In the intuitive eating world, us dietitians like to throw around the term “relationship with food” quite often. My personal mission statement is, “I help individuals break free from the toxicity of diet culture, stop dieting for good and mend their relationships with food.”
Though, what I often hear from many people is “what even is a relationship with food?” and “how do I know I have a good or bad relationship with food?”
Well, that is what I am here to share with you today. I’m also going to include steps to take to develop a more positive relationship with food (as some of you may soon realize your relationship with food needs work).
What are unhealthy relationships with food?
First of all, your relationship with food in general is essentially your thoughts, feelings and behaviours related to eating. This includes your attitudes towards certain foods and reasons for your food choices.
To put this into perspective, an unhealthy relationship with food may look like demonizing certain foods, experiencing feelings of guilt with eating, and skipping meals or avoiding certain foods in order to prevent weight gain.
Let’s dive deeper into this…
9 signs you have an unhealthy relationship with food
1. You label foods as good or bad
Let’s be honest, food does not hold moral value so we need to stop moralizing it. Typically when individuals label food as good or bad, they are referring to if a food is healthy or unhealthy. These are also terms I steer away from using to describe one single food item.
The issue with this is, if you eat a food deemed “bad” or “unhealthy” it makes you feel like a bad person for eating it, or as if you’re harming your health.
One single food item won’t lead to poor health. Sure, I would agree that some foods provide preferable nutrient profiles over others. Some foods are higher in vitamins and minerals while others are high in saturated fats, sodium and added sugars.
We know that eating high amounts of saturated fat may increase cholesterol, while eating high fiber foods may lower cholesterol. But that doesn’t mean the foods high in saturated fat are “bad” and need to be totally avoided.
The only time you should refer to a food as good or bad is if you are referring to its taste or quality.
Trust me, as a dietitian, I know that eating nutritious foods is important, but I also know it’s important to include fun foods for the soul. Eating a certain food does not need to, nor should, make you feel bad. Which brings me to my next point.
2. You experience feelings of guilt or shame with eating
Have you ever beaten yourself up for eating the cookies you told yourself you shouldn't have? Or for overindulging at thanksgiving dinner?
Unfortunately, this is quite normal, though it shouldn’t be. The stress that these eating experiences cause, is actually worse for your health than eating the food itself is (regardless what the food is).
If you experience food guilt, know that you’re not alone. But also know food guilt should never be part of your eating experience. If you want to overcome your food guilt check out my other post to learn 5 steps to stop feeling guilty after eating.
3. You skip meals and ignore your hunger
Unless you need to fast for a medical procedure, there is never a good reason to skip meals and ignore your hunger. This only creates further distrust with your body.
If you don’t give your body the fuel it requires it will learn to compensate, your metabolism will slow down in order to conserve energy, and then when you do feed it enough, it is going to hold on so tightly to that energy in fear of being restricted again.
Ignoring your hunger is not a good strategy. Chances are it will backfire in the long run and result in a rebound binge.
4. Your food choices are based solely on how they may affect your weight
Do you avoid eating certain foods because you believe they may result in weight gain? If so, that’s another sign your relationship with food could use some work.
I’m not saying you should never turn down a single food item and eat anything and everything in sight. But rather make food choices based on legitimate reasons such as what foods make you feel your best, what foods will honor your health and what foods are tasty.
Saying no to a donut because you’re worried about weight gain results in feelings of restriction and deprivation which typically backfires, again leading to that rebound binge.
Whereas saying no to a donut because you don’t want to ruin your appetite for lunch or because you have diabetes and want to prevent a blood sugar spike are more legitimate reasons that honor your overall health.
5. You count and track all of your calories
There is simply no calculation or tool that can tell you exactly how many calories you should be eating in any given day. Meticulously counting and tracking all of your calories is not only mentally draining but it also creates a disconnect between your mind and your body.
Your body is your best tool when it comes to determining how much to eat at any given meal or snack, you just have to let it!
6. You obsess over nutrition facts labels
In some cases, looking at the nutrition facts label is completely normal and even recommended.
Say for example you have high blood pressure, you may want to monitor your sodium intake, or you have kidney disease and need to limit your potassium. Or maybe you are just trying to get a general idea of which foods are higher in fiber to promote regular bowel movements.
These would all be great times to look at the label.
However, if you spend the majority of your grocery trips scanning every single food label and hyper focusing on things like sugar and calories, or if you won’t try a new food before checking the label to ensure it’s “healthy” enough, this can be problematic.
7. You have frequent episodes of binge eating or overeating
Overeating is completely normal, we all overeat at times. Though if you find yourself often eating past comfortable fullness or unable to put down your favorite bag of chips every time you pick them up, that tells me there’s an issue.
If you had a good relationship with food you would be able to be around all of your favorite foods and not feel the need to over indulge. Instead you would eat in amounts that feel good to your body, or potentially choose not to eat the foods at all (depending on the situation).
8. You exercise strictly to burn calories
I know we are talking about food but exercise goes hand in hand. You get calories from food and you exercise to burn those calories off.
The thing is, there is so much more to exercise than the calorie burn purpose. If your sole purpose of exercise is to burn calories, chances are not only your relationship with food needs work but so does your relationship with exercise.
Have you heard of intuitive movement?
9. You feel anxious or fearful around food or social situations involving food
Have you ever been invited out for dinner or to a potluck and instantly started thinking about how you are going to resist eating all of the delicious food presented to you? If so, that is a sign your relationship with food needs work.
Social situations with food shouldn’t induce anxiety. If anything you should be excited about all the different foods that are going to be there or thinking about how nice it is that you get a break from cooking. Rather than planning ways to get out of it, trying to burn extra calories beforehand or attempting to avoid all of your forbidden foods.
How do I stop an unhealthy relationship with food
I would love to give you a simple solution, but it’s not that simple. You have likely spent years of your life being conditioned to have a poor relationship with food so it’s going to take time to improve your relationship with food.
It’s definitely a journey, but the good part about this is that you will hit many milestones that you can celebrate along your journey as you continue to make improvements with your relationship with food. Coming up next, how you can get started.
4 steps to start developing a healthier relationship with food
1. Curate your social media feed
Social media can be such a useful tool, if used appropriately. But it can also be quite toxic. If your feed is filed with thin influencers, weight loss ads, and personal trainers promoting their meal plans, you may want to do some curating.
Start unfollowing and removing accounts that don’t serve you and start following accounts that do. This may look like weight-inclusive or weight neutral accounts, health at every size advocates or intuitive eating counselors.
Start by following me, your weight-neutral, non-diet, Registered Dietitian and Certified Intuitive Eating Counselor. You can find me on Instagram @dietitian.krista
Better yet, join my newsletter to get exclusive weekly content for free to further improve your relationship with food.
2. Work on rejecting the diet mentality
Curating your social media feed is only one small part of rejecting the diet mentality. Other steps you can take include ridding yourself of the scales, giving up the calorie counting, and removing any fitness watches that result in you obsessing over your daily steps or calorie burn.
Recognizing the ineffectiveness and harms of dieting, as well as how they interfere with your life will also be a huge help in moving forward and improving your relationship with food. Check out my other blog post on the disadvantages of dieting to get started.
3. Eat in response to your body cues
Rather than following a set of food rules, start eating in response to your body cues. This may look like eating when you’re hungry and stopping when you're comfortably full. Yes, I know this is a lot easier said than done.
If you have been dieting for a long time you have also likely been ignoring your hunger cues to the point that your hunger cues are now blunted and you only notice hunger when you're ravenously hungry (which by the way is often what drives the overeating).
If this is the case for you, I suggest implementing a regular eating schedule of multiple meals and snacks throughout the day.
If you still find yourself constantly overeating, go ahead and download my free guide on 4 steps to overcome overeating.
Seek out support
Improving your relationship with food can be a lonely and difficult process without the correct support and resources. There are a lot of nuances to this, as well as a LOT of misinformation out there as to what or how you should be eating.
If your relationship with food needs work you may benefit from seeing a Registered Dietitian or Therapist that specializes in eating disorders, disordered eating or intuitive eating.
What does it look like to have a healthy relationship with food?
Having a healthy relationship with food means having complete food freedom in which you’re free of restriction, food rules and food guilt.
It looks like being able to recognize, trust and respond to your body cues, allowing all foods to have a place in your diet and eating types and amounts of food that feel good to your body.
Your relationship with food matters
By now you should recognize whether or not you have an unhealthy relationship with food. The more signs (as mentioned above) that you resonate with, the more work you’ll likely have to do to improve it. But don't get discouraged, start slow and take it day by day.
Even the littlest of mindset shifts can make a world of difference. Remember your relationship with food is important. Food is a huge part of our lives and having a poor relationship with food can negatively impact your life in ways you’ve likely never even recognized.
Don’t wait to start working on your relationship with food and don’t forget to seek out the advice of a professional to guide you along your journey.