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Monday Medical: When trauma impacts a person’s nutrition

Lindsey Reznicek
UCHealth

For some people, food conjures up positive memories – the smell of a barbecue brings thoughts of summertime while eating ice cream and cake is reminiscent of childhood birthday parties.

But for others, food may bring up negative or even traumatic memories.

“Those who have experienced trauma can endure biological and psychological impacts,” said Lana Jarosch, a registered dietitian nutritionist at UCHealth Yampa Valley Medical Center.



“Essentially, trauma is any adverse physical or emotional event that occurred and has not yet been processed, eliciting a stress response. If an adverse event, or series of events, took place and somehow food was involved, dietary habits and behaviors can be impacted. If not appropriately addressed, this trauma can have negative health effects throughout a person’s life.”

Below, Jarosch shares more about trauma-informed nutrition, how it is recognized and when to seek care.



When traumatic events have a connection to food

There are many ways food can connect to a traumatic experience.

Individuals who grew up in a food-insecure household may not have known when, where or how the next meal would be provided. As an adult, lack of food could be a stressful trigger for someone who grew up in that environment.

In instances of sexual abuse, food may be turned to as a way of changing body shape for a sense of security. Or, certain foods and meal times may correlate with verbal or physical assault. For example, if a certain meal was being prepared when an assault occurred, exposure to that meal or food may be triggering.

Some may turn to food as a means of control when everything around them feels out of control, potentially leading to restrictive and/or over-eating patterns.

And in addiction recovery, food is sometimes unintentionally turned to as a substitute for the original addiction.

“From the moment of birth, one of the first things we turn to is food for nourishment and comfort,” said Jarosch. “But when food is triggering to a person, it can negatively impact their nutritional intake and their ability to securely navigate the day. Trauma-informed nutrition counseling aims to identify root causes of behavior that could be negatively impacting health. It also seeks to dismantle shame and blame in as safe of an environment as possible to work through triggers and realize healing.”

A trauma-informed approach to nutrition and health care

Through specific training, a registered dietitian is able to apply principles of trauma-informed nutrition to support the needs of individuals.

“Safety, trust, transparency, support, collaboration – these are all crucial elements to establish in nutritional counseling to help an individual achieve their personal health goals,” said Jarosch. “Each person is so different with where they’re at in processing adverse events. It takes courage and self-awareness to move forward and restore relationships with food.”

Trauma that is not yet processed and worked through can have lasting effects on a person’s life.

“It’s important to meet someone where he or she is at, and to listen to the person – what they’re saying, how they’re saying it, their posture and body language when talking,” said Jarosch. “It all paints a picture of their health journey.”

When to seek care

Some individuals may recognize that a past experience is impacting how they think about, procure and consume food. For others, it may take a loved one pointing out that something isn’t quite right.

“It’s a moment of truth for many people,” said Jarosch. “Questions like, ‘Is something in my past having an effect on my behavior? Do I have a preoccupation with food? Do I know what a balanced meal looks like?’ If the answers to these questions give room for pause, it may be time to have a conversation about nutrition with your health care provider and seek nutritional counseling.”

From that point, Jarosch said an individualized approach and care plan can be developed.

“By acknowledging a person’s past, we can help them have a positive relationship with food in the future,” she said. “Nourishment is essential for our bodies, but a healthy relationship with food can mark the difference between surviving and thriving.”

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