How to have a healthy relationship with food

A healthy relationship with food is about more than just making sure you’re eating healthy stuff.  It’s also about your attitude towards food and your relationship with it. If you stress about what you’re eating, if you constantly deprive yourself of food you enjoy or if you spend a lot of your days thinking about what to eat, it might be time to examine your relationship with food.

Food plays so many roles in our life.  From a physiological point of view there’s three main obvious functions:

  • Growth and development,
  • Provision of energy, and
  • Repair and renewal of the body’s cells.

However, it has numerous other functions in our life that extend beyond the physical and into the emotional, social, and cultural space as well. After all, food has such a big role in how we socialise, connect, and celebrate. Our relationship with food is complicated and multi-faceted, and certain foods bring up certain feelings for us, this means that a ‘healthy’ relationship with food proves elusive for many.

So, what exactly does a healthy or normal relationship with food look like? I think ‘healthy’ can be a bit subjective, but there’s a number of considerations:

  • Being able to listen to your internal cues,
  • Understanding that sometimes we eat to celebrate, or because we want to and that’s OK,
  • Avoiding labelling food as ‘good’ and ‘bad’ and accepting it’s just food, and
  • Taking an interest in food without becoming obsessive about it.

Internal cues

It seems so obvious to say we should eat when we’re hungry and stop when we’re full. We’re all born with an innate understanding of when we’re hungry, when we’re full and what we want to eat. But as we grow up, we can lose this connection and understanding because of external pressures, habits we develop over time or certain medical conditions or medications.

We might have been encouraged to eat everything on our plate, a habit that disconnects us from our fullness signals. We might have had long periods of time following diets or restrictive eating rules that foster feelings of guilt, shame and anxiety around food while also denying our hunger cues to the point where we don’t register them anymore. We might have a habit of distracting ourselves while eating, with tv, reading or the internet, so that we can no longer tune in to what our body is telling us about how we’re feeling.

If you’re finding it difficult to tune into to your internal hunger and fullness signals, try a mindful approach to eating using the mindful eating BASICS from health psychologist Lynn Rossy:

  • Breathe to move out of your stress response and into a relaxation response and check in on how hungry (or not) you actually feel. What are you hungry for?
  • Assess your food – notice how it looks and smells, appreciate where it came from
  • Slow down as you eat to help digestion and better assess how you’re feeling as you eat. It can take up to 20 minutes for your brain to register that you’re full.
  • Investigate your hunger as you eat, take away distractions and think about how the food is making you feel
  • Chew your food to start the digestive process – it will help you slow down too
  • Saviour your food by paying attention to it without distractions so you can assess how you’re feeling as you go

Guilt free eating

Sometimes we eat in celebration, sometimes we eat something because we want to.  We should be able to give ourselves permission to do this and not beat ourselves up over it.  And we don’t need to confine this to ‘cheat’ day.

A healthy relationship with food is about balance. While some foods don’t promote health as much as others, we should be able to recognise that special occasions often centre around food and that its OK to eat it. We should be able to accept that sometimes we just feel like the wine/chocolate/pizza, we should be able to control how much we eat, or eat without bingeing, and we shouldn’t feel guilty or like we have to confess and apologise for eating.

When food choices are associated with feelings of guilt and shame it often drives behaviour into phases of restricted dieting followed psychological and physical food cravings leading to more phases of bingeing, overeating and restricting. While diet restriction and accompanying cheat days are totally socially acceptable, fixating on these is generally a bad idea and can lead to disordered eating patterns.

When you move your thinking away from limiting certain foods, make them less forbidden and more available to you at anytime, you take away their power often leading to less guilt, less compulsive overeating and a more balanced attitude to food over time.

The morality of food

When we think of food as ‘good’ and ‘bad’ its an easy step to thinking of ourselves as ‘good’ or ‘bad’ for the food choices we make.  I’ve often had clients come in and say ‘Oh, I’ve been so bad this week’ when referring to the food they ate or the exercise they didn’t do.  While these actions may not take them closer to their health goals, it’s important for them to remember that it doesn’t make them bad people.

Attaching a moral judgement onto food can be damaging to our mental health, bringing up those feelings of guilt and shame once again. As with cheat days and guilty eating, it can drive an all-or-nothing approach to food and exercise and perpetuate that cycle of bingeing and restricting, calorie counting and ‘working off’ or ‘punishing ourselves’ for what we ate.

Instead of constantly judging your food and yourself as good or bad, consider your food as morally neutral.  Food is nourishment, a source of energy and a vehicle for connection and celebration. Step away from the judgement and tune into your body. Learn to recognise what you need. Ask:

  • How does this food make me feel?
  • Is this what I want to eat right now?
  • Is this my best option right now?
  • Am I in control of my food choices?

Health obsession

There’s a fine line between being health conscious and health obsessed.  What might start out as an interest in nutrition and exercise can quickly spiral out of control and into a case of orthorexia, that pursuit of the perfect diet and lifestyle that can result in unhealthy consequences like social isolation, anxiety, loss of the ability to eat intuitively, reduced interest in human activities and even malnutrition.

You know you’re health obsessed and your relationship with food has gone awry when, in addition to ignoring your internal cues, feeling guilty about what you eat and seeing your food as good and bad you also:

  • Make your world smaller to fit your health requirements – turning down social engagements because you would rather work out or because you don’t know if the food on offer fits your food rules,
  • Spend much of the day stressing about what you’re going to eat and what’s in it,
  • Over exercise to the point where you’re exhausted when you wake up, you’re sore and achy all the time with niggly recurring injuries and decreasing muscle mass despite an increase in weight training.

Diet culture and an obsession with how we look, especially how thin or fit we look has ensured that many of us struggle with how we relate to food and eating.  Guilt, shame, and anxiety around food is mainstream, widely accepted, and sometimes applauded.  Shifting your perception of the role of food in your life can help build a better relationship with food and a healthier outlook on life.