If you had to choose a relationship status between you and food on Facebook, what would it be? I’m no psychic, but I have a feeling that your relationship with food may not exactly be healthy.
And so … the status would undoubtedly be ‘It’s complicated’ for many of us.
Now, we can trace a large part of that back to the language we use to talk about how we eat. Many foods come with an inherent morality tag – ‘good’ or ‘bad’ – based on our life experiences and society’s expectations.
To see what I mean by that, all you have to do is be very honest with yourself. What is the first word that comes to mind when you think of chocolate cake, chips, or brownies? What about when you think of chicken breast, kale, or broccoli?
The way you frame your food choices might not seem like a big deal.
I mean, so what if you think fried chicken is ‘unhealthy’ and an ‘indulgence,’ right? Semantics, semantics. Not exactly. The truth is, the language you use to talk about food affects just how healthy your relationship with it is.
You might end up (or are already) transferring these labels onto your self-worth – “If I eat ‘good’ foods, I’m good. If I eat ‘bad’ foods, I’m bad.”
This kind of black-and-white thinking eventually leads to shame and guilt, which are precisely the feelings you shouldn’t be experiencing if you have a healthy relationship with food.
The reality is that having a chocolate croissant or donut or any kind of food, really, at any single point of your life doesn’t make you a bad person.
Neither have you ‘failed’ in any way.
But rebuilding a healthy relationship with food takes time. How do you start? And more importantly, how do you know (for sure) that you have an unhealthy relationship with food? Let’s explore.
What does an unhealthy relationship with food look like?
So you feel the occasional twinge of guilt when you eat a few more chocolate chip cookies than you intended to …
Does that mean you have an unhealthy relationship with food? Is it that serious? It may or may not be.
Signs of an unhealthy relationship with food
You also need to look out for the following signs that you might have a toxic relationship with food. The more of them you relate to, the more likely it is that your eating behaviors are indeed problematic (1, 2, 3, 4).
- Thinking about food 24/7: If you have access to food when you’re hungry, thoughts of food shouldn’t flood your mind or interfere with your day-to-day productivity.
- Being completely inflexible about food: You’d rather starve than to eat something that’s not typically on your menu. For example, you’d skip out on lunch if your usual salad store is closed.
- Needing to work off whatever you eat immediately: You’re always obsessing over the calorie count of your meal, so you can burn off every single calorie that went into your mouth. And you feel immensely guilty when you can’t.
- Tripping up on food guilt constantly: Always beating yourself up over foods (e.g. a particularly heavy meal, cake, ice cream) you’ve eaten yesterday, the day before, or a week ago? That’s quite a clear sign of an unhealthy relationship with food.
- Not being able to find a middle ground: Feel the need to chug down a huge burger, a large milkshake, and a whole bunch of cupcakes just because you ate fries in the morning and the day is now ‘ruined?’ That sort of ‘all-or-nothing’ thinking pattern doesn’t typically happen if you’ve got a healthy relationship with food.
- Letting the weighing scale rule your life: The number you see on the scale in the morning determines your food choices for the rest of the day. For example, not allowing yourself an extra piece of toast because you’re 0.5 kg heavier than yesterday.
- Eating in secrecy: You just don’t feel comfortable eating with colleagues, friends, or even family. Eating in public makes you feel self-conscious.
You may have an unhealthy relationship with food if you have rigid rules about food (specific times for eating, the amount of food you can eat, what food you can eat, etc.) and you feel guilty whenever you break these rules. You just generally feel guilty and ashamed of your eating habits.
How to have a healthy relationship with food
If you found yourself nodding along to most (if not all) of the signs above, you must be feeling pretty emotionally exhausted every single day.
Thankfully, though, there’s an upside to all this: change is always possible.
No matter how hard it is.
Let’s explore how to change your dysfunctional relationship with food for good.
#1: Stop labeling foods as ‘good’ or ‘bad’
Where do I begin?
First of all, it’s not scientifically true that any individual food is ‘bad’ or ‘unhealthy’ for you. If you choose to eat white rice over brown rice for dinner or have burgers and fries for lunch, you’re not destined to have diabetes or suffer a heart attack sometime in the future.
An extra-large tub of popcorn at the movies isn’t a one-way ticket to obesity like so many of the ‘health’ magazines would have you believe. It’s more about your overall eating patterns.
But most of all, the problem with this black-and-white approach to foods is that it breeds shame and guilt over what you eat. Especially for those foods that you love but unfortunately, fall into the ‘bad’ column.
Ultimately, when you categorize food as ‘good’ or ‘bad,’ you strip all foods of joy.
That’s why you need to drop these labels.
Of course, that’s easier said than done. So, here are 2 things to do when it comes to ‘unlearning’ the tendency to label foods. Yes – just 2, but these actions can make all the difference!
How do I unlearn the tendency to label foods?
- Gain awareness: The first thing you want to do is to be completely honest with yourself. What foods do you label? If you’re anything like me, you might want to make a list of these foods (it’s going to be long!) and what you label them as.
- Reframe your thoughts: Now, this is the important bit. Because you now have a clearer sense of what foods tend to trigger your labeling behavior, you can start on changing it. That means you need ‘catch’ yourself any time you think of food as ‘good’ or ‘bad’ and reframe the label to something else. For example:
- “Fries are bad. I shouldn’t have them,” can be reframed as “Fries are tasty and I enjoy them, I can eat until I’m satisfied and feel good about my decision.”
- “I shouldn’t have bread. It’s full of carbohydrates, which is fattening,” can be reframed as “Bread is delicious. Carbohydrates are not fattening per se; weight gain only happens when I’m in a calorie surplus. I can eat bread in moderation.”
Ultimately, dropping the labels allows you to own responsibility. You get to decide what food you want, how much you want, and when.
This change isn’t going to be easy. Nor is it going to happen overnight.
It’s always tempting to follow rules and create labels because the black-and-white approach seems safer than grey.
But as difficult as change is, it’s possible! Really.
Always remember this: you are in control of your food choices – the food (or even the weighing scale) doesn’t control you.
And if you still find yourself struggling, the following additional tips to building a healthy relationship with food in this article may help.
Attaching words of morality around food leads to a tremendous amount of negativity (usually in the form of guilt, shame, or embarrassment) the moment you eat ‘bad’ food. To build a healthy relationship with food, drop these labels. Understand that there is nothing inherently ‘good’ or ‘bad’ about any food.
#2: Stop punishing yourself for what you ate
Ate a whole bag of chips while binge-watching your favorite Netflix series? Stop attempting to burn it all off or ‘make up for the excess calories’ by doing any of the following:
- 20 more minutes on the treadmill
- Air-squatting in the shower
- Extra sets in the upcoming lifting session
- Allowing yourself to only eat a little during subsequent meals
- Starving yourself over the week
Just, no. Dwelling on the past (i.e. all the foods you’ve eaten) does not serve you nor your body. All it does is cause guilt, anxiety, and stress – which just pushes you further from happiness. Not to mention, a healthy relationship with food.
If you do feel regret or guilt after a meal (which is completely normal while you rebuild your relationship with food), make sure to check in with that emotion before you spiral.
Make an observation instead of immediately passing judgment on your behavior.
For example, if you’re feeling guilty about eating 2 packets of biscuits at work, instead of shaming yourself for it, think about why you did it. Maybe you skipped out on lunch. Or, maybe you really wanted those biscuits and fully enjoyed them at the moment.
When you start looking at your behavior objectively, you can gain a deeper understanding of why you’re eating certain foods at certain times.
This is – for sure – more helpful than sitting there and judging yourself.
Do not punish yourself for overeating or eating certain foods you think you shouldn’t have. This is only going to reinforce the feeling that you have ‘sinned,’ and will make you more anxious and paranoid around food. The best thing you can do to stop this toxic cycle and build a healthy relationship with food is to start looking at your behavior objectively and understanding your eating habits.
#3: Remind yourself that no foods are ‘off-limits’
Have you ever experienced really wanting fried chicken? But you make yourself eat a salad during dinner because ‘fried chicken is off-limits’? And then you find that there’s left-over fried chicken in the fridge – late – after everyone has gone to bed?
Chances are, if you forced yourself to eat the salad earlier (when all you wanted to do was chomp down on some juicy, chunky, fried chicken), you’re going to eat some of the chicken.
Or, maybe, all of it.
Why? Because depriving yourself of certain foods just makes you obsess over them more. Remember the expression, ‘You want what you can’t have”? And when you finally break and indulge in ‘The Forbidden Food,’ you’re going to fall victim to the ‘what-the-heck’ effect.
You know, the one where your line of thinking goes somewhere along the lines of …
“I’ve already eaten 5 pieces of fried chicken. Might as well heat up that box of chicken nuggets.” And a binge-fest follows. This is supported by research, which shows that dietary restraint is associated with an increased tendency to overeat – thus leading to weight gain (5, 6)! Ouch.
A healthy relationship with food means that no one type of food is off-limits
So, instead of investing so much energy into barring yourself from certain foods, try to maintain a mentality of moderation.
The truth is that all foods fit in a healthy diet. Giving yourself permission to consume your favorite foods gets rid of the guilt around them.
Thus taking away their power and the need to overindulge.
It’s also crucial to note that the adverse effects of restricting food go beyond the psychological aspect of things.
Restricting yourself of certain foods or food groups (for example, avoiding carbs in the ketogenic diet) can put your body at risk for a number of nutritional deficiencies – harming your physical health.
Putting certain foods in the ‘Do Not Eat’ category can lead to obsessive thoughts about food, guilt about eating, and higher levels of negative emotions (depression, anxiety, and stress). The truth is that all foods have a place in a healthy diet. Give yourself permission to eat all foods, and you’ll have a healthier relationship with food. Not to mention, a healthier body.
#4: Stop using food as a reward
We learn from birth that food is a type of reward (7, 8, 9). Remember how your parents brought you out for ice cream when you performed well in school? Or when you were allowed to have dessert at dinner because you behaved well during the day?
So, it’s really not difficult to see why many of us unconsciously associate pleasant emotions like pleasure and joy with food.
As adults, this can manifest in the belief that we ‘deserve’ a treat after a hard day at work.
But wait – what’s wrong with using food as an incentive, especially when it gets you through the days?
Stop using food as a reward if you want a healthy relationship with food
Using food as a reward can lead to overeating when you’re not hungry. It also increases the chances that you’ll try to deal with your emotions through what you eat (10). Just broke up? Straight to that tub of ice cream. A rejected proposal at work? Here’s a bar of chocolate.
And sure, for that short amount of time (usually the amount of time it takes to eat whatever you’re eating), you do feel better. It’s instant gratification at its finest.
But what happens after that instant relief? Guilt. The self-deprecation and disgust kick in.
Anyone can agree that it’s a terrible cycle to be stuck in. So, what can you do if you want to let go of food as a reward?
The process is pretty simple, but it does require you to really pay attention to how you’re using food, and when food serves as a reward. The next time you find yourself reaching for food as a form of reward, do something else.
For instance, if you’re always eating habitually after completing a task at work, keep your snacks out of sight for a start. I’ve shared more about this alongside many other tips to stop unhealthy snacking.
Some terrific ways of rewarding yourself without food are to take a relaxing walk outdoors, spend a special evening with friends, or even get your hair or nails done.
Rewarding yourself with food can create a vicious cycle of overeating, guilt, and undereating. Opt for non-food rewards instead.
#5: Find healthy ways to manage stress
If you’re like most people, you probably don’t only see food as a form of reward. Food can also serve as stress-relief.
Had an argument with your significant other? In your spoon goes into the tub of ice cream. Had a bad day at work? Those brownies have suddenly become 10 times more attractive than they were in the afternoon.
Those are tell-tale signs of emotional eating (11, 12, 13).
In other words, you’re using food to make yourself feel better – to meet emotional needs, instead of your physical hunger. Unfortunately, emotional eating doesn’t resolve emotional problems.
All you’re doing is getting yourself trapped in an unhealthy cycle where the real feeling or problem is never addressed.
To break out of this cycle, you need to learn how to deal with your feelings the right way.
More specifically, you need to identify your stressors – once you recognize them, you can take steps to avoid them (e.g. de-escalating an argument) or, at the very least, lower your stress levels.
Learn how to relieve stress and anxiety without food
Here are a few simple ways to relieve stress and anxiety without resorting to food:
- Exercise: No matter what you choose to do (e.g. strength training, cardio), exercising can help lower the level of cortisol – the stress hormone – and release endorphins, which are chemicals that improve your mood and act as natural painkillers (14, 15).
- Spend time with friends and family: Social support from loved ones can help raise your body’s level of oxytocin, a natural stress reliever (16).
- Tackle your stressor head-on: Had an argument with someone? Schedule a time to talk things through. Knowing that you’re about to take action helps you take back control of the situation. That’s much better than mulling over your feelings and sinking into greater despair.
Food can be a source of comfort for many of us during stressful periods. But while emotional eating can feel good at the moment, it can lead to a disordered relationship with food over time. Instead of turning to food for comfort, try to relieve stress through other ways – such as exercising, spending time with friends and family, etc.
#6: Say ‘no’ to fad diets
There’s no denying it. When it comes to weight loss, we’d all like a quick fix. And diet companies know this. Thus the invention of fad diets. You know, those diets that:
- Promise rapid weight loss
- Eliminate foods from your diet
- Have rigid rules
- Severely restrict calories
Some examples include the cabbage soup diet, alkaline diet, and the blood type diet. Now, these fad diets can indeed help you lose a significant amount of weight. But there’s nothing magical about their foods or diet structure. It’s fundamentally a result of the calorie-restriction.
Ultimately, if you’re eating fewer calories than you burn, you’re going to lose weight. If you’re interested, here’s an article on how many calories you need for your goals.
Fad diets are unsustainable
What’s dangerous about these fad diets, however, is that they don’t equip you with the tools needed to achieve long-term success in losing and keeping the weight off (17). Instead, many of these diets set rigid rules on what foods you can or cannot eat.
It isn’t difficult to see that this pattern of eating would be incredibly challenging to keep up over the long-term.
I mean, would you be happy with drinking only cabbage soup for the rest of your life?
The moment you get off the diet and revert to your old eating habits (because you haven’t gained any new knowledge on healthy eating patterns), you’re going to gain weight. And this then pushes you to try out the next fad diet.
Before you know it, you’re stuck in a vicious cycle of gaining and losing weight.
Not to mention, it contributes to an unhealthy relationship with food. So, instead of jumping from fad diet to fad diet, take the time to understand what it truly takes to lose weight – and keep it off for good.
In short, though, it involves achieving a calorie deficit with a sustainable, well-balanced diet and an active lifestyle.
While fad diets do help with weight loss (sometimes within a matter of weeks), they really produce long-term results as they aren’t sustainable. Instead of jumping from fad diet to fad diet, understand that long-term lifestyle changes are what matters most when it comes to losing weight – and, more importantly, keeping it off.
#8: Practice mindful eating
Mindful eating simply refers to the process of being present while eating, allowing you to truly savor your food without any judgment, guilt, anxiety, or inner commentary. To break it down further, there are 4 characteristics of mindful eating (18, 19):
- Awareness of what you’re eating and the effects that it has on your body – both good and bad
- Engagement of all your senses in choosing and experiencing food
- Acknowledgment of your responses to foods based on your senses without judgment (e.g. I hate the taste, but the texture is pretty good)
- Awareness of your emotions, physical hunger, and the cues that let you know when your hunger has been satisfied
Ultimately, what mindful eating does is that it allows you to tune into your body and become more aware of the sensations that indicate you’re full.
You might think that we’d all know when we are full, right?
Unfortunately … no.
As children, many of us were taught to ignore our bodies: “You’re not leaving the table until you’ve polished off your plate!” or “You just had a meal, you can’t possibly be hungry right now!”
To change that, you need to keep a few questions in mind when approaching food:
- How hungry am I actually?
- What does my body need?
- Am I scarfing down my food or enjoying it?
- How satisfied do I feel right now?
You’ll start to realize just how much your eating behavior is influenced by what you think and feel. And you’ll have better control over what you end up putting in your body. Not to mention, feel better about your food choices.
If you’re working on understanding yourself better, learning what’s self-awareness and how you can improve at it is a helpful step to take.
Mindful eating helps you get a handle on your thoughts and emotions around food – in turn, teaching you that much of your behavior is mind over matter. And that you can get to a much healthier mental space where food isn’t such a great source of stress.
#9: Keep a food journal
Find it difficult to practice mindful eating? Do you keep zoning out in the middle of the meal – as hard as you try to ask yourself the question, “How full am I now?”
You may benefit from keeping a food journal.
That’s because a food journal is basically a built-in mindfulness tool that helps you check in with yourself on how you feel before, during, and after you eat (20).
Consistent record-keeping draws your attention to food-related pitfalls that may have previously thrown you off-track and gives you the necessary information you need to move forward from a place of honesty. For example, you’ll gain insights on:
- Specific foods you enjoy and don’t enjoy
- The places and situations where you feel like you don’t have any control over your eating behavior
- Why you may be eating for reasons that have nothing to do with your actual hunger levels
Tips on food journaling
Here are a few tips on food journaling:
- Log foods as soon as you can: So you don’t forget. For some of your meals, you could also consider meal prep for better control over what you eat. Here’s a meal prep guide that might help.
- Track where you’re eating: Raises awareness of your current eating habits and the scenarios that influence them.
- Note how you felt before, during, and after the meal: Helpful for finding ways to make specific changes (e.g. if you always reach for a large number of snacks when you’re stressed at work, could you perhaps look for a different way of stress-relief?)
That said, a food journal is not for everyone. If you know you’re susceptible to food phobias or obsessive eating patterns, have a history of an eating disorder, or if for any reason, a food journal makes you feel guilt, shame, or fear, then this is not for you.
Keeping track of what you eat is supposed to help you stay accountable and mindful – not bad about yourself!
A food journal can be of immense help if you’re struggling with mindful eating. You’ll be able to gain deeper insights into your eating behaviors – which is the first step to you changing your unhealthy food-related thoughts or habits. That said, a food journal may not be suitable for everyone. Especially those with a history of any obsessive eating pattern.
#10: Know there is no quick fix
This bears repeating. It’s crucial to remember that you didn’t develop disordered eating patterns and thoughts in a single day. So, you can’t expect to break free from them – and end up with a healthy relationship with food – in a day. Or even a week.
It’s human nature to want immediate results, yes. But it’s just not realistic.
So, don’t think about waking up to a magically-healed relationship with food. Focus instead on the actions you can take on a daily basis to get you to that outcome. Stop categorizing foods as ‘good’ or ‘bad.’ Practice mindful eating. Basically what I have mentioned before.
And when you have a bad day? Don’t freak out! There’s no point punishing yourself or going into that ‘Ah, what-the-heck’ mentality.
Progress is rarely ever linear. If you plan for (and accept) some backward steps, you can rest assured that you’re still making progress – even if it momentarily feels like you aren’t. As with most things related to health and fitness, you need to be consistent to see results.
Consistency builds momentum and leads to long-lasting results and habits.
Your toxic relationship with food didn’t happen overnight. So, don’t expect to have a healthy relationship with food within a few days or even a few weeks! But with the tips above, consistency, and a little patience, you and food can get your relationship back on track.
Don’t be afraid to ask for help when you need it
Is your unhealthy relationship with food preventing you from living your best life? If you find yourself stuck in a vicious cycle of overindulging and under indulging filled with guilt, shame, and fear, without the ability to break free of the cycle …
It may indicate a need to reach out for professional help in shifting this process.
There are many mental health professionals out there who can help you assess whether there may be a reason for further concern and assistance. Don’t be afraid to do so.
Just remember that recovery is within reach. With the right support and guidance, you’ll be breaking free of your unhealthy relationship with food in no time. It’s time to start going, “Mmm” at delicious foods, instead of “Ahh, I shouldn’t be eating this!!”