I LOVE food—but it’s not always the easiest relationship to manage. What does it mean to have a healthy relationship with food? At some point in life, most people (myself included) deal with food struggles. I can know that sugary cereal isn’t great fuel for my body, but there have still been times when I’ve eaten it every day. I also love foods like cheese and avocados, but I’ve gone through significant periods in life when I wouldn’t allow myself to enjoy them. Sometimes I struggle with guilt when I overindulge in the delicious doughnuts from my favorite doughnut shop. But, I can also feel guilty if I pass on dessert when I’m out to eat at a great restaurant. It’s so confusing!
How we think about food can affect our physical and mental health. It plays a major role in most eating disorders, but unhealthy relationships with food affect SO many of us—even those without clinical eating disorders. It might manifest in under eating, overeating, or a hyper-anxiety about food. It might be rooted in body image issues, stress, or certain emotions. Sometimes those food struggles can start to take away some of the joy in eating. If you’re feeling frustrated with food, diets, eating out, eating with people, or just your mentality towards food, you are not alone. Working towards our healthiest selves is a journey—with no real finish line—and the struggle is a part of it.
But, what can a healthier relationship look like? Of course, this will vary from person to person. But, I do think connecting can help us learn and begin to see those struggles in new ways. That’s why I’m sharing some of my own ideas about unhealthy and healthier food relationships with you all! By no means is this medical or professional advice—just some new ways of thinking that have helped me in my journey.
What is an Unhealthy Relationship with Food?
First and foremost, it’s important to recognize that “healthy” isn’t an objective term. Depending on a person’s body, lifestyle choices, and attitude towards food, healthy can mean different things—which also means “unhealthy” can mean different things. Someone who struggles with binging might consider their relationship with food unhealthy. At the same time, someone who struggles with severe calorie restriction might also.
Healthy and unhealthy can take many forms, depending on the person. No matter how our behaviors around food might be different, many people experience similar unhealthy food mentalities:
Food Anxiety—worrying about what we’re going eat (especially when we go out to a restaurant, or when we’re tracking calories/macros), whether we should choose something healthy or indulge, and even worrying while we’re eating something.
Food Guilt—feeling bad about what we’ve already eaten, what we chose from the menu, or what we’re eating now.
Pressure to Eat Healthy—this can come from other people or within ourselves, feeling like we’re obligated to make a healthy choice or always eat healthy food.
Pressure to Indulge—again, this can be external or internal, feeling like we have to indulge to prove a point, or that we’re missing out if we don’t
Fear of Judgment—this is what fuels those pressures we feel, worrying that others might judge us for being “too healthy” or “too unhealthy,” or fearing judgment of our food choices in general.
Labeling Foods “Good” and “Bad”—often based on what we’ve heard or learned, we deem some foods “good” and demonize other foods as “bad.”
Using Food for Control—this can be a hyper-focus on fitting food into our macros, extreme dieting, eating less to compensate for indulging, eating because we feel guilty about indulging, and either indulging or restricting food when we’re stressed or upset.
We worry so much about what to eat, then choose something we don’t enjoy in the end. It’s a vicious cycle! It can feel like we have to justify our food choices to other people—even though that food is going into your body, no one else’s. What someone else thinks shouldn’t matter! But, it can still affect us. It might even feel easier to just avoid going out and eating socially. These are all very real feelings and they can be confusing. But, I personally don’t believe the solution is to avoid these situations altogether.
How to Build a Healthy Relationship with Food
We have to go easy on ourselves. We don’t have to order the healthiest choice or the most indulgent choice every time. We can learn to compromise. Food is food—it doesn’t have to be “good” or “bad”—and that food is ultimately fuel for our bodies. It helps me to think of food in terms of what provides my body with better fuel, and recognize when I indulge that my body isn’t getting the best fuel. Indulging is okay! We just have to give ourselves permission on occasion. In the end, my goal is to find a healthy balance between fueling my body well and enjoying food. If we try to control food too much, it can start to control us.
If thoughts about food, anxiety about eating, or guilt after eating are taking up lots of space in your brain, it can get draining. When I notice this in myself, I try to take a step back, understand what’s going on, and do something differently. Of course, you have to find what works for you. But, there are some strategies that help me in my health journey:
Think About Food as Fuel
For me, this tops the list and it still helps me on a day-to-day basis. Yes, food is delicious and I love eating it. It can be comforting and eating together is a pretty common social activity. Food also has an impact on how our bodies look and our weight. But, above all of these things, food is FUEL for our bodies. It provides the energy our bodies need to function throughout the day—not just for physical activity or even brain power, but also for all of our cells and the bodily processes that keep us alive. Our bodies deserve premium fuel!
The food we eat isn’t as simple as a calorie count or macronutrient ratio. Thinking like this can make food seem like numbers that we punch into an equation to get the desired result. Not only does this make eating a stressful game of number crunching, but it’s also inaccurate. The 100 calories from a snack pack of Chips Ahoy cookies are not the same in terms of fuel as 100 calories from a banana. And, those cookies are a refined, packaged snack, which affects our body differently than a banana—even though they may contain the same number of calories. They’re metabolized by the body differently. Real, wholesome foods provide nutrients, along with important vitamins, minerals, and micronutrients that are essential to our health.
We can shift our mentality away from numbers and towards food as fuel. Rather than “good” and “bad” foods, we can think about “what kind of fuel with this provide my body?” This can help alleviate some of the anxiety or guilt we might feel when we indulge in foods we’ve deemed “bad.” We absolutely can still indulge, and just recognize that we’re choosing to enjoy a less-fuel-filled indulgence. If we stay self-aware, we can find better balance By starting to think in terms of fuel rather than numbers, we can embrace and enjoy wholesome foods more! It’s not about the calories, it’s about the nourishment. Wholesome foods do so much good for our bodies, and they move us closer to our health goals.
Eating a doughnut today, even though I had a cookie yesterday, but I haven’t had a doughnut in a few weeks?
The same goes for eating out. Even if we choose a salad at a restaurant, it’s likely a much larger portion, covered in more toppings, and drenched in far more dressing than a salad we might make for ourselves at home. Then, if we eat out multiple times per week, those meals add up. The problem is there’s no concrete definition of what moderation means, so it’s easy to deceive ourselves.
When we tell ourselves we’re indulging “in moderation,” but really we’re eating out, eating processed foods, or having dessert every day, we then get frustrated if we don’t see the results we want. I’ve certainly used moderation as an excuse to justify my indulgences. But, the more we focus on food as fuel, the clearer moderation can become. Be honest with yourself. What makes up the bulk of your diet? We want the majority of our fuel to come from real, wholesome foods!
Question Your Anxious Thoughts
When anxious thoughts do arise, try to reason with yourself. If you’re going out to dinner and worried about what to choose, ask yourself things like:
“What do I want to eat?”
“How well have I been fueling my body lately?”
“What kind of dinner will I be happy with eating by the end of this meal?”
Try to separate yourself from thoughts of what others might think. The food you eat goes into your body and fuels your body, no one else’s.
If you want to indulge but feel the guilt creeping in, question yourself. Do you feel guilty because you haven’t been fueling your body well? If so, that self-awareness is useful! You can use it to make a healthier choice for this meal. If that guilt is because you feel this indulgence (or any indulgence) is inherently “bad,” you may want to reframe your thinking. Indulging can be delicious, and good for our mental wellness! We can be aware of our indulgences, acknowledge them, and give ourselves permission to indulge. This will minimize the guilt we might feel.
On the other hand, if you’re wanting to make a healthier choice but feel pressured to indulge, ask yourself why. Are you worried about judgments from others? Are you worried about missing out on that tasty burger or chocolate cake? I know that I’ve certainly had this feeling! If you do want to indulge, you have that right. If you’re feeling pressured to do so, it’s another chance to reframe your thinking: when we indulge, what fuel is our body missing out on? This is why finding yourbalance is so important!
This is crucial. Do your best to treat yourself like your own friend. If someone came to you with struggles similar to your own, how would you empathize with them? The reality is, we all are trying to find our way when it comes to food and health. These struggles are part of the journey. I have to accept where I’m at and accept the process. When I get frustrated and just wish I could be further along in my journey, it only makes things worse for me mentally.
If we’re more accepting of ourselves, our anxiety and guilt can ease, and what other people think won’t matter as much. We can acknowledge our struggles, rather than beat ourselves up. Take it easy on yourself. It’s a process, but we can always be working towards progress.
I truly believe knowledge is power! The more we learn about food, nutrition, and our bodies, the better we’re able to fuel ourselves well. If we have specific goals in terms of our health, fitness, or weight, it helps to understand just how food can affect our bodies. What aremacros? How do you read anutrition label? What’s the difference betweensugar and other sweeteners?
Even just a basic understanding of some nutritional concepts can help us through our health journeys. That knowledge builds on itself, and helps us to make better choices. The more that we learn, the more that we see health and nutrition are not just simple number games. Our bodies are complex systems, and some foods provide better fuel than others. Knowing this helps me approach food with a different mindset. It’s not just about “low calories” or “good” and “bad” foods—it’s choosing fuel that my body will appreciate.
Learning can be so important, but we’ve also got to be wary of the massive amount of information out there. Some of it may be credible, some might not be. Accepted health standards also change or are replaced over time. We can try to stay up-to-date on these changes, but, at the end of the day, we also have to trust ourselves. Sometimes, the best information about what will help you along your health journey is learned through your own experiences.
Healthy is hard. There are so many health claims out there about what to eat or what not to eat, and even how or when to eat. It gets confusing and overwhelming. Part of the problem is many of us are searching for “the right thing” to do. But, healthy can be relative. What’s healthy for one person, physically and mentally, can be different for another person.
Whether we’re achieving new health goals or struggling in the face of obstacles, we are learning. The journey doesn’t end. If we fought off our craving for dessert, we can learn from that strategy. If we stood in the pantry and binged after dinner, we can also take a look at our behavior and learn from it. Counting calories or macros may be so helpful for one person, but too stressful for another. Maybe one kind of diet or lifestyle works for you, but not for others. Expect your diet or lifestyle to change over time.
As we change, get older, and learn new things, our approaches to our diet and lifestyle can shift. Plus it’s been shown that having those changes can keep our bodies guessing and running efficiently. All of this is okay! Trust yourself. Rely on your experiences—they are our best guide to understand what works for us, and what doesn’t.
It’s so important to know that you’re not alone. There are so many people who struggle with food, maybe even some people you know. You can reach out to friends or family members that you trust, find support in your community, or even connect with people in our amazing YouTube community. That connection can help us be more kind to ourselves. Others’ experiences can let us know that what we go through is real and worth addressing. They can also give us insight and even hope that we can make healthy progress.
As you recognize negative thought patterns and feelings, share them and ask for support. Whether it’s the people you live with or friends who go out to eat with you, let them in on some of those feelings and let them know what could make things easier. As you start to make healthy changes, you can also ask those people to help hold you accountable. Your openness may help someone else. We’re all on our own health journeys, but we can help one another along the way.