4 Steps to Break An Unhealthy Relationship With Food

International Food Information Council
by International Food Information Council
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4 Steps to Break An Unhealthy Relationship With Food

By Liz Sanders, MPH, RDN

My first rule of any international trip: Try as many local dishes as possible. A few years ago, I visited Spain with some friends. We were searching for a lunch spot in Madrid when one of those friends — let’s call her Mary — said she didn’t want to eat any Spanish food and went off to have peanut butter for lunch instead. Mary wasn’t interested in any of the delicious food surrounding us. (Picture Iberian ham, olives and homemade breads.) She didn’t have any dietary restrictions, but she opted to eat only foods that fell under her narrow definition of “healthy.” Mary’s desire to eat “a perfect diet” outweighed her enjoyment of food, and she felt the need to micromanage every meal, even on vacation. To me, this is a perfect example of an unhealthy relationship with food.

An unhealthy relationship with food can be more subtle than Mary’s. What begins as an innocent, well-meaning intention to eat healthfully can get out of hand, leading to shame and guilt when we break our self-imposed rules. Sometimes, our relationships with food need a little mending. How? Trust, the key to any good relationship. Here are four steps to help you trust yourself enough to enjoy food, rather than micromanage it.

1. End the shame game.
Ever shamed yourself after eating the “wrong” thing? This shame game is a telltale sign that your relationship with food is on the rocks. It’s OK to feel a little guilty after breaking
one of your own (spoken or unspoken) rules about what and how much to eat. When you have strict rules about which foods are off-limits, you find yourself not only breaking the rules but feeling terrible about yourself when you do. Luckily, strict food rules are meant to be broken.

The challenge: avoid labeling any foods as “off-limits.” For most people, labeling certain foods as “bad” only creates unnecessary shame and anxiety. Instead of focusing on what you feel you shouldn’t eat, focus on what you can eat, which is virtually every food. When you balance the number of calories you eat daily with the right amount of physical activity, you don’t need to sweat a small treat here and a there. A balanced, personalized approach to eating helps you get the nutrients you need while keeping splurges in check.

Mindful eating can be a great tool to bring enjoyment back to the dinner table. Slowing down your eating experience helps you savor food and pay more attention to your body’s natural hunger and fullness cues. By savoring your food more, you may actually eat less.

2. Treat yo-self (well).
Notice the situations that cause to you to overeat. No need to shame or judge yourself, just pay attention to how you are feeling when you are tempted to stray from your normal healthy behaviors. Chances are, your emotional or physiological state has a lot to do with it. Many of us are more likely to overeat when we are stressed, tired or just really, really hungry. Treating yourself well can go a long way toward preventing triggers for overeating. For example, recent research suggests that we are more likely to overeat when we don’t get enough sleep. With ample sleep, regular exercise and a reliable eating schedule, you can limit overeating due to stress or fatigue and prevent the “shame game” before it starts.

3. Set yourself up to succeed.
Would you be able to run a sub-four-hour marathon tomorrow? For most of us (myself included), the answer is “no. Setting unrealistic goals is a surefire way to end up feeling defeated. When our diet or nutrition goals are too hard to meet, we can damage our self-confidence and stop trusting ourselves around food. Luckily, there are strategies for setting better goals. Try setting “SMART” goals. SMART stands for: specific, measurable, achievable, relevant and timely. These questions can help you figure out whether your goal is one you can (and will) achieve:

  • Specific: Is your goal clear enough that you know what behaviors you need to change in order to reach it?
  • Measurable: How will you know when the change has been accomplished?
  • Achievable: Can it be done, and is it possible to reach this goal in a reasonable timeframe?
  • Relevant: Is this goal related to the area(s) of your life that you’d like to improve?
  • Timely: Is there a deadline?

4. Know when to ask for help.
Most of the time, a slightly rocky relationship with food is no cause for alarm. However, you can always seek help if your stress around food is getting out of hand. If you think you or someone you know may be suffering from an eating disorder, please seek help. The National Eating Disorders Association is a great place to start.

It’s not unusual for your relationship with food to have a status of “it’s complicated.” But with the strategies above and a little patience, you and food can get your relationship back on track.

About the Author

International Food Information Council
International Food Information Council

IFIC Foundation is dedicated to the mission of effectively communicating science-based information on health, nutrition and food safety for the public good. We bring together, work with, and provide information to consumers, health and nutrition professionals, educators, government officials, and food, beverage, and agricultural industry professionals. We have previously established partnerships with a wide range of credible professional organizations, government agencies, and academic institutions to advance the public understanding of key health and wellness issues.


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