Your relationship with food plays a huge role in your health and well-being.
Physiologically, your body needs food for fuel, nourishment and ultimately for sustaining life itself. But food is so much more than a biological necessity.
It’s the cultural linchpin that helps us bond and build connections, share experiences and create memories. Then there’s the emotional component. From bringing comfort, stirring nostalgia and channeling love to serving as a coping mechanism or an outlet for celebration. Food plays a myriad of roles in our lives.
For these reasons and more, paying attention to your connection with food is imperative. « Your relationship with food is arguably one of the most important relationships in your life and should be made a priority, » agrees Maryann Walsh, Florida-based registered dietitian and certified personal trainer.
And like any relationship, it requires constant tending and frequent check-ins. « It’s not always appealing to do the work because it can seem like it will be more tedious and take longer versus just doing a strict diet to shed the pounds quickly, but without establishing a healthy relationship with food the results are often short-lived, » notes Walsh.
At its core, a healthy relationship with food involves relieving yourself of the pressures of trying to eat ‘perfectly’. « It makes eating feel effortless, » says Kimmie Singh, a fat-positive registered dietitian nutritionist based in New York. « It looks like feeling connected to and honoring your needs around hunger, fullness and pleasure, » she adds. Meaning, you eat when you feel physical hunger and are able to stop when you feel comfortably full.
In addition, « it means that you’re able to be flexible and don’t feel guilt or shame around your food choices, » says Kirsten Ackerman, a non-diet registered dietitian and certified intuitive eating counselor.
This means not placing any particular food group « off-limits » or restricting it to only specific « cheat days. » Nor binge eating or feeling bad about occasional indulgences.
For example, if you come across your favorite dessert at a party, you’d be able to enjoy a reasonable portion of it without feeling bad about itâ€”instead of overindulging or suppressing that want out of guilt.
In a nutshell, « someone with a healthy relationship with food feels in control around food, versus feeling like food has control over them, » says Walsh.
Consequently, this allows you to spend all of that energy on doing things that really matter to you and help you connect with your most authentic self, Singh explains.
« When you have a healthy relationship with food, it becomes a powerful tool to fill your cup. On the flip side, a damaged relationship with food can steal all of your time, energy and attentionâ€”robbing you of being fully present in your life, » notes Ackerman.
« Unhealthy relationships with food typically start with restriction, » says Ragen Chastain, ACE-certified health coach, functional fitness specialist and co-author of the HAES Health Sheets. « This can include restrictions around the amount of food, calorie counting, restriction of certain types of food without any medical reason, etc. That restriction then drives disordered eating patterns or food obsession which can then trigger guilt and shame, » explains Chastain.
These feelings of guilt and shame can, in turn, fuel more chaotic behaviors around food. « So not only is the stress of guilt and shame harmful to you physically, but the resulting behaviors around food are often damaging as well, » notes Ackerman.
« The other extreme is seeking comfort in food to a point where it is detrimental to oneâ€™s health, » says Walsh. Think binge-restrict cycles that keep the body and food at war with each other.
Other common signs of an unhealthy relationship with food include constant fixation on what you’re going to eat next, hiding or sneaking foods or using exercise as a means to compensate for what you ate, adds Ackerman.
« Itâ€™s also common for people that are struggling in their relationships with food to have a difficult time experiencing pleasure in eating, » says Singh. You may feel out of control when eating your favorite foods or you may be fixated on how eating certain foods may impact your weight or overall appearance. « Itâ€™s a red flag when someone views eating as a tool to control their appearance. This can turn eating into an all-or-nothing experience where one constantly feels like they’re doing something ‘bad’ or ‘good’, » Singh explains.
« Food is just food. Eating certain foods shouldnâ€™t make someone feel bad about themselves, » adds the nutrition expert.
« I think it starts with realizing that you arenâ€™t the problem, diet culture isâ€”a multi-billion dollar industry that works as hard as it can to create unhealthy relationships between us and food, » says Chastain.
So the decision to extricate yourself from diet culture and disordered eating while figuring out how to relate to food in a healthy way is the most important step, notes the health coach.
Here are other key strategies to achieve a healthier relationship with food, according to diet and nutrition experts:
It’s also imperative to check in with yourself from time to time, says Walsh. If you notice that your struggle with food is becoming overwhelming or affecting other areas of your life, please reach out to a qualified weight-inclusive health and wellness professional at the earliest.