An unhealthy relationship with food can form for many reasons. Whether your parents or caregivers were long-term dieters or you simply took on the many messages of the $946-billion global diet industry, the relationship to food is fraught for many.
In fact, disordered eating habits are more common than you might think. For example, more than 28 million Americans will suffer from an eating disorder at some point in their lives, starting as young as five years old. Even if your behaviors don’t fall into the diagnostic criteria of an eating disorder, you can still be plagued by disordered eating patterns.
For example, you may feel guilty about eating certain foods or not choosing the “healthy” ones. Or maybe you restrict your food intake during the week and then end up binging all weekend. This keeps you stuck in the same eating patterns and habits that lead to more stress and more anxiety.
Healing an unhealthy relationship often starts by shifting your mindset and how you approach eating as a whole. Food is nourishment and pleasure-inducing. It’s an essential part of life and an experience to savor. If it doesn’t feel this way right now, you’ve come to the right place.
Use the following strategies to cultivate self-compassion, enjoyment, and acceptance with food.
This article is not to be substituted for medical advice. If you’re struggling with an eating disorder, we encourage you to reach out for professional support at NationalEatingDisorders.org.
Rethink Your Food Vocabulary
Words are powerful. The more you repeat a certain message to yourself, the more it will influence your thoughts, decisions, and behaviors.
In a recent TED Talk, neuroscientist Dr. Lisa Feldman Barrett explains that consuming harmful words will overtax your bloodstream and nervous system with stress hormones. Over time, this chronic stress affects your brain wiring, which can impact how you think and act as a result.
Words are an important part of your relationship with food. Think about the meaning you give to terms like “good” (to describe a piece of fruit) versus “bad” (to describe a bowl of chips). While one food may be nutritionally superior to another food (apple vs. potato chips) that doesn’t mean it needs to be morally superior or that it has to have a reflection on if you, as a person, are good or bad.
The demonization of certain foods through this language, and the meaning those words carry, can promote caloric restriction and other extreme forms of dieting. This only further strains your unhealthy relationship with foods, causing more stress and anxiety.
To start healing, intentionally work to remove words that attach a moral value to food. Here’s a long list of words you might not realize have an impact, but can be harmful to your relationship with food:
- Cheat/cheat day
Instead, bring new words into your vocabulary that promote a relationship with food filled with enjoyment and pleasure:
Focus on the Mind-Body Connection
The concept of intuitive eating is basic in theory: listen to your hunger and fullness cues and choose food that you want to eat. However, if you have an unhealthy relationship with food, intuitive eating can feel complicated in practice.
For example, if you’ve learned to deny the hunger impulse in order to restrict calorie intake, you might not even notice when you’re actually hungry. Conversely, if you often reach for food that hurts your body to cope with uncomfortable emotions, you perpetuate the feeling that you cannot trust yourself.
What’s more, it can be challenging to eat “intuitively” if certain foods affect your body in uncomfortable ways, like causing bloat or digestive discomfort.
This is why mindful eating, and awareness of the mind-body connection, are important. Being mindful of hunger cues and your food choices allows you to honor the unique needs of your own body while still feeling satisfied. This way of eating prioritizes flexibility and satisfaction over rigidity and restriction while also ensuring your body is being cared for.
Listening to this inner wisdom with mindfulness is powerful. Your body knows what it wants, when, and how much. Part of this work is learning how to tune into that and then trusting it.
Tuning into your body may feel overwhelming and Pilates and breathwork can both be helpful with this piece of your healing. At Lindywell we offer realistic, easy starting points to practice this skill.
Examine Your Own Food Story
Everyone has a unique set of attitudes, beliefs, customs, rituals, and preferences around food. These are shaped by many factors, from the environment you’re born into, to the culture you’re raised in and the societal messages internalized over the course of your life.
Together, these create the script you follow when interacting with food. Certified eating psychologist and nutrition expert Elise Museles calls this your food story. As with all narratives, however, certain elements of it are simply untrue (or at least could use some re-evaluation).
A food story is complex and multi-layered, so it’s helpful to understand where yours originated and how it continues to inform your relationship with food. Healing the parts of your food story that are no longer serving you will allow you to clear space to write a new, authentic one.
You can start to do this by writing out your food story or sharing it with someone you trust. Think about your connection, stories, and experiences with food at age 5, age 10, age 15, and so on. At each age, ask yourself:
- Did I learn a new belief or story related to food?
- Can I recall a specific moment (good or bad) around food?
- What was I being told about food?
Use this as a starting point and seek additional professional support if it feels helpful or necessary for you.
Create Awareness Around Stress
Stress, no matter what causes it, can impact your relationship with food. Primarily, stress can result in over-eating and under-eating. While it’s normal for your food intake to vary from day to day when it’s directly linked to stress, it becomes less about listening to your body and its needs and more about using food as a coping mechanism.
Simply creating more awareness around what causes you stress and how you react in those times can help you replace food with coping mechanisms that can be more supportive. However, recognizing you’re stressed in the moment can be difficult. Start by setting aside time at the end of the day to reflect. When doing this, ask yourself:
- Was I stressed or anxious at all?
- If so, what caused that feeling? A person? A situation?
- How did I use food to cope, as a result, if at all?
With this awareness, you can start to be more mindful in stressful moments in the future. You can recognize when that stress or anxiety creeps in and use a supportive strategy to ease yourself out of it, like intentional breathing or light movement.
Tune into episode 48 of The Balanced Life to learn more about managing your stress with compassion. I also shared a guided meditation for motivation and self-care that you might enjoy as you learn to connect with yourself and better manage your stress.
Use a Grace Over Guilt Mindset
Healing your relationship with food requires a shift in the way you think about and approach food, which in turn, affects your behaviors and relationship. This type of change doesn’t happen overnight. It took years, maybe even decades, to cultivate your unhealthy relationship with food, which means it will take time to heal it as well.
There will be moments when you fall back into old toxic patterns of relating to food. It’s normal to gravitate toward what feels comfortable or familiar, even when it’s hurtful or stressful. When this happens, focus on grace and release the guilt. Not only will this help you connect with more self-compassion, but it can also help ease the stress and anxiety that can impact your relationship with food.
Change is a nonlinear process. Embrace the beauty of the journey to create a new reality for yourself.
You Can Rebuild Your Unhealthy Relationship With Food
It can feel impossible to let go of the habits and thoughts you have around food, and in many cases, this requires deep healing and time. This is why it can be helpful to reach out for support. Here’s a great resource on how to get started with your relationship with food.
As you move through the process of healing your unhealthy relationship with food, use these strategies to help you nurture a new, loving, guilt-free relationship with food. You deserve that and it’s absolutely within your reach!