How To Have A Healthy Relationship With Food
WE LIVE IN DIET CULTURE. We’re taught that we cannot trust our bodies to tell us what to eat, when to eat and how much to eat. We’re bombarded with rules constantly, such as “don’t eat sugar”, “go low - carb”, “avoid fat”, “stop eating gluten”, “don’t eat after 6 pm”, “eat only raw food” and so on. As a result, many people jump from one diet to another, in the hope that the next diet will solve all their problems and lead to excellent health. As each diet fails, in fact, it’s proven that 95 % of them do (1), it’s not uncommon for people to be left with a difficult relationship with food, stressing and over-analyzing each meal before allowing themselves to eat.
Don’t worry. Believe it or not, you can be trusted around food and you don’t have to follow any crazy fasting, carb cutting or juice detox regime to be healthy. Screw rules.
If you feel crazy around food and don’t know how to eat - keep reading. Below are 4 steps which will help you to start having a healthier relationship with food. They are designed to guide you towards eating more intuitively so that you can become the expert of your own body. Power to you!
1. Distinguish between emotional and physical hunger
Emotional eating has gotten a bad rap. We see articles all over the place about how to stop emotional eating. But know this:
Emotional eating is not bad.
We all do it and we've been conditioned to do it since a very young age. We celebrate with food (e.g. birthdays), we soothe pain with food (e.g. digging into a tub of ice cream after a break up) and we enjoy other people’s company around food (e.g. going out for dinner with friends). Many also eat when they’re bored, frustrated, angry, stressed, anxious and so on. It’s normal. However, if eating is the only way we deal with our emotions - that’s when it can become problematic.
Learn from emotional eating. It may be telling you that something in your life right now is not 100% right, and you might need to do something about it (apart from eating). Occasional emotional eating should be fully acceptable. However, if it’s a burden in your life and you want to improve how you deal with your emotions, then have a look at this infographic below:
When you notice that you’re physically full, but you want to eat because you’re, for example, bored or sad, refer to this handout when you need to. It can also help to write down a list of some activities you like, which you can do when you notice you want to eat for emotional reasons. This doesn’t have to be anything extraordinary. It can be simple things, such as calling a friend, writing in your journal or going for a walk. Also, remember to be incredibly kind to yourself. We are emotional beings and by nature, we like to feel good. Food makes us feel good, so you're not a weak person for turning to food to improve your mood. Your brain is simply clever and wants a quick solution. But, as shown in the infographic, there are other ways to dealing with our emotions, which you can gently start to practice, coupled with massive self-compassion.
2. Follow your hunger and fullness cues
I know, I know. This is so much easier to say than to do. Many people who diet tend to cycle between starving themselves and binging on food, completely ignoring their appetite cues. The bingeing most often occurs because dieting in the form of restriction is a predictor for bingeing (3). When you suppress your hunger, it can be hard to know when you're full (once you do eat), and when to stop eating. The diet-binge cycle a very unpleasant cycle to be in and it needs to be broken. One way to start getting out of it is by honouring your hunger.
You should not suppress your hunger!
Hunger is a biological cue telling you to EAT. Eating when you’re hungry, reduces the chances of overeating and binging. As you learn to distinguish between emotional and physical hunger, it will also become easier to trust your body to tell you when to eat. When you do eat, eat mindfully, enjoy your food and eat until you're comfortably full. If you have a hard time stopping when you're full - refer to the chart in step 1 again.
3. Test eating more plant foods
It’s well established that a plant-based diet has lots of wonderful health benefits in terms of protecting against heart diseases, type 2 diabetes and many other diseases (2). If you choose to eat a wide variety of colourful (and tasty) fruits and vegetables, whole grains, legumes (beans, peas, chickpeas and lentils) and nuts and seeds, you can be reassured you're giving your body loads of vitamins, minerals, health-protective antioxidants and phytochemicals. In addition, if you follow step 2, you may also find that you simply FEEL better eating mostly plant-based meals. Examine how you have felt in the past after eating, for example, a bowl of vegetable curry with rice, compared to an oversized steak or however many sausages you would need to feel full. Plant foods are more likely to make you feel pleasantly full, rather than making you feel like you have a ton of bricks in your stomach. Does this mean you have to eat salad leaves all day or follow this step as another rule? Heck no! This is a guideline only. At the end of the day, everyone is different and has different preferences and you need to eat what makes YOU feel good. Experiment and see which foods leave you feeling the best. Which leads to step 4.
4. Enjoy delicious foods
Make sure the food you choose to eat also taste frikkin good. It’s pleasurable to eat delicious food and for good reason. Food keeps us alive and our brains make lots of happy-hormones when we eat tasty food!
Food is meant to be enjoyed!
By removing the satisfaction factor of food (by having, for example, a dry and boring salad when what you really want is a bowl of pasta) we remove pleasure from life. If you don’t eat foods that you enjoy and want in the moment, you will likely end up dreaming of all those foods which you feel like you’re missing out on. This also increases the chances of bingeing on those foods, as mentioned above, food restriction is a predictor of overeating and binging.
So, choose foods that you like. You might be thinking “but then I’ll end up eating ice cream and brownies all day!” I can reassure you that this will not be the case long term, because if you follow step 1, 2 and 3 - you’ll notice that eating ice cream all day wouldn’t make you feel very good. Also, studies show that individuals who eat intuitively have improved health outcomes and their diet compositions do not suffer as a result of intuitive eating (4).
You may go through an initial celebration period, eating all kinds of foods which you did not allow yourself to eat before. But as you proceed and you learn to follow your intuition, you will eventually naturally gravitate towards foods which make you feel the best. These foods tend to be natural and unprocessed whole foods, which have lots of nutritional benefits, vitamins and minerals which support your wellbeing. Trust that your body will tell you which foods will satisfy your hunger and make you feel better.
Try it out!
So there you go, these are a few of the steps that I use in my Intuitive Eating coaching, which helps clients towards finding peace with food and engage in healthy behaviours. If you want to learn more about how you can stop obsessing about food and diet rules and become truly confident in your body, check out my online coaching program here.
"But... Will I lose weight?"
You might lose weight or you might not. However, this is not a weight loss plan. Some people do lose weight by listening to their bodies and eating intuitively, whilst others don’t. At the end of the day, what’s WAY MORE important than weight loss, is finding a way to eat where you're:
Content - emotionally, physically and mentally.
This will lead you to your natural weight. Considering that dieting ultimately leads to weight gain and mental distress, why not skip the hassle of dieting and learn to trust your body so you never have to diet again?
Remember, implementing these steps in your life takes time and it’s a process! Be kind to yourself as you go through this, there is no right or wrong way. Don't beat yourself up if you feel like you sometimes “failed” to follow these steps. Any bumps you experience along the way are valuable lessons and you can learn from them.
If you liked this article, please share it! If you know anyone who is struggling with dieting and has a difficult relationship with food, they may benefit from reading this. Also, leave a comment with your thoughts below, I would love to hear them!
Eat and be merry,
From the National Eating Disorder Information Center (NEDIC) website, http://nedic.ca/know-facts/frequently-asked-questions (accessed 29/04/18)
Neumark-Sztainer D, Wall M, Guo J, Story M, Haines J, Eisenberg M. Obesity, disordered eating, and eating disorders in a longitudinal study of adolescents: How do dieters fare 5 years later? Journal of the American Dietetic Association. 2006;106:559–568
Bacon, L., Stern, J. S., Van Loan, M. D., & Keim, N. L. (2005). Size acceptance and intuitive eating improve health for obese, female chronic dieters. Journal of the American Dietetic Association, 105(6), 929-936.