How to build a healthy relationship with food

Here's how to bring some more self-compassion into your diet.

Eating is one of our most basic needs: we do it several times a day, every day, from the day we are born to the day we die.

Yet for many of us, food is far from simple. Eating, which should be a pursuit of pleasure, cultural expression and, fundamentally, survival, is so often bound up with feelings of shame and anxiety. Am I eating the right things? Am I eating too much? Too little? Too processed? Too much carb? Too much fat? And so on.

Of course, eating well is important. Research consistently correlates a healthy diet with positive mental and physical health outcomes, with more recent research suggesting a strong link between the gut and the brain.

Yet, for many of us, a growing obsession with healthy eating is anything but healthy. Health encompasses mental, as well as physical health, and in a world where eating disorders are rising rapidly, the way you relate to the food you eat may be as important as what you’re actually consuming.

Breakfast food

What does it mean to have a healthy relationship with food?

Having a healthy relationship with food doesn’t mean eating ‘clean’. It’s less about the nutritional content of what you’re putting into your body, and more about the way it makes you feel.

Having a healthy relationship with food means eating mindfully and with a generous helping of self-compassion. It means listening to and honouring your body's needs and desires.

If you’re eating a super ‘healthy’ diet, but spend hours obsessing over what you should have for dinner, feel anxious at the prospect of eating out at a restaurant or find yourself using food as a way to manage or numb your emotions - that isn’t going to do much good for your mental health.

Having a healthy relationship with food means eating mindfully and with a generous helping of self-compassion. It means listening to and honouring your body’s needs and desires, rather than external rules or numbers. It means eating in a way that feels balanced and flexible, and understanding that what you eat does not determine your value as a person.

You might want to work on your relationship with food if...

  • Your self-worth is closely tied to the food you eat (i.e. you feel like if you eat “bad” food you’re a bad person).
  • You have strict rules around food that interfere with your social life or daily functioning.
  • Food brings up strong emotions for you, like feeling anxious before eating or sad/guilty after eating.
  • You use food to numb or manage your emotions.
  • You eat compulsively or restrictively (i.e. you engage in binge eating or purging behaviours, or are very restrictive about the amount or kind of foods you eat).

If you’d like to work on your relationship with food, here are some suggestions of where to start.

Five ways to improve your relationship with food

1. Listen to your body

In a world of distractions, so many of us are out of touch with our bodies. Practice tuning into your natural hunger and fullness cues, eating when you first identify the physical sensation of hunger and pausing when you feel satisfied. If you’ve spent many years ignoring or overriding these signals, be patient: it may take time to rebuild that connection and trust with your body. Laura Thomas’ work on intuitive eating is a great resource for this. 

2. Practice mindful eating

When we eat on autopilot or while distracted, we lose touch with the physical experience of eating. Skip the TV dinner and focus on the tastes and textures of your meal, expressing gratitude for the food in front of you and paying attention to your satisfaction and fullness signals.

3. Identify emotional eating

If you regularly use food as a way of managing or numbing feelings in a way that feels compulsive or out of control, you may be experiencing emotional eating. Once you have identified that this is an issue for you, you can begin to develop more helpful tools for managing your emotions and seek professional support if necessary.

4. Escape the binge-restrict cycle

Eating very restrictively (i.e. eating less calories than we need or restricting entire food groups from our diet) isn’t good for our bodies, and isn’t sustainable. Under-eating is also closely tied to over-eating: the more we deny ourselves something, the more we want it. By granting yourself permission to eat all foods in moderation (including those you label as ‘bad’), you will be less likely to feel out of control around certain foods in future.

5. Ditch the numbers

Understanding the nutritional value of foods can be a helpful tool to encourage healthy eating. However, when overly relied upon, habits like calorie counting, macro counting or tracking your intake in apps like MyFitnessPal can very quickly become obsessive, stripping the joy out of food and further removing us from our bodies’ natural hunger and fullness signals.

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