Everyone needs food to survive. It provides the energy and nutrients we need to perform tasks and make it through daily activities. However, for a variety of reasons, sometimes people develop an unhealthy relationship with food.
What Does It Mean to Have a Healthy Relationship With Food?
The food we put into our bodies has a direct and long-term impact on our health and wellbeing. You should be mindful of what you eat — both the types of foods you consume and the amount you eat. When you have a healthy relationship with food, you do not fear eating. Not only do you eat for nutrition, but you also eat for enjoyment. This means eating healthy but also being able to enjoy a treat once in a while, like eating a slice of chocolate cake on your birthday. When you have a healthy relationship with food you eat a wide variety of foods in healthy portions, and you generally practice portion control, eating reasonable amounts of food when your body signals it is hungry.
Someone with a healthy relationship with food will also have a healthy view of exercise and its role in their daily life. You view it as a way to keep your body healthy and strong, not as a punishment for overeating. While you may desire to lose a few pounds or shave a couple inches off of your waist, you are not obsessed with your appearance and you love and accept who you are and how you look.
Tips for Developing a Healthy Relationship With Food
There are many ways to cultivate and maintain a healthy relationship with food. Everyone is different, which means that even the practices and habits they incorporate into their own lives vary. If you are looking for ways to improve your relationship with food, there are eight key strategies to incorporate into your lifestyle.
1. Stay Away From Overly Restrictive Diets
At one time or another, nearly everyone has tried a diet plan. While they do work for some, often people find that these restrictive diets are too hard to keep in practice. Trying to avoid certain foods altogether or cutting out calories can often result in overeating. Rather than restricting yourself to small portions or avoiding certain foods, learn to practice moderation in all areas of eating.
Listen to your body before, during and after a meal. Your body is designed to give you cues about what it needs, but often people ignore these cues and end up either depriving their bodies of the nutrients it needs or going overboard and eating much more than their body needs. Rather than following a specific diet plan, you may find that you benefit more from learning to read your body's cues and practicing "mindful eating."
2. Eat Regular, Healthy Meals
When you skip a meal, it makes your body even hungrier. When you are hungry, you are more likely to overeat or end up overindulging in foods that are high in fat and sugar. The best way to prevent overeating is to eat regular meals. There is a lot of conflicting research about how many meals you should eat during the day.
Conventionally, our society has three primary mealtimes — breakfast, lunch and dinner. However, some research has claimed there may be some benefits to eating five or six smaller meals throughout the day. But, as it turns out, WHEN you eat may not be as critical as WHAT you eat. Most research shows consuming foods rich in protein and fiber — those that keep you full longer — is the ultimate goal of a healthy eater, whether you eat three times a day or six.
3. Seek Out Support
For some people, this may be as simple as surrounding themselves with other healthy eaters. Making sure you eat with other people who have a healthy relationship with food can help you as you develop positive new habits. Staying away from people who practice negative eating behaviors may be important as well so you do not fall into their patterns and mindsets.
If you or a loved one suffer from an eating disorder, it may be beneficial to seek out help from a mental health professional who specializes in eating disorders. Not only can these trained pros help you work toward a healthy relationship with food, but they also can identify and treat the underlying issues that may have contributed to the unhealthy eating patterns you established.
4. Keep Unhealthy "Temptation" Foods Out of the House
Eating all foods in moderation is key, but some people find certain unhealthy foods are their undoing in times of stress. They may reach for a bag of potato chips or a container of ice cream, mindlessly eating as they watch television or think through their problems.
If you keep those unhealthy snacks out of your house, it will force you to venture out if you want that snack. Often, the thought of a trip to the grocery store or the ice cream shop can be enough of a deterrent that you may choose to ignore the craving.
However, if the craving is strong enough that you are willing to head out to satisfy it, you can avoid the temptation to overeat by heading to a restaurant instead of the grocery store. For example, rather than buying a half-gallon of ice cream, indulge in a small sundae at your nearest ice cream shop instead.
5. Know the Difference Between a Treat and a Snack
Snacks can help keep you from getting ravenously hungry between meals, which is a good thing when you are trying not to overeat at mealtime. However, a lot of people do not realize there is a big difference between a "treat" and a "snack:"
- A "treat" is something you eat because it is enjoyable. Examples of a treat would be chocolate, a pastry or some chips.
- A "snack" is something that you eat to help ward off hunger. It should comprise foods that are both healthy and good at keeping you comfortably full. Examples of a snack include fruit, nuts or low-fat cheese.
6. Eat Breakfast Every Day
We already talked about the importance of eating regular meals, but we would be remiss if we did not talk specifically about breakfast. Researchers agree people who eat breakfast tend to be healthier than people who skip the first meal of the day. Why? Starting the day with healthy foods sets you up for healthy eating success all day long because you will not be trying to play catch up on the calories you skipped at the beginning of the day.
However, note the emphasis on "healthy foods." Breakfast itself is important, but it is crucial your breakfast include foods rich in protein, complex carbohydrates and healthy fats. Avoid sugary cereals or large amounts of bread and simple carbs because these will not provide the nutrients you need to stay satisfied until your next meal. If you are hungry again by 9:00 a.m., then you may set yourself up for unhealthy eating as the day goes on.
A healthy breakfast might be a piece of whole wheat toast with peanut butter, scrambled eggs with vegetables or a bowl of oatmeal with nuts and fruit. Find something that you can enjoy in the morning and fits in your morning routine!
7. Find Alternative Ways to Cope With Stress
Many people turn to food for comfort when they are sad or stressed. If you are eating to deal with your feelings, then you are most likely not paying attention to things like portion control and nutrition. The best thing you can do is seek out alternative ways to process your emotions. Instead of turning to your pantry to cope with stress, consider going for a walk or calling a friend.
As we mentioned, there are times when you may need more than just a friend's listening ear. If you find your urges to eat during times of sadness or stress are uncontrollable, find professional help to process the things causing those negative feelings and responses.
8. Everything in Moderation
One of the ideas many people struggle with is that certain foods are their enemy, and this is just not true. Food is not the problem — often our experiences with it or preconceived notions about certain foods create the problem. To have a healthy relationship with food, you must become comfortable with consuming a wide variety of foods, even the occasional slice of pizza or order of chili cheese fries.
The best way to indulge safely is to plan ahead:
- Choose to indulge at a time when you are not hungry for a full meal. For example, if you want to eat chocolate cake, save it for after dinner so you can savor one moderately sized slice on an already contented stomach, rather than giving in to the temptation to eat several slices because you are famished after a long day at work.
- Or, if you want to eat crackers, put a set amount in a bowl and then put the box back in the pantry rather than just trying to moderate yourself as you eat directly out of the bag.
The ultimate tip for practicing a healthy relationship with food is to develop a healthy lifestyle. That means you may need time to cultivate new habits and break old ones. A slow and steady transformation is the best way for most people to develop a healthy relationship with food.
If you suspect you or a loved one is struggling with an eating disorder, which is a much more serious issue, then you need to seek out professional help.
The Impact of Unhealthy Relationships With Food
Whether healthy or unhealthy, your relationship with food is the result of a variety of factors, including:
- Body image
- Past experiences
Everyone has times where they are unhappy with the image they see in the mirror. You may have even tried a diet or exercise plan aimed to cut calories and reduce your weight. These behaviors and thoughts do not automatically mean that someone has, or is at risk for, an eating disorder. So, then, what is the difference?
At a high level — the difference is that when a person is on a diet, they may cut out unhealthy foods of their diet in an effort to improve their health. Once they reach a healthy weight or lifestyle, they are satisfied and feeling confident and good about themselves. A person with an eating disorder cannot just lose a few pounds and then be satisfied. This is because having an eating disorder is not really about food at all.
Reassessing Your Relationship With Food
When a person's relationship with food deteriorates to the point where they begin practicing unhealthy behaviors, such as excessively restricting themselves, purging or overeating, it is typically a sign there is a bigger problem. An eating disorder is an outward cry for help that indicates an equally serious problem on the inside.
For many people, their relationship with food can be traced back to their body image — how they think about their body when they look in a mirror or think about themselves. Besides their actual weight, this can include:
- How they perceive themselves
- How they move
- How they look
While everyone has these perceptions about their bodies, someone who has an unhealthy relationship with food often allows these perceptions to negatively influence their eating habits. However, despite many people's perception, an eating disorder does not always occur just because someone wants to get thin. Typically, an eating disorder is an outward sign of mental and emotional issues that need to be addressed by a team of medical and mental health professionals.
People who have negative perceptions about themselves and their bodies are at a higher risk for developing an eating disorder. Those struggling with an anxiety disorder, perfectionism, a history of trauma or bullying, among other factors, are at particularly high risk to develop an eating disorder. There is also a strong link between ADHD and eating disorders, particularly in women.
Eating disorders are not gender-specific, although statistically, women are more likely to struggle with an eating disorder than men. Regardless of gender, eating disorders tend to appear during adolescence or early adulthood. However, this does not mean adults cannot develop an eating disorder later in life. Age should never be a deciding factor in determining whether or not someone is struggling with an eating disorder.
While there are several different types of common eating disorders, most fall under one of three categories.
Anorexia nervosa may be the most well-known eating disorder. People who develop anorexia have a distorted view of their body image, which often leads them to think of themselves as overweight even when the numbers on the scale indicate that they are actually underweight. They often obsessively monitor their weight on the scale and restrict their calorie intake.
Symptoms of anorexia include:
- Severely restricted eating
- Underweight, especially when compared with peers of the same height and age
- Body image disorders and self-esteem issues driven by weight
- Fear of gaining weight
- Obsessive-compulsive tendencies demonstrated in a tendency to hoard food or collect recipes
- Trouble eating in public
- Intense desire to control their environment
Most people believe someone with anorexia does not eat. This is a false perception. There are actually two different kinds of anorexia nervosa. One kind is the restrictive-eating category most people are familiar with. The other kind is actually categorized by a cycle of binge eating and purging.
People struggling with the restrictive type of anorexia restrict themselves, sometimes to the point of not eating at all, and they also often exercise obsessively. Individuals with the bingeing and purging tendencies will eat — sometimes excessively, other times more moderately — and then purge the food they ate, either forcing themselves to vomit or taking laxatives, diuretics or obsessively exercising to erase the calories they consumed.
Over time, people with anorexia may find their bones become brittle. They can develop a fine layer of hair over their entire body, as well as see their hair and nails grow brittle. They may struggle with infertility issues as well. If left untreated, anorexia can lead to organ failure and death.
Bulimia nervosa is characterized by excessively bingeing — especially on foods that the individual would normally avoid — and then purging to relieve discomfort. The biggest difference between this and anorexia is people struggling with bulimia often maintain a fairly normal weight, which means their outward appearance may not change as drastically as that of someone suffering from anorexia.
Symptoms of bulimia include:
- Reoccuring binges, accompanied by an out-of-control feeling
- Reoccuring purging with the intent of preventing weight gain
- Fear of gaining weight
- Distorted body image and self-image shaped by views of appearance
Over time, people who struggle with bulimia may experience a sore throat, painful acid reflux, stomach irritation, tooth decay, dehydration and hormonal issues. In severe cases, a person with bulimia can experience low levels of electrolytes which, if not treated, can result in heart attack or stroke.
3. Binge Eating Disorder
You may not be as familiar with this particular condition because it has only recently been recognized as an eating disorder, which is ironic because some believe it is actually the most common eating disorder in the United States. Binge eating disorder starts out similar to both anorexia and bulimia — a person eats large amounts of food in a short amount of time and feels completely out of control to stop the consumption. However, the difference between this and the others is the person who binges does not do anything to purge the calories they have taken in.
Symptoms of binge eating disorder include:
- Eating large quantities of food quickly and secretly, even when you are not hungry
- Feeling powerless and out of control to stop eating
- Experiencing feelings of guilt, shame or disgust when thinking about bingeing
- No purging or attempts to "make up for" the calories consumed through exercise
People with binge eating disorder are typically overweight, which increases their risk of serious medical conditions like type 2 diabetes, heart disease and stroke.
Know When It Is Time to Seek Help
If you or someone you love wants to know how to fix an unhealthy relationship with food, you are not alone. You may be feeling overwhelmed and ashamed by the behaviors you or your loved one are practicing. While these feelings themselves are normal, they are not true. Do not be ashamed or try to hide what is happening. An eating disorder is a treatable condition. It is not something to "get over" without proper treatment. If you experience these symptoms, the best thing you can do is ask for help.
Sometimes, well-meaning friends and family believe an eating disorder can be overcome by encouraging healthy eating. While this is admirable, someone struggling with an eating disorder has issues with a lot more than just calories. Eating disorders often have roots in other mental health disorders that need to be addressed by experienced and compassionate professionals.
Brookhaven Retreat is a women-only inpatient treatment center specializing in the treatment of mental health issues and substance addictions, including eating disorders and their underlying causes. Our team of doctors and mental health professionals is dedicated to providing individually tailored, holistic treatment plans for each patient based on their individual needs and situations. There is no reason to wait another day. If you or a loved one suffer from an eating disorder, we want to help you reclaim your life. Get the help you deserve by contacting us today.