Food, Nourishment, and the Healing Journey, Part 1

(The following article was published in “Life Uncomplicated: A Collection of Expert Tips to Guide You Through Adulthood and Independence,” a workbook created for young women rescued from human trafficking. For more information about this ministry, please visit The Arise Box on Facebook).

by Robie Sullivan

On the healing journey, we need the proper gear and tools for the trek. We need trusted guides who will point us in the right direction. Most importantly, we need nourishment to sustain us along the way. No one gets anywhere on an empty tank! Nourishment has been defined as “food or substances in food that are necessary for life, growth, and health.” Our personal approach to food is shaped by a complex web of biological, familial, emotional, and cultural forces that are often below conscious awareness. Our choices can enhance our health or keep us stuck in destructive cycles that do not serve our goal of “life, growth, and health.”

Nourishing ourselves well can be overwhelming and confusing. Everywhere you look there seems to be a new fad diet or breakthrough research on healthy eating. How do we make sense of all the noise that clutters our minds and our newsfeed? How do we untangle the knotty web of information, misinformation, and shame-laden messaging relating to nutrition? This is no easy task. But learning to nourish ourselves with food is essential to healing. In my personal journey and in my experience counseling clients who wrestle with these questions, several key principles have provided a helpful framework. These principles can guide us as we do the deeper work of uncovering internalized messages about food, weight, and our own worthiness.

Principle 1 | Extreme food and eating habits limit the freedom in which we are designed to live. Whether we are engaging in chronic overeating, total nutritional neglect, or rigid calorie restriction, we are living in extremes. Any approach to eating that, as a permanent way of life, requires you to spend hours every day counting, measuring, weighing and obsessing about food intake is an extreme. Of course, highly structured eating plans are sometimes necessary for certain medical conditions or specific (hopefully short-term) goals such as an athletic competition. But when a rigid eating plan consistently distances you from the people and activities that you value most, it has become a stronghold in your life and it puts you at risk for serious eating disorders. For example, when you deprive yourself of an occasional restaurant dinner with your family because it is not on your “nutrition plan,” when you love to bake cookies with your children but you will never allow yourself this memory-making pleasure, you are serving the plan rather than the plan serving you and your health. Rigid eating plans also can have the effect of depriving the body of the essential nutrients and caloric requirements for doing its work. Hallmarks of overly restrictive dieting are loss of energy, irritability, headaches, difficulty focusing, and even sleeplessness! Most often, rigid eating practices deprive us of life rather than nourishing life. This is not to say that food preparation and planning is inherently problematic. Indeed, healthy meal planning often actually frees up time and ensures nutrient supply over the course of the week by removing the daily scramble of determining “what is for dinner?” Once healthy meal prep and planning becomes habitual, it takes up even less time and brain space. Greater life space frees you to play, rest, and enjoy your relationships even more. But balance in the approach is an essential ingredient.

The flip side of this principle is that extreme overeating and/ or nutritional neglect can also diminish our capacity for living. Our bodies enjoy optimal health when we eat a variety foods as close to their natural form as possible. If your usual food plan omits healthy proteins, vitamin-rich fruits and vegetables, and adequate water intake–if your diet is primarily processed, pseudo-foods that leave you depleted, achy, heavy, and saddled with brain-fog and depression, you are restricting your freedom in a different way. The physical and mental conditions created by chronically consuming processed food and excess calories inhibits your ability to do the activities that you love with the people you love. Healthy bodies maximize our freedom to embrace this adventure called life! One of my most cherished memories is climbing to the top of a Colorado mountain with my son, daughter, husband (and dog) the summer my son left for college.

Mountain topSpurring each other on as we ascended the trail, sharing the breath-taking lake views at the peak, celebrating our collective sense of accomplishment as we returned to the trail head – these moments gave me more joy than all of the desserts on that trip combined (and we had a few!). I could not have kept up (and even, at times, outpaced) my family of athletes if regular exercise and nutrition were not part of my life pattern.

Love, relationships, passion and vitality—these are the best reasons for nourishing ourselves well. Research shows that when the WHY behind healthy habits are internally motivated (for example, having the energy to play with your children) rather than externally-driven (such as obtaining the “ideal” figure), the habits are more likely to be permanent.

The bottom line is that, at either end of the spectrum, balanced eating habits enhance our ability to live out our purposes on this earth. Human beings are at their creative and relational best when they are living with vitality, energy, joy, and freedom. Christ came so that we would be free! When we are free, we have space to move and breathe and grow and delight in life! Food is a gift that provides the sustenance to support this freedom in living. It was never intended to become a prison! If you find yourself addicted to overeating, to using food as a substitute for relationship, or to controlling food through rigid rituals (or alternating cycles of all of three!), help is available. Talk with someone who is experienced in unraveling the web of attitudes, beliefs and behaviors relating to food and weight. Many have found their way to freedom and you can too.