A few years ago, my husband and I went and saw the movie Lion. I highly recommend it, especially if you’re an adoptive parent or preparing to adopt or foster, even though it wrecked me so much I thought Jonathan was going to have to physically carry me out of that theater. I know…this is a great blog intro, but I have a point.
If you don’t know the premise of Lion (without spoilers because you really should watch it), it’s about an Indian man named Saroo who was adopted internationally at a young age (five-ish) by a white Australian couple. In one scene, he is at a gathering with friends from college, many of whom are international students from India. At one point, we see Saroo get up to go into the kitchen, and he sees a food from his birth culture. All of a sudden, he freezes. The sight of it, the smell of it, he gets overwhelmed. We see a flashback to little Saroo back in India at the market with his older brother, looking at this same food. They didn’t have enough money to buy it at the time. It goes back to the present, and we see some others gathered around him, clearly noticing something is wrong. Saroo has never tasted this food before, but just the sight and smell triggers a memory of his first family, his first home, and we see soon after, launches him into a search to find his first mom and brother. All from the sight and smell triggered by a certain food.
There is an area in foster care and adoption that I believe doesn’t get talked about or addressed enough…and that is food trauma. I believe it is a common problem, but especially with younger children, it can often go unnoticed because battles with food can already be an age-appropriate challenge. It is easy to think things like I just have a really picky eater.
Today however, I hope to begin to shed some light on trauma surrounding food, what that means, what it could potentially look like if you are parenting or working with a child who has experienced or is experiencing trauma. I think it is important to note as well, that all of us have an ongoing relationship with food, all of us have been sent messages connected to food, and it is important for us as adults to understand our own relationship with food and the habits we are modeling with it. I am not an expert in this and won’t pretend to be, but through my own time working and serving in foster care, my experience as an adoptive parent, and my own passion and research for natural health, my hope is to show you that this is real. The physical and the emotional are connected, and though food may be a complicated – even painful – subject, it can also be used to connect and heal.
Food + The Brain
I think we can all agree that we have to have food in order to survive. It is a physical need that has to be met, from the time in the womb until the day we take our last breath. Food is also not just a physical need, but is more intricate than we give it credit because there is also an emotional need and connection that is attached to it. Even in the beginning, think about whatever mama consumes while pregnant, baby is also consuming. Some of the highest times of attachment are during feedings when a child is solely and completely dependent on their caregiver to provide sustenance. Eating food is a full body and full brain experience. It ignites all of our senses.
So first, in order to understand how deep this is, we need unpack some important parts and functions of the brain. I’m not a neuroscientist, so I’m speaking from my own experience, and the training, knowledge, and research I’ve done as a parent.
- Downstairs and Upstairs: The best way to explain the different parts of the brain in laymen’s terms is the way I’ve explained it to my child, thanks to the authors of The Whole Brain Child (which EVERY PARENT should read). There’s the “downstairs brain” and the “upstairs brain.” The downstairs part of the brain is the primitive part – the part that kicks into gear whenever we experience stress and tells us how to instinctively respond. Ever heard of fight, flight, freeze, or fawn, where your body just seems to take over and you may not even remember or know what you’re doing? That’s the downstairs brain in action. Ever experienced an epic, uncontrollable meltdown with a toddler that makes zero sense? That’s the downstairs brain in action. When the primitive, downstairs brain has taken over, there’s no reasoning with it. The upstairs brain is our thinking brain. This is where more critical thinking skills happen, all of our “executive functioning” happens here. It’s important that these two parts of the brain stay connected for the most part and work together. We need both.
- Amygdala, Hippocampus, and Pre-frontal Cortex: These are significant parts of the brain that we need to recognize in regards to food and trauma. That part of our brain that ignites fight, flight, freeze, and fawn? That’s the amygdala. That is like our internal alarm, or internal security system that is tiny, but ignites BIG responses and floods our body with all kinds of sensations. The hippocampus is the memory center. Ever seen the movie Inside Out? It’s like the command center that stores those “core” memories. The prefrontal cortex is that front part of our brain that is primarily associated with that executive functioning: higher thinking, decision making, planning. Here’s what you need to see: Look at the brain and see how close that amygdala and hippocampus are to each other, and part of the way we take in information is through that prefrontal cortex. image credit
- Hormones: For the sake of simplicity, I’m not going to go through specific hormones, but much like when we exercise, specific types of hormones are released that regulate us, food does the same. Hormones are released that signal to our brain when we are hungry and when we are full (i.e. the gut and brain are connected and talk to each other). When you eat certain foods, certain hormones are activated and released into the body. This is part of the reason we need diversity in our diets! Also stress hormones play a role in what we crave. When you are stressed, what’s the first snack you turn to? For me it’s always chocolate.
Food + Trauma
So, now that we understand a little better about our brain, I hope that this helps you understand why the messages that are given with food experiences are highly important, and can be warm and affirming, full of comfort, or full of fear and pain. Any time there is a lack of regulation regarding food or the immediate need is not met, there is a stress response happening in the brain (that downstairs brain turns on).
If you are parenting or working with children who have endured trauma, it is not uncommon for food to be an issue for a variety of reasons. Children may have experienced an extreme amount of stress surrounding food. Food could have been used as a punishment and withheld, due to poverty there may have been a lack of access to food or not knowing where the next meal will come from, malnourishment may have occurred, even during pregnancy, that greatly affected weight, physical, cognitive, and emotional development. Food may have been used as a tool to shame and certain behaviors that we may find troubling could have been used in order to get food and survive.
For children who have been adopted internationally or outside of their race/ethnicity, not having access to or experiencing food from their birth culture is a loss for them, a part of their racial and ethnic identity. Having an allergic reaction or having to change your diet because of allergens or other factors is also traumatic. Maybe you have experienced the absolute terror of choking or watching your child or someone else choke – that is food related trauma too. All in all, if there was a lack of regulation with food, then there is a connection to trauma with food, and therefore food itself can be triggering. A trigger happens when an external stimulus – a sight, a smell, a touch, a sound, a word – elicits a response that doesn’t seem to match that stimulus.
I understand that all of this may be new or overwhelming information, and you may not even know what to look for or where to start. This is not an exhaustive list and it can also depend on the age of your child, but it might be a good place to start.
Potential Signs of Food Trauma
- hoarding food
- sneaking/stealing food
- aversions to certain textures, smells, or very specific foods
- not eating enough
- being obsessive over things like caloric intake
- significant developmental delays with things like chewing, swallowing and feeding oneself (i.e. unable to hold utensils at an age-appropriate level)
- chronic constipation or other digestive issues
- lack of appetite
- decreased immune system (seems to constantly catch everything/be sick)
- significant lack of essential dietary nutrients, vitamins, and minerals, often due to overly-processed foods or not enough food
- lack of growth/body weight
- always seems to be tired/sluggish
- overly irritable
- meltdowns over food (Not the kind of toddler meltdown because their banana wasn’t peeled the right way. I mean things like they see you cooking dinner, ask for a snack, you tell them to wait until dinner please and then all hell breaks loose.)
- an overlap with other mental health concerns and/or addictions
The good news is this: The brain can be rewired, the gut can heal, and food can be a powerful tool for connection. More on that to come in the next couple of blogs. Until then, dear reader, I want you to tend to yourself. Grab a journal or piece of paper and answer some of these questions, because there is a high chance that if you are parenting or working with a child who has endured this, their trauma may trigger your own trauma surrounding food. And in order to be an agent of healing and good model, you have to work through and make sure you are in a healthy place.
- What did mealtimes look like for you growing up?
- Were you ever taught about healthy eating habits?
- When you are feeling certain emotions, do you turn to food?
- Do you feel any shame or guilt when eating certain foods?
- How do you view your current body shape?
- What does having a healthy body mean to you?
- How do you feel when you see your pantry or refrigerator low?
- Is grocery shopping overwhelming to you?
- What are some of your happiest memories with food?
- Is there a dish or tradition you’d like to pass on?