Physiologically, your body needs food for fuel, nourishment and ultimately for sustaining life itself. But food is so much more than a biological necessity.
It’s the cultural linchpin that helps us bond and build connections, share experiences and create memories. Then there’s the emotional component. From bringing comfort, stirring nostalgia and channeling love to serving as a coping mechanism or an outlet for celebration. Food plays a myriad of roles in our lives.
For these reasons and more, paying attention to your connection with food is imperative. “Your relationship with food is arguably one of the most important relationships in your life and should be made a priority,” agrees Maryann Walsh, Florida-based registered dietitian and certified personal trainer.
And like any relationship, it requires constant tending and frequent check-ins. “It’s not always appealing to do the work because it can seem like it will be more tedious and take longer versus just doing a strict diet to shed the pounds quickly, but without establishing a healthy relationship with food the results are often short-lived,” notes Walsh.
What does a healthy relationship with food look like?
At its core, a healthy relationship with food involves relieving yourself of the pressures of trying to eat ‘perfectly’. “It makes eating feel effortless,” says Kimmie Singh, a fat-positive registered dietitian nutritionist based in New York. “It looks like feeling connected to and honoring your needs around hunger, fullness and pleasure,” she adds. Meaning, you eat when you feel physical hunger and are able to stop when you feel comfortably full.
In addition, “it means that you’re able to be flexible and don’t feel guilt or shame around your food choices,” says Kirsten Ackerman, a non-diet registered dietitian and certified intuitive eating counselor.
This means not placing any particular food group “off-limits” or restricting it to only specific “cheat days.” Nor binge eating or feeling bad about occasional indulgences.
For example, if you come across your favorite dessert at a party, you’d be able to enjoy a reasonable portion of it without feeling bad about it—instead of overindulging or suppressing that want out of guilt.
In a nutshell, “someone with a healthy relationship with food feels in control around food, versus feeling like food has control over them,” says Walsh.
Consequently, this allows you to spend all of that energy on doing things that really matter to you and help you connect with your most authentic self, Singh explains.
“When you have a healthy relationship with food, it becomes a powerful tool to fill your cup. On the flip side, a damaged relationship with food can steal all of your time, energy and attention—robbing you of being fully present in your life,” notes Ackerman.
Signs you might have an unhealthy relationship with food:
“Unhealthy relationships with food typically start with restriction,” says Ragen Chastain, ACE-certified health coach, functional fitness specialist and co-author of the HAES Health Sheets. “This can include restrictions around the amount of food, calorie counting, restriction of certain types of food without any medical reason, etc. That restriction then drives disordered eating patterns or food obsession which can then trigger guilt and shame,” explains Chastain.
These feelings of guilt and shame can, in turn, fuel more chaotic behaviors around food. “So not only is the stress of guilt and shame harmful to you physically, but the resulting behaviors around food are often damaging as well,” notes Ackerman.
“The other extreme is seeking comfort in food to a point where it is detrimental to one’s health,” says Walsh. Think binge-restrict cycles that keep the body and food at war with each other.
Other common signs of an unhealthy relationship with food include constant fixation on what you’re going to eat next, hiding or sneaking foods or using exercise as a means to compensate for what you ate, adds Ackerman.
“It’s also common for people that are struggling in their relationships with food to have a difficult time experiencing pleasure in eating,” says Singh. You may feel out of control when eating your favorite foods or you may be fixated on how eating certain foods may impact your weight or overall appearance. “It’s a red flag when someone views eating as a tool to control their appearance. This can turn eating into an all-or-nothing experience where one constantly feels like they’re doing something ‘bad’ or ‘good’,” Singh explains.
“Food is just food. Eating certain foods shouldn’t make someone feel bad about themselves,” adds the nutrition expert.
10 ways to reset your relationship with food:
“I think it starts with realizing that you aren’t the problem, diet culture is—a multi-billion dollar industry that works as hard as it can to create unhealthy relationships between us and food,” says Chastain.
So the decision to extricate yourself from diet culture and disordered eating while figuring out how to relate to food in a healthy way is the most important step, notes the health coach.
Here are other key strategies to achieve a healthier relationship with food, according to diet and nutrition experts:
- Team up with a professional. Both Ackerman and Walsh recommend working with an intuitive eating expert or a therapist. “It’s incredibly challenging to heal your relationship with food amid a culture that is, at baseline, very disordered with food,” says Ackerman. Working with these types of professionals might help you get to the root of your issues with food and help you explore what eating for self-care means to you as it means different to different people, Walsh explains.
- Try mindful eating. “Tune in to your body’s inner wisdom about how to nourish yourself by practicing mindful eating,” suggests Dr. Lindo Bacon, a leading researcher and author of Health at Every Size: The Surprising Truth About Your Weight. “This involves learning to recognize cues of physical hunger and fullness in order to make decisions about what and how much to eat and tuning in to the pleasure that food can bring,” explains the body positivity advocate. If you don’t know where to start, check out this beginner’s guide to mindful eating.
- Don’t fixate on nutrition. “The diet industry can suck you in, making you feel lousy about your body and guilty about your food choices. Or, self-righteous for following the rules, which is equally as bad,” says Bacon. It’s important to drop the fear and guilt about food and lighten up on the thinness imperative. “Constantly worrying about nutrition doesn’t translate into getting more nutritional benefit,” Bacon points out. “Interestingly enough, those who let themselves eat what they want, take pleasure in eating and care less about nutrition tend to eat more nutritiously,” adds the HAES expert.
- Pay attention to the language you use around food. The vocabulary you use around food, like “clean”, “junk food”, “forbidden” or “superfood” can have a huge impact on your relationship with food. “Start paying attention to these ‘good’ and ‘bad’ food judgments that crop up in your mind throughout the day,” suggests Ackerman. “Building this awareness will begin to chip away at the power they hold over you,” says the intuitive eating coach.
- Start taking ‘food risks’. Start to gradually reintroduce formally forbidden or “off-limits” foods into your diet. “And try to replace judgment with childlike curiosity instead,” Singh advises. For example, ask yourself how your five senses are engaged during this eating experience? What do you like or dislike about this particular food? What special memories are associated with this food? etc.
- Join a support group. It’s also really valuable to find a community of positive, like-minded people to inspire you and help you with your journey. “The Health at Every Size (HAES) movement, for example, can help you deconstruct the toxic myths you’ve been taught about food and bodies and replace them with more accurate, meaningful and hopeful information, helping you to reclaim a sense of body trust,” says Bacon.
- Make sure you’re eating enough throughout the day. “If you’re missing meals, like breakfast, this is very likely to fuel chaos and eating past fullness later in the day,” says Ackerman.
- Don’t beat yourself up. Go easy on yourself if you end up overindulging occasionally. “Everybody overeats once in a while. The best you can do is continue to nourish yourself appropriately and just get back into your normal routine at the next meal or the next day,” says Walsh.
- Regulate your social media feed. “One of the unfortunate off-shoots of diet culture is that influencers—who are often trading on their approximation of a stereotype of beauty that focuses on being thin, white, able-bodied, young, etc.—are presenting themselves as (or are assumed to be) experts on food or wellness when, in fact, they have very little knowledge and are often replicating dangerous ideas from diet culture,” notes Chastain. “I meet a lot of people who compare what they eat to the Instagram feeds of fitness bloggers or other people whose bodies they might realize,” says Singh. “They assume that a single post reflects how or what other people eat. It brings up a lot of important conversations about the performative nature of social media,” says the weight-inclusive nutritionist. In addition, “you never know if those people you see on social media are photoshopping their images or if they’re going to unhealthy lengths in order to achieve their physique. Plus, everybody is different. You could do everything that those influencers are doing and still look vastly different because we all have different body types, different lifestyles and different needs,” Walsh explains. If you aren’t mindful of this type of content, it can easily take a toll on your well-being—spurring self-esteem and body image issues. However, when you learn to control your feed, social media can prove to be a wonderful haven of support, says Bacon. “There’s a strong body-positive community online that can give you valuable information about food and help you feel better about yourself. For example, if you look up ‘Health at Every Size’, you’ll find a lot of content to educate and uplift you,” adds Bacon.
- Draw it out. “If you’re feeling stuck, grab a pen and paper and draw out your ideal relationship with food,” says Singh. “If you’re fixated on weight loss, try to imagine how you would want your relationship with food to look like if you were in a smaller body,” she suggests.
It’s also imperative to check in with yourself from time to time, says Walsh. If you notice that your struggle with food is becoming overwhelming or affecting other areas of your life, please reach out to a qualified weight-inclusive health and wellness professional at the earliest.