When Food Is “Love” – Overcoming Family Patterns

by Susan Critelli
italy family eating

Photo Credit: Eat Mediterranean

About a month ago, I wrote the second installment in my fitness saga, and was very encouraged that one of the benefits of exercising and eating healthier was that I stopped even wanting the rich foods I previously craved.

Ahem. Over the last month, an irresistible force began to reassert itself – a force powerful enough to stop my success in its tracks. It is present in many families, especially ethnic families where the words spoken most often are some variant of “Eat! Eat!” Embedded deeply in the DNA of my husband’s family is this connection of food to famiglia, love, respect, tradition and a whole lot more.

The Eat Mediterranean website puts it very succinctly – in fact, the name of the article this excerpt is taken from is “Mediterranean Lifestyle Principle #1: Eat to Live, Eat to Celebrate.”

“The Mediterranean Lifestyle is about much more than just diet.  It is a way of being.

“It is hard to really understand it unless you actually go to the Mediterranean region, get away from the touristy areas, and spend some time in small villages.  Here, as you walk down the road, you will be invited into people’s homes and offered food and drink and cheer.  You will see people gathered to help their neighbors pick olives or grapes for wine.  You will watch families getting their exercise by picking greens or herbs for teas and then you will be invited to eat with the family and the extended family.  It is a good way of living and it is something to aspire to not only for our physical health, but also for our emotional and spiritual well-being.”

I would not trade the last 28 years as a member of this wonderful family for perfect health and a weight loss of 100 pounds.  I am an only child, and my husband has more close cousins than I have members of my entire extended family. I have learned unconditional love here, and have many wonderful memories of meals and holidays and laughter. My mother, on the other hand, knew how to make exactly five things – the elements of a traditional Southern Thanksgiving, a traditional Southern heart attack breakfast, Chickasaw green beans with fatback, Southern fried chicken to die for (and gravy!), and Chef Boyardee spaghetti from a box.  I kid you not.  After my dad passed away, she ate out for every single meal.  Food was not a big deal in our family.

So while I think of my Italian family as the place where I learned to eat, I clearly already had some bad habits of my own that were forged in my childhood but did not manifest themselves until I started associating food with famiglia, love, respect, tradition and a whole lot more.

The recent whirlwind of activity in my business left me too busy to do a lot of cooking.  So my husband, who is an amazing cook, took over in the kitchen for a while.  And I remembered why I have had so much trouble losing weight in the past:  in this family, food is not about just nourishing your body, but is an expression of love and respect, both to cook and to eat.  It is a gross insult not to eat what someone has cooked for you, particularly when they have done so in a sacrificial way.  And so this month, I have found myself eating foods that I really didn’t want when I didn’t really want to eat them.

The good news is that I have been eating much smaller quantities of these foods than in the past, so between the smaller portions and exercise, I have managed not to gain any weight.  I just haven’t lost any more.  Unsurprisingly, I have not been as diligent on the treadmill this month either. And yet, I am still seeing some changes in my body and realizing that just because progress is slow does not mean that there is no progress.

Healthy habits that promote weight loss and living a healthy lifestyle begin in your mind.   Deliverance occurs when the object of your desire meets your willingness to do whatever it takes to obtain it.  You have to want it more than whatever pattern you are stuck in that is holding you back.  I AM committed to making fitness happen in my life.

I know I am not the only one battling entrenched habits arising out of this connection of food, family and love. Fit After Fifty would love to have your comments if you have had success overcoming family patterns, particularly if you can give me some practical steps to take next!

 Susan Critelli
Susan Critelli
Social Media Strategist
“Internet junkie, social media maven and Mom to two amazing young adults.”


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Michael Nelson (@CogentCoach) April 18, 2013 - 9:07 am

Sounds familiar! I remember my Grandmother constantly encouraging us to “clean your plate” and to take seconds! Makes it a challenge!

Susan Critelli April 18, 2013 - 11:57 am

“Because people are starving in Africa.” Yes, I was also taught to clean my plate. Ironically, I was a picky eater and couldn’t stand for anything to mix together on my plate. I should have so much trouble cleaning my plate now! Thanks for commenting.

Tracykauffman April 18, 2013 - 9:13 am

I understand how you feel for I was raised too to never leave anything on your plate. To eat it whether you liked it or not. I have seen that some foods with preservatives make people crave food, so I try to eliminate those foods.

Susan Critelli April 18, 2013 - 12:00 pm

You bring up a good point, Tracy. I think some of today’s obesity problems in the US have to do with just what you are suggesting – that some food additives are included precisely because they make you want to eat more. This is not to say that I am not responsible for opening my own mouth! Just that there are some things going on in the food industry that are contributing to the problem. Thanks for your comment!

David Sanger (@davidsanger) April 18, 2013 - 9:18 am

Thanks. What has helped me in the past has been connection with other people, most recently working with a personal trainer and keeping a food diary. It makes you think twice when you know you have to show ti to someone. The exercise routine helps a lot too. Good luck

Susan Critelli April 18, 2013 - 12:03 pm

David, you remind me that I have also not been so faithful to keep my food diary. I have been using an online tracker and I got away from using that so much. What I found when I used it correctly was that I had NO IDEA how many calories different foods contained and I usually underestimated what I had consumed during the day. It really helped me want to see those numbers lower!

Tab Pierce April 18, 2013 - 9:19 am

I wish I had the answer, I could have written this post myself. I’ve tried diet after diet and ended up gaining weight…the story of many. Around Thanksgiving I just gave up and said forget it, I’ll try and make decent choices on food and quantity…but I’m done. What’s happened since then is I’m down 35 lbs without trying. I’m not saying don’t care. But it makes me think of what my 82 year old mother would tell me on each diet. Just count calories! I’m not counting calories but it goes back to the old burn more than you eat statement.

This may not help at all!



Susan Critelli April 18, 2013 - 12:07 pm

Sure do wish you could figure out what you were doing – or not doing – to lose that 35 pounds and bottle it! Thanks for your comment.

Tammi Kibler (@tammikibler) April 18, 2013 - 9:24 am

My background is not Mediterranean, but I grew up in a home where love was expressed with food. Even today, I struggle with gatherings that focus exclusively on food and drink: no games, no music, just orgies of fat and alcohol.

Susan Critelli April 18, 2013 - 12:10 pm

Almost all our family celebrations revolve around eating a meal together – the holidays are at home, and birthdays, anniversaries, and other kinds of celebrations are usually at a restaurant. I have no idea how to get away from that one.

travelblurb April 18, 2013 - 9:25 am

It has to be a balancing act. What is the point of being miserable? At the same time you need to take some actions to maintain some level of health. I know that I hate to turn away food when eating with the family, so I can see why you have the same issues. I would not trade it either.

Susan Critelli April 18, 2013 - 12:20 pm

Hi “travelblurb” – I agree that one should not be miserable. The challenge is finding other activities that don’t involve food.

eMarkBern44 April 18, 2013 - 9:25 am

I completely understand your situation. Well, maybe not “completely,” but to a high degree, at least. I grew up with a mother and sisters who could really cook. Food, and lots of it, was something social, not just a meal. And food was also used as rewards! Holidays were incredible! The food was fantastic. And every place a person could recline for a nap was in use on those days after the meals.

So, that’s my background. But I decided to be healthy at a fairly early age (20s) and was very involved in sports and jogging. All was going well. Then I got the great job and the corner office and the long hours, the endless meetings,etc. I suddenly ballooned from 180 to 230 lbs.! I lived that way, with no time for sports for several years. While I was completing an MBA I had an assignment to change a behavior. I decided to change my health! It worked. In one semester I got all the way back down to 190 lbs.! Alas, it would not last. I suffered multiple injuries, one after another, and fell back into old habits. Sort of like you are doing now, but on a much worse level. My weight eventually got up to 255!

Last year I decided I needed to change for the good. It is easier now that I am retired. I set a goal for the year to lose 40 lbs., started in April of 2012 and hit my goal by October of the same year. Then I went into “maintenance mode.” I had decided to take a break and just maintain my weight at 215 through the holidays and winter until the following spring. Spring is here again and I am glad I took the break. I still ate healthier than in the past, but I did not have to force myself to exercise on cold days. I just took walks when weather permitted and ate smaller portions, similar to what you are doing.

After the “break,” I am ready to get back into gear and have set a goal to lose another 30 lbs. this year. I am starting out right where I left off, weighing 215 still, and am confident that as I regain my regular schedule I will begin to see the desired progress. Sometimes a break is good. Let if refresh you and don’t feel guilty!

Susan Critelli April 18, 2013 - 12:30 pm

Wow! Good for you, I wish you success with round two! You bring up a good point about it being easier now that you are retired. I work from home, and I find that if I do not get up early and get on the treadmill (or walk the dog or whatever) IMMEDIATELY, the chance increases that I will sit down at the computer “just to look at one thing…”

Four. Hours. Later. I have not exercised, and have gotten into the rhythm of working and am not likely to get up and do it then. I think if I didn’t have those daily responsibilities it would be easier to make exercise a priority.

Larry April 18, 2013 - 9:28 am

Me and my wife battle with food too. It takes effort.

Lake Arrowhead (@RimoftheWorld) April 18, 2013 - 9:35 am

I’m into food discipline. I have no problem finishing the food on my plate. And yes, I was brought up like that also. What’s important is to inspire yourself to eat better.
Buy organic and take the time to prepare food for yourself. Remove the chemicals and hormones from your diet and enjoy the results!

opajdara April 18, 2013 - 9:47 am

Food is love. For some more so than for others. Maybe it has to do with the way we were raised, but mostly I think it’s just substitute for love.

Michael K April 18, 2013 - 9:47 am

I understand quite good. Well…I am half Spanish, half German…And I was in Spain for longer periods. Those days I was younger and a Student, so I had time to workout almost everyday…And I did..I was boxing for 12 years and running next to some other workaouts…Well I was a sport freak and so I was able to eat out tons of really gooood mediterranian stuff. With the family and friends. Of course at home I was tought to always clean my plate. And the people who knows what eating menas in mediterranean area know how much food is served there. Nowaddays I am having a company and I am working up to 70 hours per week and really…after some hard day I dont feel like sporting. I really dont have enough time for it. So I was forced to really change my eating habbits as some 7 years ago I had a weight of over 220 pounds which is really ridiculous. My feet where aching and I started becoming short in breath. I was too old for boxing and too stressed for regularly workout. So I began to eat smaller portions and spreaded over the day and to do sports at least 3 times a week. I have a horse and must care about it. Meanwhile i lost over 60 pounds and feel good and relatively healthy. I can eat what I like, but i must watch and take care.

Susan Critelli April 18, 2013 - 12:49 pm

Awesome Michael! I hope you continue to have success with maintaining a healthy weight. Thanks for commenting!

Charles Slang April 18, 2013 - 11:29 am

My mom was a food-pusher, who was not happy until everyone overate, resulting in a lot of obesity in my family! I always lifted dumbbells and did many aerobic exercises and that worked for me!

Susan Critelli April 18, 2013 - 12:48 pm

I wonder why some Moms do that? My mother in law was big on cleaning the plate, too. The best part of a meal is the fellowship with those you are sharing it with.- really the eating part ought to be secondary.

sarin April 18, 2013 - 11:34 am

in india, health is displayed by not being skin and bones 🙂

Susan Critelli April 18, 2013 - 12:44 pm

I don’t think I have ever had that problem, and certainly not any time recently.

mithuhassan2013 April 18, 2013 - 12:41 pm

” Eating for Live; not living for eat “

Throw Away Your Scale - Fit After Fifty March 18, 2015 - 7:09 pm

[…] In the last installment of my fitness journey, I said that “Healthy habits that promote weight loss and living a healthy lifestyle begin in your mind.” But when you focus your mind on the wrong target, you get the wrong result every time. I realized I wasn’t seeing results because I was looking for them in the wrong place: The Scale.  (Cue “Dragnet” music.) […]

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Kerlund April 18, 2017 - 2:01 pm

Sounds amazing, and wonderful to have these Mediterranean eat habits, gives a warm feeling and shimmer over the meals. I guess that we don’t have very good eating habits in my family, but we love to get together over a meal, and that is something I love and understand is wonderful in a big Italian family.

Git April 18, 2017 - 3:38 pm

I believe that many people can relate to this subject, food, eating and drinking are social habits in all cultures and for some, it is hard to get away from when it grows so deep into our minds and it is difficult to get out of the habits.
I try not to encourage my children to eat up if they are not hungry if they feel saturated for the moment it’s fine, they will eat later than. I have friends that have a really hard time leaving some pieces of food when they are full, just because they were taught to eat up.

Michel Gerard April 18, 2017 - 8:39 pm

I am more careful about what I eat now and I have cut down on meat. I am also building the habit to drink a fruit/green smoothie every morning to get more energy and it helps balance my diet. I won’t it that much fruit and vegetable otherwise. I believe it will help with weight loss too in the long run.

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