Learn about how to change the way you think about food in order to make it a healthier, happier relationship.
Do You Have a Positive Relationship with Food?
I often hear from my clients about their love of food—from special treats for celebrations to favorite snacks, and simply sharing a home-cooked meal with family and friends. But then they’ll tell me they need to “give it up” to be healthy or lose weight. They’ll mention a recent binge, where they consumed so much of their favorite food that they ended up feeling sick. They wish their favorite food didn’t even exist, they’ll tell me at last, so they wouldn’t be tempted.
That doesn’t sound like a positive relationship with food.
Love has positive associations. But for many people, there’s nothing more upsetting and contentious in their lives than food. They feel like food has a hold over them, and that they’re powerless against it. If this sounds familiar, you might be relieved to hear that the solution probably isn’t another diet, but can instead be found in the way you think about food.
What Does a Healthy Relationship with Food Look Like?
You probably have a firm idea of what a healthy and strong romantic relationship looks like. Key elements immediately spring to mind – like trust, respect, and harmony. It’s similar for a healthy relationship with food. Before you can change that relationship, though, you need a good grasp of what healthy and unhealthy mindsets look like.
"Diets don’t work, not for the long-haul."
Diets don’t work, not for the long-haul. Diets tell you that your body is wrong. Diets disconnect you from what your body needs and encourages choosing deprivation over nourishment. Dieting teaches you to ignore and even fear your body’s hunger cues, and it can obliterate your body’s inherent wisdom around food and eating. You can end up more likely to overeat or even binge, because your deprived body is starving for fuel. You can miss important nutrients when your diet cuts out so-called “bad” foods, not to mention that the guilt, shame, and feelings of failure — so often inherent to the diet mindset — can take a toll on your mental health. You might avoid social engagements, too, because you don’t trust yourself around food — even though you can’t stop thinking about eating and even become obsessed with food. It’s no surprise this can lead to a vicious cycle of dieting and bingeing, often in pursuit of unrealistic beauty standard.
So you end up in a love-hate, push-pull relationship with something you can’t resist, because we can’t survive without eating. Quite simply, that’s no way to live. The diet mentality of restriction and fear is very different from eating with ease and enjoyment, and having more natural and healthy eating patterns is fundamentally disconnected from what the diet industry would have you follow. It’s not weight loss that helps you build your health, but healthy behaviors — including getting enough rest, moving your body through exercise, and developing a constructive and healthy relationship with food — that set you up for long-term health and success.
“Whether we eat consciously or unconsciously . . . we can always see in our relationship with food something true and essential about the way we experience other aspects of our lives,” says health writer and self-proclaimed “Healthy Deviant” Pilar Gerasimo.
When you’re not preoccupied with food, hunger is no longer an emergency. You’re less likely to overeat because you’re not deprived and don’t feel as compelled to finish everything on your plate just because it’s there. Emotional eating may start to disappear as you become more aware of your triggers for reaching for food when you’re not actually hungry, and as you learn to deal with strong emotions like anger, fear, and loneliness in more constructive ways, like talking to a friend or going for a walk. Don’t be surprised if you find your self-confidence increasing. Your relationships can improve, too, when you let go of the diet mindset, stop obsessing about food, and start respecting your body.
How to Change Your Mentality Around Food
You need food to live. Bad eating habits can’t simply be put away on a shelf with nothing to replace them. But you can change your relationship with food. Are you ready to shift your mindset and transform your eating habits for the better? While this isn’t something that happens overnight, you can take steps toward this important lifestyle change in the same way that you’d nurture an important relationship.
A key element to developing a better relationship with food is learning to trust your body again as you explore mindful eating. I know mindful eating is popping up a lot lately, but it’s for good reason. Mindful eating offers both physical and psychological benefits, including controlling blood sugar and increasing heart health, as well as reduced binge eating, reduced food cravings, decreased obsession over food, and yes sometimes even weight loss.
"Mindful eating offers both physical and psychological benefits, including controlling blood sugar and increasing heart health, as well as reduced binge eating, reduced food cravings, decreased obsession over food, and yes sometimes even weight loss."
With mindful eating, the focus is on moderation but also enjoyment. This practice means being fully present as you eat, away from all distractions so you can give your full attention to your meal. When you bring your awareness to each bite of food and how it makes you feel, you’re better able to gauge whether you’re still hungry or if you’re full. As you slow down and observe the color, smell, taste, sound, and texture of your food, you can also notice what thoughts and feelings arise for you around eating. Are you actually hungry, or are you eating because you’re upset? Is this really the food your body wants and needs in this moment?
As you’re building a constructive and empowering relationship with food and letting go of unhealthy habits and behaviors, you’re also reconnecting with your understanding of how food nourishes your body. Hunger is never the enemy. There are no “off-limits” foods, and realizing this robs previously problematic foods of their power. If you know you’re allowed to have cake whenever you want it, you simply don’t crave it as much.
You don’t have to justify your food choices — to yourself or anyone else. Instead of rationalizing peanut butter cookies when you’re feeling bad, and then sticking to salad or jumping on the treadmill the next day to make up for it, give yourself permission to eat what’s best for you in that moment. Eating when you’re hungry. Stopping when you’re full. Letting go of eating “rules,” calorie counting, and labeling foods as “good” or “bad.” Allowing yourself to enjoy all foods in moderation. Accepting your value as a person, separate from your eating habits and your body shape. These are characteristics of a strong and healthy relationship with food. When you focus on what you can have and what makes your body feel good, your mindset naturally shifts to an attitude of optimism and possibility, and this can carry over to every aspect of your life. Because healthy eating is a significant form of self-care, there’s no guilt. You can start thinking about food as fuel and nourishment, rather than putting cheesecake on a pedestal as a reward or thinking of a veggie bowl as “punishment” for a binge. Honoring your body with the nutrients it needs is its own reward.
When you change your thinking, you can absolutely change your behaviors, but don’t expect this transformation to be instantaneous. You don’t want to overwhelm yourself with unrealistic expectations and then end up feeling disappointed and self-judgment — you don’t want a repeat of the diet mindset! Start slowly and be easy with yourself. Mindful eating isn’t a habit that is mastered in a single meal — if it were, you’d miss out on the experience of learning to savor each moment and each bite. By slowing down, you’re taking the opportunity to engage with and listen to your body, and to learn about which foods and activities make you feel energized and whole, and which ones leave you feeling sick, sluggish, or lacking.
Everyone — and every body — is different, but it’s not impossible to fix a bad relationship with food. For particularly stubborn challenges, seeking assistance from a dietician or therapist can help identify the solutions that are best for you. It can be scary to take the first step toward a healthier relationship with food, but your body and mind will reap the benefits for years to come. With diligence, care, and patience, you can get to a place where food no longer holds power over you and instead becomes a partner in health, to fuel your body and boost your well-being. In time, you can learn to truly love food again and celebrate its role in your life — and to love and celebrate yourself in the process.
Clinical Psychologist, Dr. Sera Lavelle, is the cofounder of Bea Better Eating and owner of NY Health Hypnosis & Integrative Therapy in NYC. To learn more about Bea Better Eating and our mission, please click here.