Just as relationships with our friends and family can have their ups and downs, your relationship with food can also ebb and flow. It may sound odd to think that we have a relationship with food since it is not a person, but it is a basic human need that we are required to interact with several times a day. With that being said - we all are born with a neutral and intuitive attitude towards food, but from a young age influences such as the use of food as a reward or diet culture can negatively impact our relationship. Food became connected to various emotions and social interactions such as for celebrations, joyful occasions and comfort. Additionally, diet culture instills in us that food is something that ought to be “controlled” and the strict, unrealistic rules set forth by diet culture often lead to feeling “out of control” with food. This may create additional feelings of guilt, shame and failure. With all the above mentioned emotions tied to food it is not surprise that unhealthy relationships with food are quite common.
In fact, an online survey conducted back in 2008 by UNC found that a shocking 65 percent of American women between the ages of 25 and 45 reported disordered eating behaviors, which translates to a fraught relationship with food. Having a poor relationship with food can negatively impact both your physical and mental health.
In a society heavily influenced by diet culture where fear-mongering messages around food are tough to escape, it may take some extra intentional effort to form and maintain a healthy relationship with food. Read below to find out what signs to look out for which may indicate a relationship with food that needs some tending to as well as 5 tips on how to build and sustain a healthier relationship with food.
A few signs to consider that may indicate your relationship with food may need some work:
- You’re rigid when it comes to food and follow rules that dictate what, when and how you eat.
- You view a day of food intake as black and white, it’s either a “good day” or a “bad day,” and there’s rarely an in-between.
- You feel ashamed or guilty when you eat something that you were “not supposed to eat”.
- You’re constantly restarting diets because last time it didn’t stick…and the time before that…and the time before that.
- You have trouble keeping certain foods in your house without feeling “out of control” around them.
1. Avoid thinking of food in terms of “bad” and “good”. Getting to a place where you no longer think of food in black and white terms can take some time, however learning to embrace the grey can provide an abundance of benefits. In order to shift your mindset it can be helpful to think about when this all or nothing mindset began and bring awareness to how it is not serving you. For example, from the moment you’ve labeled a food as “bad”, you may begin to fear it and place it on a pedestal. When something is on a pedestal a few things happen…. A) You may want it even more (since it feels off limits), B) You may not be able to be fully present while eating it since guilt will sink in, which will reduce your ability to listen to your bodies feedback. For example – you may not be able to discern whether you are you even enjoying it, but eat it anyway because it’s usually “off-limits” C) It stops being a neutral food choice and starts having a moral implication. Meaning, when we eat the “bad” food, we tell ourselves that we are “bad” for having made that decision. This can lead to unnecessary feelings of guilt, which do not serve us. Instead, aim to limit the all or nothing food labels and think of food in more neutral terms. Of course, it’s a no brainer that there is a nutritional difference between eating an apple versus apple pie, however this does not mean that one choice should be attached to morality with feelings of “good” or “bad”. There is a place for all foods to fit. Food is meant to serve as both pleasure and nourishment.
2. Ditch diet culture and food rules. Eating should be a flexible, satisfying experience most of the time, instead of a stressful experience bound by rigid rules. If you’ve been adhering to any food rules, such as eating during certain time frames, avoiding or limiting a certain food group, I’d like to extend permission for you to rebel against these rules and again consider how they may not be serving you. It can be helpful to start by considering one rule you’ve been following and experiment with what it feels like to let go. This can feel scary at first since we have been programmed by diet culture to believe we cannot trust our bodies hunger and satiety cues, however your body is smarter than you think and it is more than capable of regulating your intake without the need for micromanagement. If this letting go of food rules feels too scary or challenging, it may be helpful to seek support from a Registered Dietitian who specializes in Intuitive Eating to help support you.
3. Focus on having an abundance mindset as opposed to a scarcity mindset. If your goal is to eat healthier think about what you can add in as opposed to what you would take away. This relates back to thinking of food as “bad” and “good”. If you want to take something out of your diet you are likely thinking of it as “bad” and this may lead you to think about it even more. Whereas it can be much more productive to think about how to incorporate alternative foods in an enjoyable and sustainable way.
4. Don’t compare your plate to others. Everyone has individual nutritional needs in addition to a unique body types. Remember that you are the expert of you and what may work well for someone else may not work for you. Therefore, don't compare and eat what is right for you. Aim to listen closely to what your body tells you and most importantly provide your body with the respect and nourishment that it deserves.
5. Allow yourself permission to enjoy your food. At the end of the day food is just food. Of course, it’s meant for nourishment. As a Registered Dietitian, I care about health and also recognize that obsessing about one’s health or food can actually be unhealthy, not to mention take the enjoyment out of life. In addition to nourishment, food is also for pleasure, satisfaction and can be an important part of memorable experiences. Food has nothing to do with your self-discipline, willpower, or worth.
Rebecca Ditkoff, MPH, RDN, CDN is a Registered Dietitian specializing in digestive health and disordered eating. Her non-diet approach to nutrition is rooted in the theories of Intuitive Eating and Health at Every Size (HAES) in which she emphasizes self-care over rigid diet rules and restriction . She is the founder of Nutrition by RD, a brand dedicated to helping people improve their relationship with food and their bodies. Rebecca also runs a virtual nutrition counseling practice from New York, NY where she works with clients one-on-one providing personalized nutrition counseling. She has been featured in a number of publications including: Women’s Health, Prevention, Forbes, Real Simple, The Huffington Post, and many more. Rebecca enjoys traveling, live music, daily trips to the dog park with her Chihuahua-mix named Winnie, and experimenting with new recipes in the kitchen.