Learn how your mindset affects your eating habits and what you can do to change it.
Why Our Mindset Matters
Stop me if you’ve been here before: You’ve been disappointed by the results of a diet, and you tell yourself it’s because you did it wrong. You blame yourself for choosing the wrong diet. You’re convinced you should have cut out all carbs instead of just white sugar. You should have combined Paleo with Intermittent Fasting. Or maybe you think you just didn’t have enough willpower to make it work.
And then you end up feeling guilty and anxious. You can get so focused on the rules of dieting that you lose sight of why you wanted to get healthy to begin with.
Here’s a hint: none of those things were the problem. What you need instead is to change your mindset and restore balance around eating. And the good news is that it’s not that hard to change your mind.
Our Eating Habits - The Impact of Our Parents
Research shows that in the years leading up to starting school, parents and caregivers influence kids’ behaviors and choices when it comes to food, and for better or worse, the eating habits we develop in childhood can become lifelong behaviors.
"Pressuring kids to eat healthy foods and denying less nutritious options can backfire — kids then want the less healthy, restricted foods even more."
It can be tough to make sure picky eaters get all the nutrients they need to grow up strong. But pressuring kids to eat healthy foods and denying less nutritious options can backfire — kids then want the less healthy, restricted foods even more. Food restrictions can end up encouraging children to eat when they’re not hungry — to scarf down that forbidden cake when they’re already stuffed — which causes problems with self-regulated eating.
Offering less healthy food as rewards also increases a desire for those less nutritious options and prevents kids from developing healthy eating habits.
Children are mimics; they learn from observing and modeling the behaviors of the adults around them, and this includes eating habits. Parents who eat more fruits and vegetables are more likely to have kids who eat more fruits and vegetables. Parents can set good examples by modeling healthy behaviors, like consuming a wide variety of nutrient-dense foods, introducing new foods on a regular basis, and practicing moderation.
How parents talk about food can also play a part in eating habits and how children view their bodies. But commenting on a child’s weight can have negative consequences. In a study of more than 500 young women about body image, researchers found that even an occasional remark about weight made at a sensitive time had as much lasting impact as daily parental disparagement. And a 2014 study found that comments from family members have greater effect than comments from strangers.
How Our Thoughts Around Food Impact Our Behaviors
When was the last time you thought about cheesy potatoes as “bad,” or denied yourself a special dessert? Your thoughts about eating define your relationship with food, and a negative mindset can turn that relationship toxic.
In the midst of thousands of thoughts every day, many of our ingrained assumptions about eating and food are automatic — so much so that we rarely stop to consider if we’re even telling ourselves the truth.
"Including your favorites, in moderation, is key to building a healthy mindset as well as long-term healthy habits."
Food isn’t good or bad, nor should it be a reward or a punishment. Like kids who have tasty foods restricted, this labeling of food can lead to cravings and bingeing behaviors. A single indulgence — like a doughnut or a handful of salt-and-vinegar french fries — isn’t going to “make you fat” or ruin your health. Instead, enjoying a variety of foods, including your favorites, in moderation, is key to building a healthy mindset as well as long-term healthy habits.
Emotional eating — eating when you’re upset or anxious, or in response to external stimuli — can be another sign of a troubled relationship with food. It can be tricky to overcome emotional eating habits, and strategies include paying attention to your specific triggers — e.g., stress at work, emotional upset due to a conflict in a close relationship — and what behaviors are likely to follow.
How to Break Free from Dysfunctional Thinking around Food
To break free from the dieting mindset, you’ll want to start thinking differently about food and your eating behaviors. More information about nutrition isn’t necessarily going to be the ingredient that suddenly changes everything, but your attitude might instead be that missing link. According to experts, mindset is a major factor in successful healthy eating habits.
It’s also time to let go of temporary quick-fixes and any fantastical promises made by fad diets which may deliver dramatic results in the short term but which aren’t sustainable for the long haul. Instead, shifting your mindset involves thinking of lifestyle changes and behaviors as positive contributions to your long-term health.
“Nothing is off limits,” says mindset coach Lindsey Bush. “It's okay to have . . . ‘fun’ foods from time to time, but more often I choose to honor my body by fueling it with whole foods that prime me for optimal performance from a physical perspective, mental perspective and hormonal perspective.”
It’s important to be realistic about your goals, and to take things slowly. You don’t have to try to change everything at once — this is a marathon, not a sprint. While an exhaustive purge of sugary, unhealthy snacks from your kitchen cupboards might feel good in the moment, small and gradual changes to shift your mindset and develop new behaviors are more likely to lead to long-term success.
One helpful approach to combat negative thinking is to externalize problematic thoughts for a shift in perspective. For instance, instead of telling yourself, “If I eat that potato salad, I’ll gain ten pounds,” take a moment to change the source of that thought: That’s your negative mindset talking to you, and it deserves to be challenged. Is there any factual basis to that thought? What are the consequences for allowing that thought to dictate your behavior? What more constructive and supportive attitude can you adopt instead?
If you find the same thoughts arising again and again, you can try a strategy from Judith Beck’s Cognitive Therapy: Basics and Beyond: write the thought down on an index card, and then use the flip side to record your rational counter-argument. You can even run your own experiments to disprove your negative thinking — for instance, go ahead and have that potato salad, and then see for yourself if you really gain ten pounds as a result.
When you can identify negative thinking as it’s happening and counter those thoughts with factual information and alternative perspectives, you’re empowering yourself to combat dysfunctional thoughts and develop a healthier mindset.
Behavioral changes can also help to reinforce the new, positive mindset you’re building around healthy eating and a healthier body. These changes include finding your own optimal eating patterns based on your specific needs, rather than following someone else’s proscriptive plan. You can learn to practice mindfulness while you’re eating, too, by turning off your screens, paying attention to the many sensations involved in the experience of eating, and re-learning what it feels like to be satisfied.
And keep reminding yourself what your true goal is: you’re committing to a healthier body, to feeling good, and to a long-term healthy and balanced lifestyle — not to some numbers on the scale.
What’s simple isn’t always easy, but adjusting your mindset about healthy eating can help you make a lasting change. And if you’re dealing with a stubborn eating disorder, it is absolutely appropriate to reach out to professional therapists support groups for help.
“I am a firm believer in progress not perfection,” says Bush. “A ‘slip up’ or an over-indulgence from time to time is not going to wreck my hard work. I like to think of my daily food choice like deposits into my ‘health’ savings account. Small decisions to eat something healthy vs. less healthy counts as a deposit. Those deposits add up over time and will pay dividends.”