Healthy Living Blog

How to Establish a Healthy Relationship with Food

Your relationship with food can probably be traced back to your first few days on this planet. When infants in healthy relationships express any kind of distress (whether they are hungry, cold, warm, tired, scared, startled) by crying, they are usually met with a bottle or breast. Thus, it is during the first few weeks in life that we learn that food is a powerful way to soothe whatever ails us. For many people, this continues into childhood, with treats being used as a form of reward, and sometimes the withholding of food (e.g., “sent to bed without dinner”) is a form of punishment. As we mature into adults, it is not common for food to become a good friend — to celebrate with us in joyous times, to comfort us in times of grief and sorrow, and to keep us stimulated when we are feeling bored or lost. Food can be — and should be — a meaningful way that we connect with ourselves and with others. Our relationship with food can become complicated, however, when our patterns of consumption — the how much, the why, the what — start to create problems and interfere with our ability to live our best lives. Thus, consider the following tips — especially in the context of weight management efforts — to improve your relationship with food. 

Focus on inclusion (rather than exclusion)! 

Many people recall their first dieting attempt as one in which they were given a list of “don’ts” — don’t eat after 7 p.m., don’t eat carbs all day, don’t eat anything that tastes good, don’t eat anything that comes in a package, and on and on and on. When the focus of a weight management effort is framed around what is excluded, there are natural feelings of deprivation and scarcity that can creep in. Instead, it is often more helpful to focus on the “do’s,” which may come in the form of adding in nutrient-rich, filling options, like fruits and vegetables. No one has ever been successful with long-term weight management when they are eating a diet made up of foods they hate. Instead, most successful people have found a variety of foods they enjoy, and they focus their menu on those foods. It always feels better than add (versus subtract). 

Watch your language! 

Have you ever noticed how the way you speak to yourself can impact how you feel? Imagine telling yourself, “I can’t have French fries for dinner.” How does that make you feel? Most people will feel resentful, restricted, and even rebellious when they have a narrative that suggests that they are not allowed to exercise this basic freedom of choice. Now instead, imagine telling yourself, “I can have French fries for dinner, and tonight I am choosing to have a baked potato instead because I know that it will be filling and delicious.” How does that feel different? For many, owning the choice — and even better, having a reason they are making that choice — can feel more empowering and helps to stay in a position of control. This reframe is useful internally, but it can also come in handy when telling others about your food decisions. Contrast — when you are at a party, for instance — telling your friend that you “can’t have the cake” versus you are “choosing to have a fruit plate instead of the cake because pineapples are delicious this season!” There is power in our words! 

Practice food awareness 

Many people have heard about the concept of “hunger awareness” — tuning into our bodies to assess where we are along the continuum of famished to stuffed. However, another related concept is that of “food awareness,” which refers to how different foods make us feel after we have consumed them. These feelings might be physical — foods can leave us feeling energized/satiated/powerful versus slowed/sleepy/lethargic. They can also be emotional or cognitive — foods can leave us feeling comforted/satisfied versus stimulated/craving. There may be a time and a place for all kinds of post-food feelings, but it can be interesting and helpful to remain intentional and purposefully choose foods with the aftereffects you are seeking in the moment. There is no right or wrong, good or bad, here. It is the awareness that is key. 

Diversify your happiness portfolio 

As mentioned earlier, so many of us go to food to fill so many of our needs — comfort, companionship, stimulation, celebration. While there is nothing wrong with food playing a role in some of these functions, we start to get into trouble when we rely exclusively on food to cope with any and all emotions that arise. Instead, it can be helpful to develop alternative systems and strategies to meet these needs when they arise so that we have a more diversified and varied menu of options. Even though food might always be the cheapest, quickest, most convenient, most powerful way to feel better, there are plenty of other options — spending time with loved ones, being in nature, learning a new skill, consuming visual or auditory arts — to give us that serotonin/dopamine hit we are accustomed to reaching through food. With some practice going to these other coping skills, they can feel more natural over time and take the pressure off food in serving that role. 

These techniques are just the beginnings of slowly trying to improve your relationship with food. It is important to remember that adopting these tactics will take time, as old habits die hard. However, it is a worthwhile pursuit and certainly becomes easier with practice and intentionality. 

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