Before you can work toward a good relationship with food, it’s important to pinpoint the signs and symptoms of a bad relationship with food.
A good relationship with food has absolutely nothing to do with the quality of your diet or the types of food you eat, but rather how and why you choose the foods you eat.
When you improve your relationship with food, you’ll notice a lot less stress and worry around eating and more food freedom.
Here are the signs of a bad relationship with food:
You feel guilty about eating.You avoid or restrict foods that are “bad” for you.You have developed a long list of rules surrounding the foods you can and cannot eat.You rely on calorie counters or apps to tell you when you’re done eating for the day.You ignore your body’s natural hunger cues.You have a history of yo-yo dieting or following the latest diet fads.You feel immense stress and anxiety when eating in social settings due to fear of what others may think of your food choices.You find yourself restricting and/or binging food.
You don’t have to experience all of these signs to have a bad relationship with food. Yet, the telltale sign that your relationship with food could be improved is if you feel any type of shame, guilt, stress, or fear regarding the foods you eat.
It’s also important to realize that your relationship with food may be transient. Sometimes you may eat with complete freedom and have no remorse for the foods you eat (this is great), but other times you may feel guilty after eating certain foods (this is not great, but normal).
The goal of a good relationship with food is to have more positive experiences with food than negative ones. Showing patience and kindness toward yourself is paramount.
A bad relationship with food usually involves restricting or overeating foods, regular dieting, and feeling shame or guilt upon eating certain foods.
A good relationship with food is like any other relationship — it takes time, practice, and a lot of patience.
It’s important to understand that your relationship with food goes deeper than fueling your body. Unlike animals that eat solely for survival, humans eat for a variety of reasons, such as joy, pleasure, culture, tradition, socialization, and to fuel their bodies.
When you start to appreciate food as more than just a fuel source, you can begin to see value in it and develop a healthier relationship.
Signs of a good relationship with food include:
You give yourself unconditional permission to eat the foods you enjoy.You listen and respect your body’s natural hunger cues.You eat when you’re hungry and stop when you’re full.No foods are off-limits.You don’t obsess over the number on the scale.You don’t let the opinions of others dictate which foods you eat.You don’t feel the need to justify your food choices.You understand that you’re not defined by the foods you eat.You enjoy all food in moderation.You choose foods that make you feel your best.Calories are not the focus of your food choices.
If you’re looking at this list and thinking, “I’ll never get to this point,” you’re not alone. Many people struggle with the idea of ditching the diet mentality and pushing away years of the diet culture messages they’ve been getting since a young age.
Instead of focusing on checking off every item on the list, try to approach one at a time at a pace that suits you.
A good relationship with food involves welcoming all foods in moderation, eating foods that you enjoy, not allowing food to control your life, and knowing that the foods you eat do not define your value as a person.
It’s one thing to hope for change — and it’s another to actively try to make change happen.
First, remember that you’re your own person. You have your own history with food, your own food preferences, and every right to navigate this journey in a way that suits you.
That said, below are some helpful tips.
1. Give yourself unconditional permission to eat
One sign of a good and healthy relationship with food is allowing yourself unconditional permission to eat.
When you create rules around when you can and can’t eat, you’re setting yourself up for hunger, feelings of deprivation, and fear of food.
Whether you overeat at lunch or have a few extra cookies for dessert, you still deserve to eat when you’re hungry or want to. Your body deserves food no matter the day or situation.
2. Eat when you’re hungry
Every person is born with the natural ability to regulate their hunger. You can see this with children, who can easily tell when they’re hungry or full. Although, as people age, they begin to lose this ability for a number of reasons.
Despite your parents’ best efforts, how often did they tell you to clean your plate? While their intentions were good, this told you as a child to ignore signs that you were full and eat until other stimuli (e.g., a clean plate) told you that you were done (1).
Along with this, diet culture has taught people to rely on an arbitrary number of calories to tell them when they’re done eating for the day instead of eating until they’re satisfied.
Still, the closer you can get back to listening to your natural hunger cues, the better you can regulate your appetite and manage your food intake (1, 2).
3. Practice mindful eating
Mindful eating has become the cornerstone of fixing a bad relationship with food. It involves eating in the moment and being fully present for the eating experience (3).
When you eat mindfully, you’re eating free of other distractions, such as your phone, the TV, a book, etc. Rather, you take time to make gentle observations, such as the taste and texture of the food, how your hunger and fullness cues change, and your enjoyment of the food.
Learning to slow down and savor the food you’re eating can help you learn which foods you genuinely enjoy and also become more in tune with your body’s natural hunger and fullness regulation.
What’s more, it can help you identify the reasons for your food choices. Are you eating because you’re starving and will eat anything in sight? Do you want to eat the food because you think it’ll make you feel better emotionally or physically?
While you eat, try to answer some of these questions:
What flavor and texture am I noticing right now? Do I enjoy it? Am I only eating it because it’s available, or because I really wanted it?Does this food hit the spot? Does it satisfy the craving I’m having?Has this food solved a problem like I may have thought it would?How is this food changing my appetite? Do I notice my hunger going away?How do I emotionally feel while I eat this? Does it bring me joy, guilt, anger?Was I actually hungry? If not, why did I decide to eat (e.g., emotional eating, cravings, boredom)?
Some of these questions might be difficult and hard to address. Writing your thoughts down in a journal may be helpful. The key is to answer these questions without judgment and instead with a curious mind.
Over time, these observations can help you identify the reasons for your food choices and whether other healthy coping mechanisms may be warranted.
If you’re interested in giving mindful eating a try, check out our free 21-day mindful eating challenge.
4. Welcome all foods in your diet
Ascribing a food as “bad” gives it unnecessary power. Indeed, certain foods are more nutritious than others and contribute to improved health. Still, eating a single food isn’t going to miraculously affect your health in any way either.
When you label a food as “bad,” you automatically put it on a pedestal. Usually, people call foods “bad” when they taste good and aren’t very nutritious (e.g., high in sugar, fat, salt). Yet, as soon as you tell yourself you can’t have something, the more you’ll crave and want it.
A research study demonstrated this phenomenon. A group of self-proclaimed restrictive dieters and non-dieters were given a milkshake and then put into private rooms where they could have as many cookies as they wanted (4).
Interestingly, non-dieters were much better at regulating their intake and stopped when they felt satisfied, while the dieters ate significantly more cookies. This was attributed to a process known as “counter-regulation” (4).
Essentially, the dieters felt that since the milkshake already “broke” the rules of their restrictive diet, they might as well overeat the cookies (4).
When you allow all foods into your diet, you’re better able to control your intake, as you know these foods are always available. However, when you restrict foods and believe they’re a rarity, you’re much more likely to overdo it and subsequently enter an endless cycle of guilt.
Contrary to popular belief, it’s quite rare that you’ll always want cookies or cake. When you allow all foods into your diet, you’ll notice that your cravings for certain foods start to diminish (5, 6).
This phenomenon is called habituation. It states the greater exposure you have to a food or flavor, the less interesting and appealing it becomes (6).
So start viewing all foods as equal, with no food being better or worse than another. When you stop viewing foods as “good” or “bad,” you remove the food’s power. Over time, you won’t feel the need to overeat it when it’s around.
5. Mind your plate
Imagine a life in which you don’t have to justify your food choices to yourself or anyone else.
Most people are constantly giving themselves or other people an explanation for their food choices. For example, “I’m eating ice cream because I had a bad day” or “I have to have a salad for dinner because I didn’t have time to exercise.”
Instead of giving a reason for your food choices, allow yourself to eat food that you feel is best for you at that very moment.
Developing a good relationship with food takes time, patience, and kindness toward yourself. Allow yourself to navigate this journey without judgment, and take it day by day.