Have you struggled with fears, obsessions, or feelings of guilt or shame around your food choices? Or perhaps you’ve found yourself stuck in a cycle of “starting fresh tomorrow”, or restricting foods in your diet. If you can relate, today’s post is for you. We’re exploring 5 ways to create a healthy relationship with food.
Today I want to open up a conversation about a topic that I believe is very important.
We live in a world where it’s so easy to become obsessive or hyper-vigilant about what we eat. If you’re like many people, there can be a constant mental battle between what’s clean vs. dirty, toxic vs. non-toxic, healthy vs. unhealthy, good vs. bad. Everywhere we look there are tips, recommendations, diets, foods to eat and avoid, things to do and things not to do.
Can you relate? If you’ve ever felt this way, you are SO not alone. I’ve experienced this first-hand as someone who spent years struggling with chronic IBS symptoms, trialling diet after diet and restricting a long list of foods. This experience affected my relationship with food in a very negative and disordered way. Not only did I have food phobia (a fear of food hurting my stomach, since there was a time when most foods did) but I developed a fear of what certain foods were physically DOING to my body. How will this food affect my health if I eat it? Will this promote inflammation? Is this “clean” enough? Orthorexic behaviours crept their way into my life without me even realizing it.
This experience isn’t unique to just me or to those with IBS, though. Anyone can develop a skewed relationship with food. Our culture, family, social circles, beliefs, socio-economic statuses; what we see on social media, in books or magazines, at the grocery store, at the gym, in clothing stores, and even what health professionals say to us can all influence how we feel about food. Not to mention diet culture as a whole inundates us everywhere we go.
As a Certified Nutritionist I’m familiar with the in’s and out’s of the wellness industry. Are there advantages to all the talk about ways to improve our health? Of course. But is there a dark side? A side that can fuel fear, guilt, shame, comparison, and distrust with our body and choices? Yes.
I don’t think the issue is that we don’t know enough about making healthy choices. I believe that we know too much. And it’s this over-saturation of health information that can lead us astray.
The question is: how do we find that fine balance of caring about our health while not getting caught up in obsession, perfection, or fear? How and where do we draw that line?
Today I want to share with you 5 ways that you can begin creating a healthier relationship with food. These are things that I’ve worked on myself to help heal my relationship with food. But please know that this is a process, and sometimes a long one. It takes a lot of practice and having compassion for yourself. Re-framining your mindset, learning to trust yourself again, and undoing years of dieting beliefs and behaviours that have dictated your thoughts, emotions, and actions around food takes time. And sometimes, working with a professional is a necessary step. All of this is okay — it’s all part of the journey.
What a Healthy Relationship with Food Might Look Like
- Honouring your body by eating when hungry and until comfortably full
- Taking the time to sit down and be mindful with meals
- Not feeling guilt, shame, or regret about food choices
- Recognizing which foods make you feel your best (e.g. protein, fat, complex carbs) and enjoying them with meals and snacks
- Allowing all foods to have a place in your diet
What an Unhealthy Relationship with Food Might Look Like:
- Cutting out food groups because you fear they’re unhealthy
- Having a good vs. bad or clean vs. dirty mindset around food
- Feeling guilty, shameful, or obsessive over food choices
- Planning to start fresh tomorrow
- Skipping a meal because you “ate too much” or as a means to lose weight
- Seeing food as calories or points to count
How to Create a Healthy Relationship with Food
The points I’ll be sharing with you today are just starting points; a way for you to begin cultivating a healthier relationship with food. I recommend grabbing a journal or notebook and writing your thoughts out as you go along. This is a great way to dig deep and really reflect on where you’re at and where you’d like to be.
1. Identify Your Thoughts & Emotions Around Food
A great place to start is simply bringing awareness to the thoughts that you have or stories you tell yourself about food. Do you have pleasant thoughts? Do you celebrate food, or do you fear it a lot of the time? Do you see it as a source of nourishment and enjoyment, or a way to punish yourself for not living up to a certain standard? Do you feel guilty for eating — or not eating — a certain way?
Ask yourself where these thoughts and feelings are coming from. We can develop thoughts, emotions, and beliefs about food from a number of places. Things we see, hear about, learn about, how we grew up, or people we spend time with, to name a few.
2. Envision Your Healthy Relationship with Food
Take a few moments to determine how you want to feel about food and your food choices. For example, you may want to feel a sense of flexibility with your choices and not fearful. Or you may want to get out of a restrictive/binging cycle. Be specific and honest here. Journal it out. Envision it.
Then ask yourself what blocks are in your way to have that healthy relationship. Is it that you feel stressed around meal time? Or that you don’t take the time to sit down and tune in? Is it that you skip meals and find yourself ravenous later on? Or perhaps there’s a fear blocking your way, such as a fear of losing control around food, gaining weight, or becoming unhealthy if you don’t stick to the rules you’re currently following.
Again, write this out. Get quiet and honest with yourself. What is your intuition telling you here? What’s getting in your way of creating that healthy relationship with food that you desire?
Once you’ve identified some blocks, brainstorm some action steps you can take to start supporting your relationship with food. Trust that you have the answers here!
3. Tune in to Your Individual Needs
We all have food rules we follow whether we realize it or not. For example, gluten is bad, meat is bad, dairy is unhealthy, I can’t eat sugar, I can only combine this food with that, I shouldn’t eat past 6pm, or I should only have [insert grams] of carbs per day. The rules we set for ourselves aren’t necessarily always bad. What matters is that we tune into them and determine if they’re truly right for us or not.
Start by making a list of them all. If you really think about them, you might realize you have some that you weren’t even aware of before. Then, ask yourself why you follow them and where they came from. Was it a recommendation from years ago? Something your friend told you, saw on social media, or something you read about?
Then ask yourself if each one is aligned with you. Do you still find this useful? Does your body still feel good following this, or do you feel restricted in some way? Does it feel good to imagine yourself continuing on with this rule? Or, what would your life be like without it?
It’s great to have general guidelines about what’s healthy. For example, eating lots of whole vegetables and fruits, whole grains, protein, and drinking lots of water or herbal teas. But it’s easy to get stuck in the rigidity of following specific plans or some idolized way of eating without actually asking ourselves what works best for us. This goes for any type of diet, whether for weight loss, or others like vegan, paleo, or keto.
So now is your chance to tune in to your individual needs. Take a moment to ask yourself, either now or at the start of your day, how you want to feel, what your health vision is, and one action step you can take today to make that happen. For example, you may be used to following a plan where every morning you have a protein shake or you can’t eat until noon, but what if that’s not working for you today, or this week, or at all? What are YOUR needs?
4. Give Yourself Permission to Eat All Foods
One of the principles of intuitive eating from the book Intuitive Eating by Evelyn Tribole and Elyse Resch (great book!) is to let go of the diet mentality. The voice that tells you you need to eat a certain way, a certain amount, or you need to restrict certain foods.
Of course there are times when medical conditions, such as allergy, warrant a food restriction. Like I said, in my experience, I had such severe digestive problems years ago that I did avoid foods and while this may have been helpful at a point, it stopped being helpful eventually. It took me a long time to feel comfortable with things like eating gluten or dairy again because of residual beliefs I had, but when I learned that I felt totally fine and remembered also that my body is a pretty good compass (it’ll tell me if I need to make adjustments), I realized that I didn’t need to force or fear anything. I needed to let go of that diet mentality that was controlling my life and causing me to have anxiety around food every single day.
Now, you might think that if you give yourself permission to eat anything that you wont be able to stop eating foods you deem as “bad” or “unhealthy”. And let me make this clear: giving yourself “permission to eat all foods” does not translate to throwing everything you know about health out the window and gorging on potato chips for every meal. Quite the contrary. The freedom that comes with allowing all foods to have a place in your diet actually makes healthy eating easier.
Studies clearly demonstrate that food restrictions make us desire them more. It gives them power over us, and have been shown to actually lead to MORE unhealthy behaviours like binging or overeating. Allowing foods you’ve previously restricted to exist again may mean you will eat a lot of them temporarily, but eventually all foods become neutral. Those “bad” foods we avoided begin to lose their novelty and thrill, and we stop desiring them so much.
Yes, some foods are more nutritious than others, and it’s okay to care about and prioritize our health (of course!). But food is about more than just strictly nutrition alone. It’s about connection, culture, and pleasure, too. Remember also that we can’t eat perfectly all of the time, nor do we need to. Trust that your body can, does, and will desire wholesome, nourishing, nutrient-dense foods and has the innate ability to communicate to you that it doesn’t want chocolate cake all of the time, without you having to force it or muster willpower. This becomes especially apparent when we honour our hunger.
5. Honour Your Hunger
We are born with an innate ability to eat intuitively. Our bodies are hardwired to send us cues and signals all the time about what we need. It tells us when we’re hungry, when we’re full, if a food looks desirable or if it doesn’t. But when we suppress our needs instead of honour them — maybe we skip meals, we go too long without eating, or we eat less even when we’re still hungry — we set ourselves up for feeling famished and experiencing uncontrollable eating behaviours that make us feel bad and as though we can’t trust ourselves. Consequently, we convince ourselves that we need to follow a specific diet or restrict foods because clearly if we don’t, we just eat everything in sight.
I have experienced this in my own life, and I’m sure you have too. If I have days where I don’t eat enough breakfast or I wait too long before eating lunch (completely ignoring my hunger cues), I crave sugar, salt, or other decadent, convenient foods like crazy. To the point where I don’t have the mental or physical energy to make a nourishing meal. I need food STAT. But when we honour our hunger and eat when we feel the gentle signal, we’re much more likely to make sensible choices that fuel our body properly and in a way that feels good.
We can begin to listen to our bodies signals better by asking ourselves:
- Am I in the mood for this slice of cake? Would it bring me enjoyment and pleasure?
- Am I actually not interested in this right now?
- Am I hungry right now? Or, how am I feeling during this meal? Am I starting to feel comfortably full?
- Do I have a ravenous appetite because I haven’t eaten enough today?
Developing this awareness takes time and practice. I highly recommend the book Intuitive Eating by Evelyn Tribole and Elyse Resch to learn more about this and other principles of intuitive eating.
As you can see, there’s a lot of unpacking that goes into creating a healthy relationship with food. It takes time and it can be a long process of tuning in, getting honest with ourselves, and honouring our needs while letting go of what doesn’t serve us. Know that it’s okay to want a healthier relationship with food but being not quite there yet. It’s also okay to have days where you feel good about the steps you’re taking, and other days where you experience setbacks. It’s all part of the process. Healing of any kind, including our relationship with food, is not linear.
I hope this was a helpful starting point for you. Remember that you can always seek professional help if you need assistance and support in this area. You deserve — and can — have a healthy, enjoyable, positive relationship with food.
I’d love to hear from you. Share your thoughts or experiences below with cultivating a healthier relationship with food.