Healthy weight loss starts with eating well. But if you’re struggling with body image or desperate to get over a weight-loss plateau, it can be easy to veer into not-so-healthy territory with eating habits. The signs you’ve got an unhealthy relationship with food aren’t always easy to spot, says Marjorie Nolan Cohn, RD, owner of MNC Nutrition in Philadelphia, Pennsylvania. But once you identify them, you’re even closer to pursuing your weight-loss goals in a healthy and sustainable way.
Here, four signs your relationship with food might need a little TLC:
YOU CAN’T KEEP YOUR EYES ON YOUR OWN PLATE
To an extent, it’s normal to take note of what others are eating — as a social being you naturally turn to those around you to see how you’re measuring up, says Katie Rickel, PhD, a clinical psychologist and CEO of Structure House, a residential weight-management facility in Durham, North Carolina. But plate envy isn’t the best for your relationship with food and could signal you’re looking elsewhere for insight into what you should be eating. “Since everyone has different needs, circumstances and eating rhythms, looking at another person’s plate at a single meal often provides useless insight and can lead us to question our own decisions needlessly,” she explains. By looking at one meal you don’t know what the rest of someone’s day looked like nutritionally or activity-wise.
The fix: Order first. “This helps ensure you are making the choices that are based on your needs and desires and less on what other people have chosen to order,” says Rickel.
YOU LABEL YOURSELF AS ‘GOOD’ OR ‘BAD’ BASED ON YOUR EATING HABITS
It’s easy to view foods as ‘good’ or ‘bad’ since we see it happening in society daily. For example, labels on traditional ‘diet’ foods often include words such as ‘smart’ and ‘guilt-less,’ while more calorically-dense options are seen as ‘cheat meal-worthy,’ notes Rickel. However, foods aren’t inherently ‘good’ or ‘bad’ (some simply just have more calories, more sugar or different ingredients than others). When you start to measure your value as a person based on the kinds of foods you ingest, it’s easy for self-worth to tank, says Rickel.
The fix: Next time you overdo it, find some positives: how thoughtful you are to your roommates or how helpful you were to a coworker in a predicament. You’ll start to see food choices don’t go hand in hand with self-worth, helping the connection fade away, she says.
Then, remind yourself that all foods are merely a collection of ingredients, bonded together via chemistry and physics, she suggests. Identify the foods that leave you feeling nourished, energized and healthy and work them into your diet more consistently.
YOU TAKE LIMITS TO THE EXTREME
It’s one thing to give up sweets because your doctor or nutritionist advises you to in order to prevent diabetes, says Cohn. It’s another to limit your intake of calories to such an extreme that you’re negatively impacting your life (as in hunger bells are ringing 24/7 signaling under-nourishment, adds Rickel). This kind of restriction (and having it negatively impact your life) can be a sign of disordered eating, says the Academy of Nutrition and Dietetics.
The fix: Don’t focus on restrictions, which often backfire. Instead, place an emphasis on overall wellness with a balanced weight-loss plan that covers all three macronutrients (carbs, protein and fat) with enough calories for your body size and activity level. Keep track of what you’re taking in and consult with a registered dietitian if you need help.
IT’S DISRUPTING YOUR LIFE
Miss out on your best friend’s birthday because you’re afraid of the chocolate cake you know will be there? Did forgetting to log a single snack send you into a total spiral? When your eating habits (or avoidance of food altogether) prevent you from enjoying your day-to-day life, it’s a sign of disordered eating, says Cohn.
The fix: Seek help. If you’re struggling to the point of not being able to change your behaviors in relation to food, a registered dietitian and licensed therapist who are specially-trained in disordered eating treatment can conduct a full assessment and help you with a treatment plan so you can properly rehab your relationship with food, Cohn says.