11 Signs of an Unhealthy Relationship With Food—And How To Heal
Trying to develop a healthier relationship with food in 2022? Most everyone can benefit from examining their connection with food—even those who already have a pretty good one.
This is because our relationship with food is complex. In fact, it may be our most complicated relationship at times. The body needs food physiologically for fuel and nourishment—we can’t live without it—but food also plays other roles. It’s part of experiences and memories, and it build connections with others. We also develop emotional attachments with food. So if you want to make lifelong changes to your health and well-being, you’ve got to address all aspects and influences in your food relationship—the physiological, psychological, social, and emotional.
What does it mean to have a “healthy relationship” with food?
A healthy relationship with food has nothing to do with the quality of your diet or the food you’re eating, nor does it relate to calories, vegetable servings, macros, or other nutrients. Rather, it refers to becoming more aware of those learned behaviors, perceptions, emotions, and mindsets that we all have, as well as identifying the ones that aren’t benefiting us in a positive way and slowly working to improve them.
What does a healthy food relationship look like? This is one case where I think it’s better to share what it doesn’t look like.
Signs you may have an unhealthy relationship with food:
- You feel shame or guilt when you eat certain foods or eat more than you feel you should.
- Certain foods are “off-limits.”
- You tend to overeat without realizing it.
- You find yourself eating when you’re not hungry.
- You find yourself eating in response to emotions like disappointment, anger, stress, nervousness, or excitement.
- Calories or macros determine your food choices or how “good” you diet is each day.
- You’ve tried numerous diets without success.
- Food choices determine the quality or success of your day.
- Daily food choices are considered a reflection of who you are.
- You avoid eating around others.
- You have anxiety or stress before events where food will be served.
5 ways to develop a healthier relationship with food
While there’s nothing I love more than a guide or step-by-step outline for how to do something, there’s no manual for improving your relationship with food—partly because it looks completely different for each person. This is a gradual and slow process, but once you get started, I think you’ll find your relationship evolving.
Here are some tips and approaches that I’ve found helpful while working on my own relationship with food. Yes, even dietitians have work to do!
1.) Learn to listen to your body.
If you listen, the body will tell you when to eat or not eat. We start out being great at this as babies by crying when we sense hunger signals. But as we get older, schedules and societal norms (like eating three meals a day or at certain times or feeling like you need to “clean our plate”) make it easy to lose touch with your body. And distractions like being on phones or laptops when eating can also tune out those signals. To get back in touch, begin to assess what your body is feeling when you sit down to a meal, have a craving, or fix a snack. What it’s telling you may not be aligning with what you’re doing.
2.) Stop labeling foods as “good” or “bad.”
Labeling foods as “good” or “bad” gives them power over us and causes us to judge ourselves when we eat the so-called "bad" foods. Plus, it’s human nature to want something you don’t think you can have, and that leads to cravings. When we use these labels, eating certain less healthy foods can also make you feel shame or guilt, like you’ve done something bad. Here’s the bottom line: Yes, quality varies greatly among food choices, but all foods can be part of a healthy diet.
3.) Prepare for stress.
Being mindful when choosing foods and eating requires effort, but it’s something that most can gradually train themselves to do. However, this can be significantly harder or even feel impossible when life gets stressful. Try to be cognizant of the effect that stress has on eating and food choices and plan ahead for those times to help guide food choices (like menu plans or a list of healthier takeout options). Also, make self-care, particularly sleep, a priority. A lack of sleep makes it harder to make healthy choices and listen to the body.
4.) Enjoy your food and plan meals.
Plan meals that include foods you like and include recipes you’re excited to try. Then, sit down, distraction-free, when you eat them and try to fully enjoy the tastes, flavors, colors, and textures. Having a plan for what you’re going to eat is particularly important for busy weeks or any time you might have too many distractions to listen to your body well, and the Cooking Light Diet is a great resource for new recipes and to personalized menus tailored to your health and wellness goals.
5.) Don’t punish yourself for foods you ate.
Did you overeat or indulge in something less than healthy? Many feel they need to then make reparations by significantly cutting back on food or calories, restricting certain foods, or exercising more. Not only is this unhealthy, it’s unnecessary. If you’re prone to feeling like this, try focusing on your diet from a week-long perspective (rather than a 24-hour period). Examining my overall food intake this way helps me keep a balanced and healthier perspective when it comes to enjoying a food that’s less healthy, as well as not getting all my daily vegetables in.
Carolyn Williams, PhD, RD, a culinary nutrition expert known for ability to simplify food and nutrition information and the author of two cookbooks, Meals That Heal: 100+ Everyday Anti-Inflammatory Recipes in 30 Minutes or Less and One-Pot Meals That Heal (June 2022). She is also co-host of the Happy Eating podcast which explores the influence that diet and lifestyle have on mental wellness. You can follow her on Instagram @realfoodreallife_rd or on carolynwilliamsrd.com.