What is a Healthy Relationship With Food

It is kind of weird to think of having a relationship with food. When I think of a relationship I often think of my connections with other people. My husband, my friends, my coworkers, my boss, or my family, etc. I don’t often think of my relationship with food. The truth is, whether we like it or not, we all have a relationship with food. The difference between a relationship with food and a relationship with people is that the food relationship is very one sided. The food we eat does not have emotions, opinions, or the ability to speak. Often I hear clients tell me that the cookies were “calling out to me from the cupboard” until the client finally opened the cupboard and ate the entire box. Obviously the cookies were not calling out from the cupboard because cookies can’t talk, but that is how many of my clients describe it. They know the cookies are there and they can’t stop thinking about them. The client may try to resist, but because willpower is limited, they finally give in.

Obviously, this is not the case for everyone I work with. Some people can have an entire box of girl scout cookies sitting in their cupboard for months and others devour the entire box within a day or two. If cookies are not a problem for you, maybe it is something salty and crunchy like chips. This is often referred to as a “trigger food” because once you have a little bit it is almost impossible to stop. For some people a certain type of food can sit for a week in their cupboard, fridge, or freezer, but when life gets stressful or sad or even happy, they reach for the food.

I do not think there is anything wrong or bad about chips or cookies, in moderation. I have worked with clients that swear that cookies and chips, or any kind of junk food, is evil. These are the people with a black and white mindset about food. Either the food is good or bad. I have had encounters with people who gasp when they see me eating a cookie (or any food they consider a “bad” food) and say “I did not know dietitians ate cookies! Cookies are full of sugar and fat!” This does not happen often, thank goodness, but it has happened to me and it is upsetting. The one rule I have is to never judge a person’s diet by just one meal. Thinking you know all about someone’s diet based on one meal or one food is like basing their IQ from the color of their hair. It is completely arbitrary. When I sit down with clients I look at several days worth of meals and sometimes even weeks worth of dietary habits and even then I refrain from making judgments about their diet. My job is to help them, not to judge them!

It is the black and white thinking that can be dangerous. I know people that will have this thinking when they start a diet (having lists of good foods and bad foods) and as soon as they consume a food they consider “bad or evil” things spiral out of control. They eat the food, have guilt, beat themselves up over it, and then give in to the food entirely and eat an entire box (or container or bag, etc).

Often clients tell me that they are failures because they could not stick to a certain “deprivation” diet. Usually they have tried several deprivation diets or fad diets before they finally come to me. They lose and gain the weight like a yo-yo, up and down and up and down and then back up again. They follow a very restrictive diet and as soon as they come off the diet and start eating like they were before, they regain all the weight. The definition of insanity is doing the same thing over and over again and expecting a different result! Obviously something is not working. Over time this sort of dieting can cause a very rocky relationship with food. Food is no longer something to be enjoyed or eaten for nourishment and becomes all about calories.

I work with many athletes and active people. For many athletes food is a source of fuel before a workout and nourishment after a workout. I have to admit that one of the great things about being an athlete is being able to eat more as long as I am fueling to support my training. It becomes concerning when I talk with athletes or fitness enthusiasts that seem to only be exercising or training to burn calories so that they can eat whatever they want or make up for eating too much the day before. They run longer on recovery days to burn more calories in order to eat more or do an extra gym session after a hard workout to burn more energy. Instead of focusing on fueling for exercise and to support training they are using exercise as an excuse to eat more. In some cases I see this with active people that want to lose weight. Instead of eating more they eat less and exercise more to lose more weight. The athlete no longer views food as fuel to support exercise or to nourish their body.

I think most of us have had negative thoughts about food or guilt after eating a certain food or meal. I know I have. Just like most relationships in life, our relationship with food may not always be perfect. If you were struggling in your relationship with your husband or boyfriend, would you seek help or find a way to work it out? Sometimes relationships can be difficult and it is the same with our relationship with food. The thing about the food relationship is that you are in control, even if it does not always feel that way.

If you want to have a healthy relationship with food it is important to start learning to trust your body and learn to listen. Most healthy relationships are built on a foundation of trust. Our bodies have internal cues or sensors that tell us when to stop eating, but sometimes we don’t listen or don’t trust our body’s internal cues. The best way to learn to trust internal cues is to turn off all distraction while eating so that you can really listen to what your body is telling you. Pay attention to the taste, the smell, and how that food make you feel. Listen really hard because your body will tell you when you have had enough.

I am sure most of us have heard the phrase “everything in moderation.” Unless you have a food allergy or severe aversion to a certain food, this phrase can be useful. The idea that there are good and bad foods is intrinsically wrong. Remember, killing someone is bad or evil, eating a cookie is not. One cookie, or even one Twinkie for that matter, will not kill you. Think of eating as a chance for nourishment and remember that food is also meant to be enjoyed.

Eating a cookie to soothe an emotion can be tempting. For a brief moment that cookie may help you feel better, but generally that moment is fleeting. Then after eating that cookie (or several) another emotion may set in- guilt. Instead of grabbing food to soothe emotions try to go for a walk, take a bath, call a friend, or listen to music. Anything that will take your mind off what is causing your emotion and to take your mind away from food.

Sometimes it might be appropriate to think of certain foods as that friend that you enjoy being around occasionally, but not every day and certainly not living with you. This might be a good case to keep certain foods out of the home. If have trouble eating ice cream or chips in moderation, then only eat them outside of the home. When you feel like ice cream make a special trip to the ice cream shop and get a small serving. If you feel like eating chips, go to the store and buy a single serving bag of chips. Not having the food in your home does not mean you will never eat that food, it just means you have to make more of an effort to eat it. This may help you eat less and cause you to pause and ask yourself “do I really want this food?”

Feeling the need to make up for overeating can also lead to a troubled relationship with food. Many people think of purging and they think of bulimia. Is purging by exercising to burn off the calories from a meal that different? I would argue it is not. Ask yourself when you go out for a run or to the gym, why am I working out? If it is because you love the way it makes you feel, the energy you get, because you want to be faster or stronger, or because it helps you with stress then great! If you are exercising because you ate too much for dinner the night before and you feel the need to burn the excess calories, it is time to stop and reassess.

So, you ask, what does a healthy relationship with food look like? A healthy relationship with food is to appreciate food for the nourishment it provides, but to also keep things in perspective and balanced. Being too strict, dogmatic, or restrictive with food can lead to unhealthy thoughts and behaviors around food. One major red flag is missing certain normal social engagements because you are avoiding food or needing to exercise to maintain a certain lifestyle or diet. Another thing to ask yourself is how much are you thinking about food and meal preparation? It is good to plan ahead and think about what foods you are going to be eating for meals. It becomes concerning when I talk to people who are consumed by thoughts of food and eating and worrying about what they are going to eat or the calories in a meal. This is when the relationship with food becomes abusive. I have heard the relationship advice before to cut off any relationships that are negative in our life or bring us down and hold on to the ones that are positive and make us a better person. The same can be said for our diet.