In this conversation, Katie Schmidt, Behavioral Food Therapist, located in the Bay Area, California, teaches us how through self-awareness and self-nurturing, we can take a non-diet approach to heal our relationship with food.
Many of us struggle with our relationship to food. Whether we restrict, binge, don’t know how to nourish ourselves, look to food for comfort or skip meals in service of busyness, cultivating a grounded relationship with food can be challenging and require lifelong learning.
Often we don’t understand that the way we relate to food has little to do with the food itself. In fact, our relationship with food mirrors our internal world and healing that relationship requires mindfulness, emotion regulation and lots of self-compassion.
This conversation is a reminder that we are not unique in our suffering; at the root of all our human challenges lie the same pathways of discomfort and distress.
We all struggle with varying levels of disconnection and self-abandonment that lead to behaviors that are less than optimal. So whether food is a concern for you or not, if you are a human on a healing journey, this conversation is for you.
Hi, Katie. Thank you so much for sharing your expertise with our community today. I know people will benefit from the concepts you discuss. To begin, can you tell us about the work that you do?
I offer one-on-one and small group support virtually to help my clients with the mental, emotional, and behavioral health aspects of their relationship to food and body. We work on things like emotional or stress eating, the binge-restrict cycle, body image struggles and decoupling our self-worth from our weight.
This work extends beyond food and body. Being attentive and intentional are the pillars of mindfulness. And they’re transferable skills. In other words, once we learn to be mindful with our self-care, we can apply these skills in other areas.
As my clients develop greater self-awareness and mindfulness in their food life, they feel better about themselves and how they show up — and that has a ripple effect. We’ll often go on to explore how they can show up in a more authentic way – one that’s guided by their personal values – in their relationships, through life transitions, and how they spend their time.
I love how you connect mindfulness and values, two concepts we have been discussing within this community. It is so important to forge that connection with yourself, so you can both respond more authentically to stressors or triggers, and understand what is genuinely important to you to pursue a meaningful life.
I have heard you describe your approach as a non-diet approach. What does that term mean to you?
True nourishment and well-being stem from mental, emotional, spiritual, behavioral, physical, and relational sources. You won’t feel truly satiated and satisfied without emotional attunement and a deeper connection with yourself. I use a non-diet approach to help you value and attend to all of these areas so you’ll feel more satisfied on a deeper level — and have less of a need to turn to food to meet non-food needs.
It seems that healing our relationship with food often has little to do with food itself, but rather more to do with learning to regulate our emotions and tend to our own needs. How do you talk to clients about the healing process?
You’re right. Ultimately a healthy relationship to food and body reflects feeling safe in the world. Behavioral food therapy addresses both our mental and behavioral health. On the deepest level, this work is about tuning into our nervous system, recognizing when it’s activated or when it feels unsafe, and understanding how to self-regulate.
Part of this process is learning to recognize when we disconnect or distract ourselves, so that we can then bring ourselves back to the present moment. Because only when we are present – in other words, aware of how we’re feeling and engaging with our senses – can we build our capacity to be conscious of our choices.
I encourage my clients to recognize that the behavioral food therapy process is just that — a process.
The act of being a human means we’re in transition and we’re in between spaces all the time. Healing isn’t an upward trajectory. It’s circular and winding.
Think about taking switchbacks up a mountain. You slowly make progress by going back and forth, almost meeting yourself back where you were at the last curve. Similarly, you may find yourself in a session where you feel like you’ve stalled or are regressing. But this, too, is part of your healing. We gain insight from challenging times. My role is to help my clients honor and navigate all that being “in process” involves and celebrate baby steps along the way.
I feel that so much of our personal development and healing journeys are a lesson in learning to stay by our own sides when we meet challenges, rather than distract or disconnect, as you described. Thank you for the reminder that whether you are struggling with food or not, the key to healing painful patterns is awareness, presence and self-compassion.
How do you think we actually learn the skill of being kind to ourselves, rather than abandoning ourselves?
Phew. Big question! This is the heart and soul of my work with clients.
Trauma expert Dr. Gabor Mate believes that we have traumatic experiences, but the deeper trauma is what follows that experience – when we disconnect and turn away from ourselves. In other words, when we ignore, suppress, dismiss, or neglect the pain we feel.
The way we learn not to abandon ourselves is by learning to truly nurture ourselves.
Self-nurturing is the act of “turning towards” ourselves. In other words, being present and attentive to our thoughts, feelings, energy, and physical body cues. Instead of automatically going to food, alcohol, perfectionism, or something else to distract and disconnect, turning towards ourselves means we first provide space and constructive outlets to allow, process, express, and release our emotions.
This is the very opposite of neglect. When we support ourselves because we’re struggling, we give ourselves the gift of feeling seen, heard, and validated.
Self-nurturing contributes to healing because we provide for ourselves the reassuring presence and acknowledgment we likely did not receive from others when it really mattered.
Sometimes I feel when we talk about these topics, we understand them in principle, but when a moment of challenge comes, we find that we don’t actually have the skill to stay present. Do you have an exercise or practice to help us to learn to stay present during moments of distress?
A simple but powerful practice I share with clients to help them interrupt the urge to disconnect from themselves is to ask: “What is the kindest thing I can do for myself right now?” This open-ended question helps us consider a wider set of possibilities for how we can take care of, and show up for, ourselves.
I like the simplicity of that practice. Another version of that I have heard is “What can you do to make yourself 5 or 10% more comfortable right now?”. We feel like we have to make dramatic life changes in order to experience calm and ease, but truthfully these important changes start with small steps – grabbing a cozy blanket for comfort, going for a walk to get space, calling a friend for support. You are talking about practicing genuine self-compassion.
I know that a lot of people struggle with stress eating. We turn to food for comfort, because, well, it can be so comforting. However, for some of us, food serves as an avenue for disconnection, rather than genuine self-soothing. What are the first steps someone can take to develop a healthier relationship to stress eating?
The very first step – which is often overlooked – is to acknowledge the role stress eating has played in your life and recognize the “problem” is not the food itself. Give yourself grace and compassion by understanding that at some point along the way, you likely had emotional, non-food needs that were not met. Food became a safe outlet for you; a way to comfort, to retreat, or to calm yourself down when you felt vulnerable, exposed, anxious, judged, repressed, or lonely.
Stress eating is a habitual, reactive, and automatic pattern – meaning it can happen beneath your awareness. Once you’ve explored the supportive role food has played in your life and you’re able to offer compassion for how this food pattern developed, you can move on.
The next step is to bring gentle awareness to the habitual nature of stress eating. For example, become aware of the situations that make you turn to food. Get curious about the self-talk, activities, social media messages, comments by friends or family, or conversations with colleagues that trigger this initial urge to check out with food. This mindful awareness is a powerful antidote to stress eating because it pokes holes in the perpetual cycle by disrupting the momentum and diffusing the energy.
On a more personal note, what makes you feel your best?
In the big picture, I feel my best when I have the space and safety to show up authentically with the people in my life. I’m grateful this happens with my life partner of 17 years, close girlfriends, my dog Leila (she def counts!), my clients, and the partnerships I pay for. Yes, paid partnerships! I really value being a partner to my clients and also receiving reliable support from insightful, thoughtful, and empathetic women. I’m receiving support right now from my therapist, chiropractor, business partner/copyeditor, and my photographer.
When I think about my rituals or routines, I feel really good on warm, sunny days when my dog and I get out to the lagoon in my neighborhood. We’ll bring snacks (dark chocolate for me and a dental chew for Leila) and set up a beach chair and towel. This is when I do my best creative brainstorming and writing. We’re lucky to get a lot of beautiful days in Northern California that allow for this.
Thank you, Katie, for sharing your expertise and heartfelt care with this community.
Visit Katie’s website to learn more about how she supports her clients, the values that guide her work, and some indicators that someone should seek guidance in healing their relationship to food and body.