6 Signs You Have an Unhealthy Relationship With Food (And How to Change it)
You’re out to eat with your friends and can’t help but notice the salads they ordered are much lighter than the dense, creamy pasta dish you selected.
You start mentally tallying the calorie difference and your heart sinks a little. Guilt washes over you, and you think, “I’ll just eat less.”
When the food arrives you eat only a small portion and take the rest home, insisting you’re full.
But… your stomach tells a different story. By the time you get home, you realize you barely paid attention to the fun conversations at dinner… you were just so focused on the food. “Why does it always have to be like this?” You wonder. It feels like food has a hold on you.
If you’ve ever felt this way, it’s time to take a look at your relationship with food.
Hi, I’m Miranda, a Registered Dietitian in Ontario, Canada. My journey started as a Weight Watchers ‘success’ story that led to rapid weight loss, horrible digestion, and a bad relationship with food. Now, I’ve found balance and I’m determined to help women avoid my mistakes.
Letting go of the ‘bad’ feelings attached to food might sound like an impossible task, but I’m telling you firsthand it’s not. Let’s talk about where these negative emotions come from and how to shake them.
What influences your relationship with food?
There are so many potential factors that can influence how you think about food and decide what to eat (and when). These factors aren’t always health!
An unhealthy relationship with food is when you feel ashamed or guilty after:
- Indulging in foods you perceive as “bad”
- Hyper focusing on the next new diet or supplement
- Excessively limiting yourself
- Eating past fullness
It’s downright frustrating when it feels like food controls your life and is a constant distraction. These thoughts are learned over time and can be hard to shake. But the good news is, you can change your relationship with food with the right support.
An unhealthy relationship with food can develop for many reasons. When you were little were you a part of the “clean plate club?” If so, you might have learned not to waste food and were encouraged to finish every bite, even when full.
Or maybe diet culture convinced you certain foods are taboo. Thinking this way can give power to food, making you actually crave it more. Think about a child who just had a toy taken away. In most circumstances, they throw a fit and want it even more.
The same thing happens when you tell yourself “I can’t eat that.”
You find yourself fixating on the Halloween candy in the cupboard, even though you promised yourself you wouldn’t eat any today.
Unhealthy food relationships can present in different ways, but no matter the circumstance a feeling of guilt surrounds your eating habits – whether you’re overeating or heavily restricting yourself.
Now that you know how many different factors in our society can influence your relationship with food, let’s walk through six sneaky signs that your relationship with food could use some tending.
Six signs of an unhealthy relationship with food
The signs of an unhealthy relationship with food can pop up in different ways and you might not experience every single one. Maybe just one or two strikes a chord with you. Here are six signs it’s time to patch your broken relationship with food.
Cravings can be frustrating, especially when you don’t know how to control them.
They might be constant, intense, and feel urgent. Or they may come and go depending on the time of the month. No matter how frequent, there’s usually a reason for them and they can be a sign of an unhealthy relationship with food.
Cravings can make you feel addicted to sweets, (even though something other than an addiction is usually causing the feeling). Giving into them can feel like an out-of-control experience and bring on feelings of guilt or shame when you indulge in foods that aren’t the most nutritious.
Restricting yourself tightly
Food restrictions can also be harmful if they’re done in an unhealthy way.
Now, I want to point out, we must be in a modest calorie deficit to lose weight – consistently eating fewer calories than we burn over time. But this can (and should) be done safely if that’s your goal, and without negative emotions taking over.
An unhealthy food restriction might present as anxiety about not knowing the exact calorie/macro content, never veering from strict serving sizes, or letting the number of calories trump your needs. For example, you may hit your calorie limit but still feel starved – when this happens it’s time to reassess your calorie intake.
Our body’s needs are fluid and we don’t want to be overly restricted. Slow progress is more likely to lead to sustainable progress and to achieve this, we need a modest calorie deficit, but never want to ignore genuine hunger.
Eating past fullness often
Being a long-time member of the “clean plate club” isn’t the only cause of eating past fullness. Emotional eating, lack of sleep, or not eating enough nutrient-rich food during the day can also push you to eat past comfortable fullness.
Does eating a bowl of chips always turn into eating the whole bag? This can make you wonder if you really know what hunger and fullness feel like and question if your cues are “broken.”
It’s unlikely your hunger cues are permanently damaged, and there are ways to overcome overeating! It just takes time, a little practice, and the right knowledge to figure out how.
Always looking for the next diet
Always signing up for diet plans or trying new supplements? You might think “the last one didn’t work, but this one definitely will” only to be disappointed over and over again. You truly want to make a lasting change, but nothing seems to stick.
Although diets can seem like a new, shiny opportunity for success, they aren’t often sustainable. Instead, it’s best to focus on consistency.
Exercising as punishment after eating
Exercise releases endorphins – brain chemicals that help fight depression, reduce stress, improve your body image, and contribute to weight loss (1).
Did you notice I didn’t say, “exercise is an excellent punishment for eating treats”?
If you force yourself to jump on the treadmill for that cookie you ate, reframing your relationship with food can help you enjoy the exercise you do, not view it as a necessary torture.
It’s no secret what we eat is tied to our emotions. We eat birthday cake to celebrate and bake cookies on holidays. Food brings us together and we often associate positivity with certain goodies.
But it can be easy to indulge when you’re feeling down or bored or anxious too. If that happens on occasion, that’s normal! But if it becomes a habit and leaves you feeling worse instead of better, it might be a sign of an unhealthy relationship with food.
You may feel like you lack willpower and wonder how some people can just eat ‘normally.’ But like I said, it often has little to do with willpower, and you can learn to identify emotional eating and overcome it.
Let’s flip the script: what does it look like to have a healthy relationship with food?
What does a healthy relationship with food look like?
In a nutshell, having a healthy relationship with food means prioritizing physical and mental health first!
When you have a positive relationship you don’t feel the urge to compare the food on your plate to what’s on your friend’s and family’s. And I don’t mean wishing you had ordered what they have instead because it really was tastier. I’m talking about feeling guilty for choosing something ‘less healthy.’
You should be able to relax when you eat, without the distraction of “I wonder how long I’ll have to work out to burn off these calories?” Or keeping yourself from eating when you are hungry just to stick to a strict calorie goal.
Having flexibility with your eating habits without stress is another sign of a healthy relationship with food. If you eat a cookie you didn’t plan to, you don’t feel like you ‘failed.’ Instead, you understand there’s a balance with everything and we can and should eat foods we enjoy in moderation.
When you have a healthy relationship with food, your decisions come from a place of self-care, not self-loathing. It’s perfectly fine to pursue weight loss to reach aesthetic goals, but never at the expense of your life or health.
Most of us have room for progress. Let’s talk about how we can take steps to improve your relationship with food next.
How can I improve my relationship with food?
Here are 6 easy ways to make your relationship with food more constructive and neutral. First, look at who fuels your feed.
Curate your social feed
The average adult spends 2.5 hours on social media every single day. (2) And the content we see on our feed has a bigger impact than we might care to admit. Think about who you follow for a second…
What kind of content do they post? Do they inspire you to eat nutritious foods that make you feel good and fuel you properly? Or are you reading posts like “5 Foods You Should Never Eat?”
Even a quick glance at a bold statement like that can hang around in the back of your mind and make you overthink your food choices. What should you do about it?
Hit Unfollow and say “see ya later!” Your time is precious, and there’s no need to waste a minute of it absorbing questionable nutrition information. Especially when it makes you feel bad about your body or diet.
Oftentimes, these posts are used to make you feel/think a certain way to compel you to buy a diet plan or supplement, so remember the intention behind the clickbait!
Instead, follow people who understand your journey and will help you get closer to your health and wellness goals.
We hear “mindfulness is key” everywhere. But what does that actually mean?
You add mindfulness to your diet through thoughtfulness and presence. Think about how the food feels. Is it crunchy, creamy, bitter, or sweet? Does it change flavor the more you chew? You can only notice these things when you’re fully present.
The next time you eat, imagine you’re trying that food for the very first time. You’ve never seen it in your life and don’t know what to expect. Slow down and pay attention to every detail like how it looks, what it smells like, and the flavors that come through with every bite.
Try to release all judgments surrounding your meal. When you find yourself thinking “I wonder how many calories this is,” replace it with “I’ve never noticed that hint of flavor before.”
Cut out dieting and master the balanced plate instead
When you plan your meals, focus on what makes you feel physically full and emotionally satisfied by creating balanced meals. This is an important step because when you’re hungry it’s impossible to eat mindfully.
Download my free guide here to learn how to make balanced meals that stick with you and nourish your body.
Build fun foods into your daily routine
Instead of only eating ‘fun’ foods when you run out of willpower, make space for them! Yes, you can eat a sandwich with chips or a cookie for dessert. It’s ok to indulge sometimes, and it may work best for you to plan it ahead of time.
If negative emotions are popping up again… pause. Hold off on bullying yourself. Instead of getting down on yourself ask yourself a simple question. “Why?”
Why is food making you feel out of control? Is there nutrition lacking in your diet that your body is trying to get more of? Are you forcing yourself to eat food that’s not satisfying enough, making you crave something else?
There’s usually a reason food makes you feel out of control, and here’s a secret – it’s almost never because of a lack of willpower.
Find people who understand
It’s difficult to get through a rough patch when you feel you’re going at it alone, and it’s much easier with a friend by your side who understands. If you don’t have anyone in your circle, there’s another option.
You can join the community of women I’ve brought together. These determined ladies are in your shoes, experiencing the exact same struggle.
They aren’t willing to do the diet thing anymore and support each other on their journey to building a healthier lifestyle. And when you join you have lifetime access, video lessons, downloadable resources, and live Q & private community support.
Don’t go at it alone! We’re here for you.
I want you to remember this is not medical advice intended to treat or diagnose eating disorders. If you think you’re struggling with an eating disorder please reach out to your healthcare team, or call/text the NEDIC/NEDA hotline (US and Canada). I want you to find the best help.
Start building a healthy relationship with food
Building a healthy relationship isn’t always easy, but the freedom that comes with it is so worth the effort!
None of us have a perfectly healthy relationship with food, even me, a dietitian. Our relationship with food, eating and our body deserves some effort. If you’d like support on this journey, I’m here for you.
Not ready to join the online community, but still need help getting started? Download my free guide to make all foods fit! This guide shows you how to include all foods in your daily routine, even the ones that you might have said were off-limits in the past.
You can change your relationship with food! It just takes time and the right support. You’ve got this.