Food is a necessary part of life.
We literally cannot live without it. But for many of us, our relationship with food is complicated and tied to our emotions. This can be due to how food was treated when we were children, watching our parents or family’s relationships with food, social norms, or emotional eating habits that we’ve built up over the years. So, how do you know if you have a healthy relationship with food?
A healthy relationship looks like you sitting down and enjoying your meals. Rather than making you feel guilty, food makes you feel alive and nourished. It means understanding when you are truly hungry, responding to that hunger, and then stopping when you have had enough. It means recognizing urges for what they are and indulging only when it will be enjoyed and makes sense. It looks like eating to fuel and strengthen our bodies, not out of our emotional centers.
An unhealthy relationship to food looks like the opposite of all of that. Eating leaves you feeling shame, guilt, remorse, or anger. We are disconnected from our physical body and ignore the natural hunger cues and signals that let us know when it’s time to eat and when it’s full. We give in to urges to buffer emotions of stress, loneliness or boredom…only to beat ourselves up over our perceived weakness and lack of discipline. Feel shame. Rinse. Repeat.
Does any of this sound familiar? If you want to move from the unhealthy to the healthy, here are some simple steps that you can take to help rebuild your relationship with food.
How many of us have looked down at an empty plate and thought “I don’t even remember eating that”? When was the last time you sat down to eat without any distractions like your phone or tv, and fully enjoyed a meal? Or a time when you were fully present with your food, really tasted it, and listened to your body as it reached satiety? Do you ever look at your food and feel appreciation for the people who grew it or curiosity about where it came from? Our increasingly frantic lives have us eating in the car or taking lunch at our desks, so it is no wonder we have lost our ability to connect with food. Mindful eating slows you down and increases your self-awareness, so you eat fewer calories and make better choices. Taking the time to embrace the process of eating and savoring each bite can help us hear messages from our body that tell us when we’re full. Studies show people who eat mindfully lose more weight, develop healthier eating habits, and keep the weight off long term. Mindfulness is also a powerful tool to help curb overeating by slowing down eating so our hunger hormones have time to catch up and tell us we are full. It can also help with constant snacking if you have a rule to sit down and be aware of what you’re eating each time. So next time sit down, remove distractions, engage your senses, think about the farm that grew your asparagus, check in with your fullness level and put your fork down from time to time. And practice, practice, practice!
Many of us who have a long history of dieting have an all or nothing mentality when it comes to food. We restrict for as long as we can, white knuckling our way through whatever diet is trending, and then come out the other side and go all out on the sorts of food we’ve been restricting. It might be sweets, salty junk foods, or something else that you’ve labeled off limits and eliminated from your diet. But people that do this often end up eating just as much of the food they’re trying to avoid, ruining their hard work because they are coming from thoughts of scarcity and deprivation, which creates intense feelings and urges for the same foods. Instead, try creating a plan that allows for your favorites. If you know you will have a craving for a certain food, plan ahead for a small amount of it. A few squares of chocolate, a small order of fries, or a small cup of ice cream. This not only helps us build stronger intuitive eating skills by listening to what your body wants (maybe it wants salt or comfort food) but also teaches us about portion control and how to enjoy the foods you love without binging or over-doing it. Notice when you have your joy eat how the kick of the first few bites diminishes over time…how your 10th bite of a Krispy Kreme isn’t nearly as powerful as the 2nd. Turn off autopilot and truly appreciate your favorites, and ditch the thoughts that lead to guilt or shame. Instead of the thinking “Potato chips are off limits” try “potato chips are ok in moderation” and plan to enjoy a serving of your favorite anytime you are offered and would enjoy it. See how differently that feels.
Good VS Bad Foods
Old dieting habits often lead to us labeling our foods as good vs evil. We get into a mindset of extremes where food is either good or bad, healthy or unhealthy, approved or off limits. Labeling our food is unhelpful in developing a healthy eating routine and doesn’t work in the long run. So…what if that slice of cake wasn’t a cheat/indulgence/fattening? What if that slice of cake was just a slice of cake? That’s it. That’s all. Use the model to overcome good vs evil thinking and expose your thoughts to make peace with your food. If you label something as bad you’re probably thinking about this food all the time and it starts to feel even more rewarding. Make a plan to break out of this all or nothing thinking and commit to breaking the cycle. Start to look at food simply as fuel for your body, something to share with loved ones, or delicious flavors rather a dramatic fight between good and evil.
Do you know what you’ve eaten today? Do you have any idea what emotion drove you to eat that ice cream last night? Keeping a journal is a great way to observe and create awareness around what you’re actually eating and when. If you were in my house you would see journals and fancy pens sitting everywhere, by my bedside and my comfy chair, so I can not only track my eating but also to narrate my thoughts and feelings around it to uncover patterns and triggers. Weight loss is next to impossible if you are not aware of what you are eating and why you are eating it. Be the watcher of your mind and observe from a neutral place (NO Judge Judy!) to reflect on what you’re eating and when. Notice what is going on in your environment, any triggers in your day, name the emotion you are feeling, and keep it very real. Think like a scientist who is collecting data so you can uncover habits and recognize them coming next time. I call this the million dollar work because it is where all your insight lives, we simply can’t change what we don’t see. And the simple act of pausing to narrate takes us out of emotional hijacking to a place of calm neutrality. Because let’s face it, none of us are making good choices when we are emotionally hijacked. Narrating helps move your brain from toddler to grown up.