why your relationship with food is messed up - and how yoga can help

yoga therapy for eating disorders

Do you have a healthy relationship with food? I don’t mean ‘do you eat healthy food’?  I mean can you just get on with the business of eating without worrying about weight gain/loss, cutting out certain types of food or restricting what and when you eat? Many ‘healthy’ women constantly monitor and control their food intake and intuitive eaters are hard to find.


Many of us have a complex relationship with food and, for some, every-day food anxiety is overtaken by a full blown eating disorder. Binging, purging and fasting are a normal part of daily life for millions of women. Approximately 15% of women experience an eating disorder and an estimated 20% of women have an undiagnosed eating disorder.  And those figures are on the rise.


So why do women have such a difficult relationship with food? The social, psychological and biological causes of disordered eating have been hotly debated for years. Studies on the subject make it crystal clear that body image and awareness of bodily sensations play a big role. And recent research suggests that yoga could be a powerful tool in targeting both the causes and the symptoms of disordered eating.


Body Image


The 2013 Mission Australia Youth Survey found that 70% of adolescent girls have body dissatisfaction, and that body dissatisfaction was one of the top ranked concerns for all young people. How did this happen? While experts argue for and against the influence of the media, a 1998 study showed that just three years after television was introduced to Fiji (broadcasting mostly US, Australian and British programs), 74% of girls there reported feeling "too big and fat" and 15% admitted to vomiting to control weight.  


Self-objectification, the habit of viewing your body critically through the eyes of others rather than experiencing yourself as a whole and integrated person, has been closely linked to both body dissatisfaction and disordered eating. Self objectification is especially common in women and girls and the briefest examination of how females are objectified and sexualized in popular culture will give you some insight in to why this might be.


How do you feel?


In an interesting twist to the body image debate, researchers have found that if you tend to view your body as an object to be fixed or manipulated (rather than accepted as a part of the whole and complete ‘you’), your ability to be aware of how you’re actually feeling is impaired. You become less in tune with the sensations coming from your body and, because these internal sensations are linked to the processing of emotions, emotional regulation is compromised.


‘Interoception’ is the ability to feel what you’re feeling - being able tune in to your body’s subtle messages and act on the information it is sending you. A good example of this is knowing when you’re hungry (as opposed to knowing that it’s lunchtime) and knowing when you’re full (rather than eating till the plate’s clear).  Studies have shown that women who experience self-objectification (ie. worry more about their body than about the way they feel and interact in the world) are less able to notice and act on their body’s subtle signals.  And this inability to feel and respond to the bodily sensations is directly linked to disordered eating.


How yoga helps


A big clue to how yoga can help overcome disordered eating is in the word ‘yoga’ itself. It comes from a Sanskrit term that means ‘union’ and it is the integration of the body, mind and spirit into a unified whole that makes yoga so powerful.


Yoga asks us to pay close attention to physical sensations, thoughts and emotional fluctuations.  Importantly, yogis learn to notice these things without criticism or judgment. The practice of noticing what we think and feel without judging or labeling it is an important step towards improving body satisfaction. During yoga, we experience ourselves as we truly are, body, mind and spirit.  


Being able to immerse ourselves in our present-moment experience overrides habits of continual negative self-evaluation. Learning to notice, and be comfortable with, the subtle messages from the body heightens sensitivity to both physical and emotional needs. We start to embrace the body exactly as it is and find self-satisfaction on our own terms.


If this all sounds like wishful thinking, there’s plenty of hard evidence in studies that show yoga is linked to increased body satisfaction, decreased self-objectification and higher levels of sensitivity to the body’s signals.


Unsurprisingly, yoga is becoming increasingly popular in treatment programs for eating disorders. In the US, many treatment centres include specialized yoga classes and groundbreaking work is being done here in Australia to integrate yoga into clinical programs for people with eating disorders.


There is still much work to be done in identifying which yoga practices are most helpful for managing eating disorders. Some yoga and health professionals have observed that some modern yoga practices, such as placing critical emphasis on physical form rather than encouraging self-acceptance, may actually have a negative impact on body image and eating habits.


However, there is huge potential for yoga to make a positive difference to the lives of people with disordered eating, from patients with severe anorexia nervosa to those of us who struggle each day with food choices and body dissatisfaction.


Learn about using yoga therapy to support healthy body image.