How to Create a Healthy Relationship with Food

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In my last post I talked about our relationship with food and signs of an unhealthy one. If you can relate to any of those, take heart. You’re not alone. We’ve all been exposed to diet culture in some form or another, and it’s this diet mentality that teaches us to fear food and base our morality on what we eat.

Healthy relationships aren’t built on fear, guilt, and anxiety.

The good news is that you absolutely can improve this relationship, but this will take time and practice. You’ve probably been in this dysfunctional relationship for many years, and it’s not going to improve overnight. If trust has been broken in any relationship, it takes some time, effort, and patience to build back up.

Take a look at these ten things you can do to create a more positive experience with food and choose one that you can start working on today.

  1. Become reacquainted with the foods you love. Years of dieting and adhering to strict food rules can leave you with the inability to distinguish between which foods you feel you “should” eat and which ones you actually like to eat. Start to compile a list of all the foods you love the taste of. It doesn’t matter if they’re “healthy” or not, ask yourself if you actually like them. Then slowly begin to incorporate these foods into your diet. You don’t have to go crazy on them, but include them in a moderate way, and when you do, make sure you fully enjoy them.

  2. Learn to eat mindfully. If you’re so accustomed to relying on external rules to guide your eating, it’s time to rebuild the connection with your body. Practice eating without distraction; no phone, no TV, no eating while driving. Sit down, eat slowly, chew your food thoroughly, and allow yourself to experience all the flavors and textures of the food you’re eating.

  3. Learn to listen to your hunger cues. Your body knows exactly how much it needs in order to be healthy and lean, but you have to learn to listen to it. Practice waiting until you’re physically hungry to eat. This means you feel physical hunger in your belly, not lightheaded, tired, or feel the need to crunch on something. This also means learning to distinguish real hunger from other cues to eat; boredom, stress, social cues, external rules, time of day, etc.

  4. Practicing stopping when satisfied, not stuffed. You don’t need to eat beyond feeling comfortably satisfied, even if your calorie tracker tells you that you have 300 more calories in your budget. No calorie tracker or diet program can tell you how much to eat better than your own body. So slow down, get rid of distractions while you eat, and listen for your body’s cues to stop eating.

  5. Develop healthy non-food strategies for coping with stress, boredom, loneliness, fatigue, or anything else that drives you to eat when you’re not hungry. This is essential to rebuilding trust with your body. If you have healthy ways of coping with your emotions, you don’t need to fear those emotions or the overeating that comes along with them.

  6. Allow room for all foods in your diet.  If you tend to eat a lot of the same “safe” foods, try incorporating some more of the “unsafe” ones. The only way to learn to trust yourself around these foods is to expose yourself to them. This takes some practice. You may find yourself still feeling anxious or out of control at first, and you might even overeat. That’s okay. Keep practicing with your unsafe foods, and make sure you do this with as much mindfulness as possible.

  7. Do away with rigid food rules and labels. Rules and restrictions can make us feel safe with food, but ironically it’s these rules that sabotage our progress in the long term. Foods are never inherently “good”, “bad”, “healthy”, or “unhealthy”. Labeling them as such not only narrows our perspective, but also elicits feeling of guilt and anxiety when we break a rule or eat something “bad”. As you learn to trust your body’s huger and satiety cues, it will become easier to ditch the need for food rules.

  8. Let go of the desire for a perfect diet. Many people tend to take an all-or-nothing approach to nutrition. The reality is that a perfect diet is impossible to define and execute. If your only options are “all” or “nothing”, you’ll end up with nothing most of the time. Perfection isn’t necessary to see the results you want, so focus on doing the best you can and viewing setbacks as an opportunity to learn.

  9. Stop punishing yourself for making mistakes with excessive exercise, restricting harder, or wallowing in guilt. You might feel like punishing yourself or compensating for overeating will keep you from doing it again, but that’s never the case. In fact, these behaviors only perpetuate a negative relationship with food. Learn from your mistakes and move on without the guilt trip. Your guilt can’t do anything for you after the fact.

  10. Challenge your negative beliefs. An unhealthy relationship with food has nothing to do with food itself, but is fueled by negative thoughts and beliefs. Your inner critic probably tells you you’re not good enough, that you’re a failure, you should be ashamed of your struggles with food and weight, or makes you feel bad for enjoying ice cream. Just because you think it doesn’t mean it’s true, so practice challenging the thoughts and beliefs that perpetuate an unhealthy relationship with food.

Remember, changing these thoughts and behaviors will take some time. Be patient with yourself as you work through this process!

Which one can you start practicing today?