Do I Have A Healthy Relationship With Food?
By: Julie Mancuso, founder of JM Nutrition, Nataly Georgieva, RD, MScFN, registered dietitian specializing in support for disordered eating, JM Nutrition team
The question “Do I have a healthy relationship with food?” can be difficult to answer. There is a multitude of factors to consider, when trying to determine if a person has a healthy or unhealthy relationship with food.
To help ascertain the relationship status with food, our registered dietitians, who specialize in eating disorders, turn to a series of essential questions. The questions, many of which we include below, serve as general guidelines. They are not intended to diagnose any specific condition, disorder or disease.
“Do I Have A Healthy Relationship With Food?” Guiding Questions
Do you eat when you’re hungry and stop when you’re satisfied?
Eating to a point where you’re no longer hungry rather than completely full sets the stage for developing the ability to actively listen to the body and its needs.
Doing so leaves you with a choice: do I eat more or do I stop?
Choosing to stop eating when you’re satisfied eliminates the feeling of being compelled to stop eating because of external reasons. More on that below.
Instead, it promotes positive feelings. You stop because you respect your body. As a result, you listen to it, when it’s telling you it’s satisfied. A simple notion, but a critical one.
Is what you eat influenced by external factors?
We alluded to this point in the previous section. Eating because you’re influenced by external factors can be problematic.
What are some examples of external factors?
Diet, rules, guilt and shame, rigid meal plan, peer pressure, social event and so on, are just a handful of such factors.
Nataly Georgieva, Registered Dietitian who specializes in disordered eating support, states that “The harm with following this approach is that it disconnects us from our body in that our food choices are not based on what, how much and when we are eating. Rather, the choices are determined by things outside of us. The external factors should not dictate terms.”
Learn more about why people diet and reviews of various diets.
Do you actually listen to your body and respect your body’s natural cues?
It is important to be tuned into the body’s signals. This includes hunger. By carefully gauging what the body needs, we can satisfy it accordingly. No more, no less. It’s about being intuitive with food.
And it is certainly true that these body signals vary from meal to meal or day to day. Sometimes we may feel we require more food than at other times. Again, the reasons for this are many and varied.
The awareness of what the body needs creates a feeling of ease when it comes to food consumption. Stress, guilt and remorse are removed. We feel relaxed and secure when we eat more during one meal and less at another.
Generally speaking and perhaps with a few exceptions, there is no specific amount of food you need to eat during each meal. Rather, the amount is determined by the body’s natural cues. National Eating Disorders Association staff member and registered dietitian, Sondra Krongerg, calls this “relaxed eating”–a perfect encapsulation.
Do you feel anxiety, guilt or shame associated with food?
Anxiety, guilt and shame are negative emotions. These emotions and their connection to food consumption have been perpetrated and perpetuated by societal pressures and the diet culture. Certainly, they are a major contributing factor to why so many people have an unhealthy relationship with food.
Related: Diet Culture: Definition, Examples & Impacts
The inability to relinquish these feelings frequently results in harm to your health and well-being.
Let’s take a look at a few examples.
1. You feel anxious when you’re going out to a restaurant not knowing if you will find a keto-friendly food product.
2. You experience guilt after not being able to resist the temptation of a sugary treat.
3. You feel shame when you step on the scale and see a number higher than you had wanted. You then attribute this to the lack of self-control.
For a healthy relationship with food to exist, there is no room for such negative emotions.
Related: 6 Useful Tips for Combating Food Guilt and Shame
If you overeat, can you make peace with that decision and move forward, or does it lead to a snowball effect?
Overeating can happen for many reasons.
It can occur because you waited too long before eating, skipped a meal, or attended a social event where food was present.
Nataly Georgieva, Registered Dietitian who specializes in support for eating disorders, believes that “understanding the reason why overeating happened can help to reduce feelings of guilt. Overeating does not mean that you have failed. And it doesn’t necessarily mean you have an unhealthy relationship with food. It simply means that you are human and gave in to one of life’s temptations. In the grand scheme of things, the act of overeating is a great deal less harmful than the self-imposed guilt and shame.
Do you focus on calories, when making food choices?
Focusing solely on calories is a mistake.
Just because the nutrition facts label indicates the given food product is low in calories, it doesn’t mean it’s healthy. This should be obvious, but it often isn’t.
Many low-calorie foods contain ingredients that can swiftly sabotage your overall health and wellness goals. This includes weight loss. High levels of sugar or sodium are just two examples of such ingredients.
Learn more about dispelled nutrition myths.
Registered Dietitian, Nataly Georgieva, further remarks, “Clients often ask me if lower-calorie foods are a better option, as there tends to be a negative association with higher-calorie foods, such as nuts and avocado. Just because a food is higher in calories does not automatically mean that we should avoid it. The truth is, those foods can satisfy us much more, depending on what they are. Alternatively, when eating the lower-calorie foods, it can actually lead to eating more due to feeling unsatisfied.”
Besides, even if you’re a staunch believer in the “calories in, calories out” principle, it is important to consider current research.
According to Harvard Health, “How your body burns calories depends on a number of factors, including the type of food you eat, your body’s metabolism, and even the type of organisms living in your gut.”
Because of this multi-layered complexity, calories, in and of themselves, are not an accurate and effective tool for goals such as weight loss.
Furthermore, focusing on calories can lead to compulsive behaviour, general unease, anxiety and guilt. When experienced for a prolonged period of time, these feelings can create a strain on your mental and physical health, further solidifying the unhealthy relationship with food.
What’s more, adhering to this principle can have the opposite effect than the one intended. The deprivation and accompanying negative emotions can result in a form of cracking or a breakdown that leads to binging behaviour.
So what should I do?
It is important to take a more holistic approach to reading nutrition fact labels. If you’re going to refer to them, consider sugar, sodium, vitamins and minerals, list of ingredients, saturated and unsaturated fats, macronutrients, and so on.
How to Understand and Use the Nutrition Facts Label
Do you feel the need to justify your food choices?
Feeling the need to justify food choices no doubt indicates some form of underlying guilt, and can contribute to the development of an unhealthy relationship with food.
Examples of justifying food choices:
“I deserve a treat because I went for a 45-minute run.” Or, “I don’t normally eat this, but it’s a special occasion, so I will.”
Being your own personal food police clearly points to a strong desire to have a certain food, but only making room for it under special circumstances.
In the first case, it’s a matter of permitting yourself to eat a treat only if earned it through vigorous exercise. The second case is about self-restraint to a point of ongoing deprivation that you obviously want to relinquish, and you just look for a justifiable reason to do so.
How do I overcome this mindset and develop a more healthy relationship with food?
It takes practice to break the habit of thinking along these lines. And mindfulness.
Eating wholesome, nutritious food is no doubt important and it should make you feel good about doing so. And when you regularly provide your body with essential nutrients, fuelling it when needed and replenishing when it feels depleted, your body will let you know. You will simply feel better.
Conversely, when you provide your body with nutrient-devoid foods, it will let you know too. Sometimes it will let you know sooner and sometimes later. But it will let you know.
Being aware of this, and trusting your body accordingly, there should be no guilt when you have a treat, for example. As said before, the feelings of denial, guilt and shame are not good for your body or mind.
Are you a mindful eater?
What is mindful eating?
According to Harvard Health, “Mindfulness means focusing on the present moment, while calmly acknowledging and accepting your feelings, thoughts, and bodily sensations.”
It goes on to say that “mindful eating means being fully attentive to your food — as you buy, prepare, serve, and consume it.”
Of course, the fast pace of our lives makes mindful eating a challenge at times, and near-impossible at others. But the more we try to incorporate its principles, the more likely they will become a habit. So try we should.
In addition, mindful eating includes a handful of key points and questions:
1. Do you consider the health value of the food items you buy?
2. Do you eat slowly enough to be able to pay attention to how you feel?
3. Do you enjoy, savour and appreciate the food you’re eating?
4. Do you use different senses, when eating food?
5. Are you eating as a response to an emotional want (stress, boredom, frustration, sadness, etc.) or actual hunger?
These are all important in helping you become a mindful eater. Such mindfulness can certainly go a long way in the development of self-awareness, likely leading to a healthy relationship with food.
Related: Emotional Eating: Causes And How To Stop It
Do you consider balance when purchasing foods?
To develop a healthy relationship with food, it is important to achieve a balance.
What does this mean to achieve a balance when it comes to buying and eating food?
Balance calls for the consideration of a few factors, when selecting foods. Factors such as: price, accessibility, availability, convenience, taste, nutritional value and so on.
It is important not to completely discount one or two of these in favour of the others.
For example, do not sacrifice everything in the taste department just because the food product is healthy. At the same time, do not disregard the nutritional value of all of the foods you buy in favour of flavour. In other words, try to keep things in balance.
Related: Factors That Influence Food Choices
Do you make food choices based on the foods you enjoy eating?
It is important to regularly eat foods that you enjoy eating, especially when trying to make changes to your eating habits.
Eating should be a pleasant experience, not simply for sustenance. This forms an integral part of the previously discussed concept of mindful eating. It also sets the stage for the development of a healthy relationship with food.
What if I only enjoy highly-palatable, refined, processed foods?
This may be so. However, with an open mind, some experimentation and aided perhaps by some nutrition education, it is certainly possible to enjoy foods that are nutritious.
We have developed our palates and eating habits as children after regular and sustained exposure to certain foods. Just as your palate adapted to and developed as a result of these experiences, it can also accept and adapt to others. This may not be an immediate occurrence, by any means. But it can happen over time.
Nutritious food can be enjoyed just as much as any other food. This is particularly true in today’s world where many of us have access to a wide array of foods. Modifications to meals are generally commonplace these days as well. Nutritious food product substitutions also abound, making the ‘trying new foods’ process much more easy.
Here are some practical tips on how to retrain your palate.
Are you a flexible eater?
Flexible eating implies, well, flexibility.
In other words, you’re more likely a flexible eater if you avoid the all-or-nothing approach. Things are not so black-and-white to you. Certain foods are not all bad, whereas others are not all good. It’s this ability to recognize gradations that makes you a flexible eater, preventing you from leading yourself down a path to developing an unhealthy relationship with food.
Inflexible eaters, on the other hand, self-impose rigid rules upon themselves, believing that the staunch adherence to these rules is the superior and only path to achieving the desired goal(s).
So what’s wrong with black-and-white thinking?
Thinking this way can dichotomize things in life. It creates an us vs. them mentality. Life is much more complex than that. And this includes eating and our relationship with food.
In addition, thinking along these lines can lead to compulsive and obsessive behaviour, creating a very unhealthy relationship with food and eating in general.
It can also erode objectivity and open-mindedness, keep you from learning about new foods or accepting the latest nutritional findings.
According to Georgieva, “Having a positive, healthy relationship with food means being flexible in the sense that we cannot control all food environments, as doing so can lead to a very rigid way of eating. This rigidity can potentially lead to missing out on social events in an attempt to control one’s intake.”
Being flexible, on the other hand, helps to keep things in perspective, allowing you to consider (and perhaps enjoy) both sides.
Related: How Black and White Thinking Hurts You (and What You Can Do to Change It)
Are you an on-and-off dieter?
On-and-off dieting, colloquially known as yo-yo dieting, is the black-and-white approach put into practice.
Going all in, making sudden, drastic changes and depriving yourself of any and every food that is enjoyable is a recipe for abandonment.
This approach no doubt flies in the face of mindful eating. It is also detrimental to the concept of building a healthy relationship with food.
That said, however, this is not to say that you should not make a conscious effort to eat more nutritious foods, while reducing or eliminating altogether some others. Not at all. But this process has to be a flexible, gradual and sustainable one.
Do you watch what other people eat to gauge how much you should eat?
Eating the same amount of food that others eat is impersonalization personified, if you excuse the unique way of phrasing.
Because we are all different, with varying dispositions, tendencies and proclivities, we should never apply such a one-size-fits-all mindset.
To be a mindful eater who has a stable and healthy relationship with food, you should only listen to your body when it comes to food consumption.
You must learn to trust your body, resist peer pressure (if any) and eat according to how you feel.
This is difficult at times, but can be achieved. In fact, it is very similar to learning to become more assertive. It takes practice. Being able to say “No, whether internally or externally, forms an integral part here. With time, it can become a habit. A valuable one.
Related: How and When to Say No
Do you obsess over the number on the scale?
We know that those who are number- or goal-oriented will probably scoff at our remarks here. Nevertheless, we feel it’s important to comment on the point.
While there’s nothing wrong with jumping on a scale to give you a general idea of where your weight is at any given moment, doing so cannot be the most important or the only indicator of progress or lack thereof.
There are so many reasons for that we would need to devote a blog post on its own to do it justice.
That said, however, here is a glimpse into why you shouldn’t obsess over the number on the scale:
1. Constantly jumping on the scale can become a bad habit, a compulsion, leading to negative emotions.
2. There are many reasons why weight fluctuates.
- Sodium and carbs may cause water retention, which can cause a spike in your weight.
- Varying hydration levels.
- Expelled waste or lack thereof.
- Increased muscle mass.
- Change in metabolism.
- Menstrual cycle.
- Alcohol intake.
- And more.
Related: How Much Does Weight Fluctuate?
So unless you’re aware of and paying heed to all these and many other factors that can contribute to weight gain with the same diligence as you dedicate to weighing yourself, then perhaps it’s wise to refrain from passing judgment on what you see when you jump on that scale.
And, if you still feel you need to know what the scale reads when you step on it, then read WebMd’s What To Know About Weighing Yourself.
Related: Why Am I Not Losing Weight: A List Of Common Weight Loss Obstacles
Do you restrict food intake in fear of gaining weight?
The anxiety associated with the fear of gaining weight is a negative emotion that should not be inherent, when you possess a healthy relationship with food.
In addition, the subsequent restrictive behaviour can lead to under-eating, malnourishment and disordered eating patterns.
We must also underscore that restriction of food is much, much more than a simple reduction in calories or an overall insufficient calorie count.
Excessive and/or prolonged food restriction can:
- cause mineral deficiencies in the body,
- be detrimental to brain function,
- negatively affect metabolism,
- cause digestive distress,
- affect energy levels,
- negatively impact mood.
More on the health consequences of under-eating and eating disorders. And, if you feel you need help to manage restrictive behaviour, feel free to get in touch with us.
Do you use food to cope with emotions or to manage stress?
One of the more prominent signs that may indicate an unhealthy relationship with food is if you repeatedly use it to cope with a range of emotions, often unpleasant ones.
Rather than listening to your body and eating to satisfy hunger, you eat to avoid dealing with the root of a negative emotion. Instead, you seek a quick-fix that acts as a temporary escape from the unpleasant emotions you are feeling. Doing so can swiftly contribute to the development of an unhealthy relationship with food.
Examples of healthy and unhealthy responses:
1. Healthy way of dealing with negative emotions.
When stressed from the demands of your job, you exercise, listen to music or take the dog for a walk to release stress and tension.
2. Unhealthy way of dealing with negative emotions.
When you’re stressed about your relationship troubles, you overindulge in highly-palatable foods (sugar, salt, fat) to receive a temporary, short-lived rush of endorphins.
“I always stress to clients that emotional eating in and of itself is normal,” states Registered Dietitian, Nataly Georgieva. “The point at which it becomes problematic is when food is the only way that a person copes with uncomfortable emotions, and when there are no other coping mechanisms in place.”
Learn more about how to manage stress with nutritional interventions.
Do you engage in regular overeating or binge eating behaviour?
This question, aimed at helping you ascertain if you have a healthy relationship with food, is closely related to the previous point. It is also a self-evident one.
This type of behaviour results from the feeling of powerlessness to be able to moderate and/or stop eating excessive amounts of food.
Related: Why am I binge eating?
More on the signs and symptoms of binge eating disorder and the management of binge eating behaviour with dietitians.
Are you over-exercising?
There is a fine line between the desire to be strong, healthy and vigorous, and working hard to achieve these goals, and compulsion and addiction. A line that is unfortunately crossed by many.
To help differentiate one from the other, let’s take a look at some bodies of authority on the matter.
According to the National Institute of Health via Everyday Health, compulsive exercising is “when exercise no longer feels like an activity you choose to do, but becomes an activity you feel you have to do.”
Similarly, NCBI considers compulsive exercise to be “a craving for physical training, resulting in uncontrollable excessive exercise behavior with harmful consequences, such as injuries and impaired social relations.”
At times, this behaviour is accompanied by a need to burn off the calories, carbs or anything else that may be perceived as an obstacle to the goal, ingested through food, compounding the matter even further.
This addictive behaviour indicates that you do not have a healthy relationship with food.
Read more about the warning signs, symptoms and health consequences of compulsive exercise.
Unless you’re a professional athlete or aspire to be one, exercise should be used for many reasons. These include: for fun, to feel better physically and mentally, relieve tension and stress, improve mood, reinvigorate our bodies, boost energy, reduce the risk of various diseases, and so on.
Once all these factors take a proverbial back seat to the addictive, compulsive behaviour, an unhealthy relationship with food may be present.
Diet vs. Exercise: What’s More Important?
Workout Supplements: What Supplements Should I Take?
Do you obsess over healthy eating?
WebMD defines orthorexia as an “unhealthy focus on eating in a healthy way.”
Meanwhile, Dr. Bratman, who coined the term in 1996, calls it a “fixation on righteous eating.” Essentially, it’s the rejection of many foods because they are “not pure enough.”
So what’s wrong with eating healthy anyway?
Nothing, per se.
But the sustained unwanted thoughts about the fear of contamination of food cause a great deal of anxiety. This is a highly negative and draining emotion. It can be crippling. At this point, food is about fear and control, rather than nourishment or enjoyment. As such, it is a clear indication that the person in question may have an unhealthy relationship with food.
Discover more about orthorexia.
Healthy Relationship With Food or An Unhealthy One? Next Steps
The list of questions that we included here is by no means exhaustive. It is, however, a very good place to start. It can certainly help to answer the question, “Do I have a healthy relationship with food?”
Assessing your general approach to food and eating behaviour is important because it can be revelatory, leading to a form of clarity. It also provides a starting point to allow you to take first steps to making the transition from an unhealthy relationship with food to a healthy one. That is to say, if in fact the guiding questions point in that direction to begin with.
As always, we strongly encourage the help of qualified health professionals, when you decide to make changes to your lifestyle.
Developing a healthy relationship with food does not happen overnight. It takes time, practice and mindfulness. And there will be ups and downs along the way. In the end, however, it’s worth the journey.
If you’re looking for personal support for eating disorders or disordered eating with a dietitian, please contact us to book an appointment or free consultation. We offer in-person appointments as well as virtual dietitian services.
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JM Nutrition is a diet counselling service based in Toronto, with several locations in Ontario and one dietitian office location in Halifax, Nova Scotia.