Four Ways to Tell If Your Relationship with Food is Broken (And How to Fix It)
Having a healthy relationship with food and eating is important, but it’s not as easy as it sounds. We’re inundated from a young age with the messaging that food is something to be feared, restricted, and weaponized into ‘good’ and ‘bad.’ And the more years you spend on diet, trying to make your body into something it’s not, the more you harm your relationship with food.
I’ve had countless people tell me that all the messaging from all the diets they’ve seen and been on is jumbled in their head, affecting how they feel about food and the choices they make around it every single day.
A healthy relationship with food means that you can make food choices based on what you want, and what nourishes you physically and emotionally. Those choices aren’t ever based on fear, which you’re about to see plays a huge role in a broken relationship with food and eating.
A healthy relationship with food also means that you can enjoy what you eat without guilt, shame, or anxiety. Those reactions disrupt the decisions we make, and the experience of eating, and make us feel like crap. No bueno.
Here’s how to tell if your relationship with food may be broken:
Your life fits your diet, not the other way around. You find yourself obsessing about what you’re going to eat, what you’re eating, or what you’ve eaten.
Everything you do is predicated on your food situation (Those of you who have food allergies do this because you have to..this isn’t about you).
From declining dinner invitations because you think you might eat too much, to bringing your own food to events, to getting up super early on vacation to exercise off those extra calories, you’ve molded your life around your diet.
You feel major anxiety about eating anywhere outside your home, because you might go ‘off plan.’ And when you do end up eating something you think is wrong, you just can’t let it go. Your mind goes into planning mode about what you’re going to do to make up for the ‘transgression.’
This behavior is often about the fear of food and the fear that you might lose control and somehow gain weight.
Think about it. Fear drives all of these scenarios. And it’s so stressful. Wouldn’t you love to just relax and not have to make food into the primary consideration for everything?
To get rid of the fear, you need to figure out where it’s coming from. This may mean speaking to a counsellor, especially if this reaction to eating is paralyzing or disruptive to your life.
My book, Good Food, Bad Diet (I swear that not all of my posts are going to mention my book..promise) teaches you how to figure all of this out and neutralize it.
To start, you’ll want to ask yourself some tough questions.
Start with ‘why.’
Ask yourself why you feel the way you do. So, if you’re afraid to go out with your friends because you might overeat, ask yourself why.
Maybe the answer will be, ‘because I don’t want to gain weight.’
Why? What do you think is going to happen? Has this happened in the past?
Where did this fear come from? Is this from you, or is it someone else’s that they’ve transferred onto you?
Do you think that this reaction is rational? How much weight are you going to gain from one meal?
What are you losing by thinking in this way? What’s it costing you, emotionally? Physically?
What could you be doing with the energy and time you’re expending on this fear?
Lots of questions.
It’s a process, and it can be very hard. But so worth it.
Again, a qualified counsellor can help you work through all of this if you feel really stuck.
You think in terms of numbers, not food.
You’re an expert counter in macros, calories, servings, grams, and whatever else. You sometimes choose lower-quality food over more nourishing choices because it has fewer calories. Your food choices rely on external factors rather than your own feelings, and doing this causes distrust and a disconnect between us and our bodies.
Sure, some of you like to count things, but when that’s the only thing that you’re concerned about, you’re taking the experience of eating down to something very one-dimensional.
I understand that not everyone loves food the way I do, but denying yourself the emotional, social, and sensory aspects of eating because you’re so deep into hacking the numbers, and because you don’t trust your body to tell you what it wants and needs, is not okay.
The issue with number goals is that they’re frequently arbitrary, meaning that you can’t be sure that they’re actually accurate. And counting every single thing is crazy-making. Why the fuck would you want to do that for the rest of your life? For what…5 extra pounds?
Not worth it. Nope.
A better, gentler approach is really taking note of your hunger and fullness cues, what you feel like eating at the time, and how food – and the experience of eating – makes you feel.
This too is a process – learning to trust your body, not automatically assigning a number to everything we put into our mouth – but as time passes, you’ll see that nothing bad is going to happen if you put down the calorie tracker and just eat.
You have an internal tug of war going on about which foods are ‘bad’ and ‘good,’ and you berate yourself or praise yourself – and other people – according to what you (or they) consume on any given day.
The judgement is real. Sometimes it’s hard for you to eat at all, because you’re so conflicted about the ‘bad’ food you crave and the ‘good’ food you think you should be eating. And let’s not even get started about how you feel about yourself if you indulge in something you believe you should avoid…or the secret judgement you have for other people whose diets are full of those foods.
You know what? Your judgement of them and of yourself speaks volumes about how you feel about yourself (if you were happy about your diet and your body, you wouldn’t care what other people were eating, am I right?)
Again, it all comes down to fear.
Fear that you’re a bad person if you eat ‘bad’ food. Fear that you’ll lose control like that person whose diet you’re judging. Fear that if you don’t ‘eat clean,’ something scary is going to happen.
Yeah, probably not.
And the ‘shoulds’…don’t even get me started. I should eat this. I should weigh this. STOP!!
I tell people to beware of the ‘shoulds,’ because no good has ever come from them. They’re rules we set for ourselves that are often based on outside influences and ideas that may not be realistic at all.
First off, stop worrying about what other people are eating. And while we’re at it, let’s also stop talking about food all. the. time. with our friends. Those boring ‘confessionals’ where we recount ALL of the ice cream we ate last night or how fat we feel for eating those fries, just perpetuate this warped thinking about food. Also: they’re so boring. We’re better than that, right?
Stop thinking of food as ‘good’ or ‘bad,’ because there are no good or bad foods. It’s all just food, and a healthy diet has all foods in it. Tomatoes, Oreos, bread, burgers, fruit.
A healthy diet isn’t only about what we eat, but how we feel about food and eating.
Also: you are not your diet.
You try to ‘erase’ or ‘correct’ what you’ve eaten day to day with exercise or dieting.
Someone asked me the other day if I was going swimming to ‘burn off’ the cookie they saw me eat at lunch.
I’m going to dive right into this by saying that this isn’t how your body works. You can’t just ‘burn off’ what you eat by exercising, and trying to achieve that is a fool’s game. It also destroys your relationship with food to see what you eat as something that should be ‘erased’ of by relentless activity.
You end up overexercising, which leads to hunger and likely overeating. You also end up stressing your body out and causing elevated cortisol, which again can lead to overeating and fat storage. And perhaps most importantly, you become a slave to what amounts to a guess – because you don’t actually know how many calories you need, and how many calories you ate, and how many calories your body actually absorbed.
Also: the number of calories we can realistically burn with exercise is not all that high.
This entire mindset is oppressive AF.
The solution? Forget about it.
Food isn’t harmful, and it doesn’t need to be ‘burned off.’ It nourishes us.
Occasional overeating is completely normal, and will not cause some massive weight gain. Trying to correct it often ends up being an overcorrection that comes with complications, both physical and emotional.
If you think you’ve overeaten, get over it and move on. And if it happens often as a coping mechanism, it’s time to get more coping tools in your toolbox.