This week, I’ve been thinking a lot about the link between our emotions and food. It started on Monday morning while I was helping serve breakfast to the residents at the place I volunteer. I really can’t go into specifics, but suffice it so say that there have been some changes in the menu and style of serving, and I could count the number of happy campers on one hand. There was one especially-unhappy camper whose behavior has haunted me over the past couple days.

At first, I was angry about being the target of someone’s rage, but I found myself feeling a little guilty, too, that I am lucky enough to be able to go home and cook whatever I want for dinner. When you consider how intimately food is tied with our emotions, it’s not so hard to understand how someone could get all up in arms over negative changes in that setting.

One of the challenges of counseling patients in a residential setting, I’m realizing, is how little control they have over their food choices. Sure, I can sit down with someone and tell them that fruits and vegetables are full of vitamins and fiber and will help them lose weight if they choose them over more calorie-dense foods, but if what they get on their tray is a tiny, overripe banana and a side of bland green beans, it doesn’t exactly foster enthusiasm for the good stuff. Where whole wheat pasta is not an option, pushing whole grains just doesn’t seem like any way to meet someone where they are.

Instead, in addition to offering tips on how to make the best of the offerings, I find myself suggesting exercise. “Walk around the floor, especially after meals,” I say. “Moving around a little will help boost your mood. And maybe you’d do better avoiding the vending machine.”

I’m much more comfortable at this point dealing with underweight patients, if only because it’s so much easier to say, “Okay, we’ll get you double portions. Eat as much of it as you can. Start with the meat. Would you like chocolate or vanilla Ensure?”

Of course, limited choices can be challenging for underweight individuals as well, though. It’s hard to work up an appetite for food that doesn’t really do much for your taste buds.

What I find interesting about being in a clinical setting is what separates the staff from the patients. You’ve got your name tags and your lab coats and your clipboards (and the years of education they all represent), sure, but then you’ve got this intangible wall that illness creates and all the precautions taken to keep that wall up. Still, we’re all human, all living with that very basic human need to eat. It breaks my heart to hear someone tell me that the pasta was cold or the kitchen forgot to send up milk for their cereal. I know how I feel when Whole Foods is out of my favorite soy milk! In the past year, I’ve really come to appreciate the freedom of being able to meet my needs on my own terms.

I always wish there were more I could do.Throughout my education so far, we’ve learned about how to empower people to make healthy choices, but I sure could use a little advice on what to do when you can only do so much.

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