfeed ourselves, convinced that trying to morph our bodies is somehow a more logical answer than getting in touch with our bodies and finding the balance in which they function the best. We are taught that each passing diet fad is a “better” way to eat, and that by eliminating entire categories of macronutrients we will finally be able to turn our body into the body we have wanted for so long. We have hammered it into our heads that strict rules for health, like the BMI chart, must mean that being “obese” means being in very poor health, and that it is likely more of a character flaw than anything to blame, and that one must just buckle down and try harder.

Try to break away from all of the Netflix food documentaries and the Pinterest “nutrition” articles, and think about this. Your body is actually a highly-intelligent, self-driven machine that knows what it wants to eat, when it is hungry, and when it is full. If we can actually get in tune with these signals and are able to follow them, our bodies will find the balance they crave and will become the size and shape that they were intended to be. No two bodies are identical, and trying to have someone else’s body is futile – it is already taken, you only get the one you were given.

So many of us have gotten so far away from the signals of our own bodies, trying so hard to silence the hunger cues, or feeling that a sense of hunger is somehow a triumph over will. Consider that feeding your body appropriately will actually help you to think about food less. If you are constantly hungry throughout the day, your brain isn’t being fed properly, and will focus on food in an effort to get its needs met. If you allow yourself to eat what you crave in an appropriate way (an appropriate portion at an appropriate pace), or decide to eat it at the next appropriate time instead of making foods off limits, you take your focus off of those foods you are craving. If you respond to the signals from your body, it will stop sending them, and you can decide what to do with all that brainpower that is left over.

How do you get back in touch with the hunger and fullness sensations in your body if you have moved too far away from them? I would suggest seeing a RD (registered dietitian) who is eating disorder informed (it will help them be more sensitive to eating concerns) and getting on a sort of meal plan. Typically, the clients I see are on meal plans that consist of three snacks and three meals daily. After you get used to being on this pattern, your body starts to anticipate when it can expect food, and gets in sort of a rhythm. Then, when it is meal time, you should start feeling hunger. Concerning fullness, you want to shoot for being about 80-85% full, with the idea that it takes about 15 minutes for your brain to get the signal that your body has the food that is in your mouth right now, so about 15 minutes after you are done eating, you should be closer to 100% full.

The most common complaint I hear about being on a meal plan is that it feels like you are eating all day. It’s because you are, and you are supposed to be.  It is incredibly common for my clients to tell me that they “eat healthy” in the morning – which means that they restrict their food intake and only eat very low-calorie foods that often are not rich in fats or carbs. Then, when in comes to the afternoon or evening, they have been trying so hard not to eat the “unhealthy” foods that it becomes too much and they end up eating something they didn’t really want to be eating, and sometimes in an amount much greater than they had intended. If you are eating throughout the day, you are appropriately full on the things you crave, so there is no need to overindulge later.

Speaking of foods you crave – what about dessert? Dessert is just food. If your authentic self likes the taste of sweets, you should allow yourself about desserts. Again, it is important to consider “loving limits” and having about a maximum of an average of one serving per day. If you struggle with this idea, consider having dessert with dinner each night. If you find yourself waiting until the end of the meal to eat your dessert because “it is the best part,” you may want to try “eating in the round” – having a bite of each of the dishes on your plate, as well as a bite of dessert before going back and having a bite of each again.  This reinforces the idea that each of the bites is just food.

I can already see the eye-rolls from the iron-clad diet fans out there, but consider how much of your life, and your free time you devote to your food and your body. What would it be like to take some of that back? What would it be like to accept and respect your body for the incredible machine that it is, instead of rejecting it and constantly fighting it to change? What would it like to be at peace with your food?

If you or someone you know is struggling from an eating disorder, please seek help. They can be deadly serious, and are not your fault. Please see warning signs and symptoms here or call 1-800-931-2237 for help.



When I was in graduate school, I got a tattoo across my arm – “serenity.” It is scripted, and so often people ask what it says, and then still seem puzzled when I respond. For me, the meaning is twofold.

First, I had found a sort of peace and calm through meditation and mindfulness that I had never known before. I strive to find that peace and calm whenever I can. I try to build in comfort , and make time to find peace in my own mind.

Secondly, I was inspired by the spirit of the “serenity prayer.” If you are not familiar, it goes like this:

“God grant me the serenity to accept the things I cannot change; courage to change the things I can; and wisdom to know the difference.”  -Reinhold Niebuhr

In an effort to feel in control of my own life, I had been exerting an enormous amount of effort trying to control things around me. For me the struggle wasn’t necessarily with substance use, as it is typically reserved for, but with the acceptance of what I did not have the power to control. Through accepting that you cannot control the decisions of others, or the weather, or traffic, a sort of calm and peace can emerge.

You may try to challenge yourself – identify a situation in which you are trying to have control when you actually do no. One typical example is road rage when you are stuck in traffic. It seems common for people to become overly upset about traffic patterns, but becoming upset does not change the outcome at all. Your anger, whether expressed internally or externally, does not the make the car in front of you go any faster.  In a sense, this is wasted energy that you could be using in a more positive way. What is one way you could exert what control you do have over the situation to make it more positive? For the traffic example, you may choose to find a song you love to sing along with (try the link for a list of some ideas), and play it with the windows down to enjoy the breeze.  You may pick a podcast or audiobook that you really enjoy (see links for some of my favorites to get started). You can step back from the situation, recognize where you do have control, and choose to make it a positive experience.

For me, my tattoo is a constant reminder to check my need for control. What do I have control over in this situation? What do I not have control over? How can I direct my energy towards something that will bring me joy instead of choosing frustration and misery? We can make the most out of this life by choosing happiness.

Finding Comfort

As a child, our parents are primarily responsible for giving us comfort. As we grow and mature, we take on that role ourselves. Yet, for many adults, the idea of comforting oneself can be foreign. In times of stress they may spin out, not having a way to slow down the chaos. And in a time of chaos, the last thing you want to do is brainstorm what to do to feel better. So, how do we build comfort into our lives in a way that works?

One of my clients had a brilliant idea – a comfort box. You could think of anything that makes you smile, makes you relax and makes you feel good. You might put pictures of comforting things/places/people in your box. You might put things that you can touch, feel, smell, wrap around you or experience with your senses in some way. You might put that one book or movie that you always come back to in your comfort box. You might include candles, music, or an oil diffuser with some essential oils. That way, when you experience stress, you can just go to your comfort box, with everything all ready to go.

Also, touch from others can go a long way. Get a hug from a friend or family member, or go for a massage. Spend some quality time petting your animals, or visit someone who will share theirs.

Figure out what works for you. Start a list, and if something doesn’t work for you, then agree to try it again a different time, or scrap it all together. Ask friends and family what works for them, and try their ideas out, too. In the end, you should be able to compile a list of activities that you can do to feel comforted. pexels-photo-935750.jpeg

What is a disorder and how do I know if I have one?

people-office-group-team.jpgA large part of my professional career has been doing assessments. As part of this process, I always encounter clients who are of two minds – they are convinced enough that they need help to schedule an assessment, but who think that they really aren’t sick enough to need serious help. How does one know if they need help?

As a clinician, a set of symptoms becomes a disorder when it is significantly impacting the functioning of one’s life. When you think back about the course of an average day, what percentage of your day is impacted by your symptoms? What areas of your life are significantly impacted by your symptoms? Often times people end up coming for assessments when they feel out of control, and unable to contain the effects of their symptoms anymore.

Mental health is unique in this respect. If someone was diagnosed with a serious medical condition, such as cancer, there would likely be little to no consideration made about following the suggested treatment of the physician, whether or not it impacted our lives otherwise. When it comes to mental health diagnoses, however, the attitude tends to be much different. People feel the stigma of the label, and don’t always want to share with others the burdens they bear. They also struggle to consider taking time off from work or family commitments, minimizing the need for the intervention that drove them to assessment in the first place. So many struggle alone, feeling ashamed that they cannot pull themselves up by their bootstraps, as they have been told they should.

My general advice is to follow your gut and be your own best advocate. Start with your primary care doctor, they can usually point you in the right direction of what help would be best. Another resource that can be used is your insurance company. They have staff that can find resources within your insurance network so that it can have the least financial impact.

Someone once told me that the hardest part of running is putting on your shoes. It takes great courage to admit that you need help. Reach out and get the help that you need, and that you deserve.

Do more of what makes you happy

Hello! I am Nicole Lee, LICSW. Welcome to my blog!


I am a clinical social worker who currently does therapy with clients identified with disordered eating. One of the first things I always ask my clients is – what do you do for fun? I get lots of sidelong glances from this one – I’m sure they are wondering how some random “fun” activity is going to help that raging “ED” (eating disorder) voice go away. Well what I find is that, especially in those with disordered eating, is that they have centered all of their free time around their eating disorder, and have nothing left that is just for fun anymore. By establishing a hobby, you can carve out time in your life just to relax and do what you enjoy. It sounds simple, but can have remarkable results. What do you like to do for fun?

If you struggle with any habits that you aren’t as happy with, such as disordered eating, you may try to create a list of positive activities you can do before using your less functional coping skill (i.e. binge eating, biting your nails, etc.). If you struggle to find activities that you like to do now, you may have to think back to another time when you did allow yourself to have hobbies and down time, and think what you liked to do then.

Some common activities you can do on your own might be reading (check out The Emily Program for some great suggestions for those struggling with disordered eating), meditating with an app on your phone or with You Tube, listen to cheery music or calling, texting or, best yet, face-timing with a support person. Also, watching some funny TV can help lift your spirits if you are down.

If you struggle with depression, anxiety, or ADHD symptoms, you might struggle with being fidgety. Sometimes going with the fidget and giving yourself something to do can help calm your mind. My favorite way to fidget is to crochet, knit or weave. If you have interest in learning how to do any of these, you can get supplies here, and there are plenty of tutorials online here. For the less crafty, there are a plethora of other way fun fidget toys to pick from here. You can combine the activities above with a fidget activity in order to keep your mind and your hands busy.

A huge contributing factor to depression and other mental health concerns is isolation. One way to increase your happiness is to increase your social time. Depression decreases motivation and takes pleasure away from the things you used to like to do, so getting out of the house and being social can be a push if you are suffering from these symptoms, but can be effective in increasing positive mood. If you are struggling to find motivation to do this, start slow – meet a friend for coffee or do something that is short in duration and a low-pressure activity. Work your way up from there.

As we say, “Fake it until you make it.” Slap on that smile, and your brain thinks you are happy. Go forth, find a hobby and have fun!