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Besides giving our bodies the nourishment it needs to survive and stay healthy, food plays a key role in just about everything. Food can help define a culture, foster community and bring loved ones together. But to many people, food can also hold an uncontrollable power – and it can negatively impact your mind, body and overall well-being.
The National Association of Anorexia Nervosa and Associated Disorders reports that 28.8 million Americans will have an eating disorder in their lifetime. Even if you aren’t diagnosed with an eating disorder, that doesn’t necessarily mean your relationship with food is perfect, either. There’s a strong difference between a healthy relationship with food and an unhealthy one. Understanding these differences will help you better understand how food plays a role in your life and whether it’s in need of improvement.
We talked to some experts about healthy and unhealthy relationships with food, who shared tips that can help you improve your relationship with what you eat.
What do healthy and unhealthy food relationships look like?
Developing a good relationship with food is just as important as the ones you have with people in your life. The difference, though, is that you’re in full control when it comes to food – and it’s not a two-way relationship. With food, you can determine whether it’s healthy or not (or, more simply, whether it’s positive or negative).
So, what exactly does a positive relationship with food look like?
“An ideal relationship with food is where you can eat the foods you enjoy without any guilt or shame,” says Jennifer Scheinman, owner and lead dietitian at Jen Scheinman Nutrition.
Further, it’s a green flag to be able to recognize when your body is hungry and when it’s full. Another plus? Being able to balance both healthy food and your favorite treats within your diet. It’s important to note that positive relationships with food will look different for everyone.
But there’s also the other end of the spectrum, with telltale signs that food is negatively impacting your life. Jessica Cortez, RDN, LD at Connections Wellness Group, explains a poor relationship with food is something that’s life-taking, stressful or something that requires too much time or thought throughout your day.
“Food shouldn’t determine whether you are having a good or bad day, or if you are a good or bad person,” she says. “Food shouldn’t be a measure of doing good enough or failing in your life.”
Ultimately, food shouldn’t hold any moral value or make you feel guilt or shame.
How negative relationships with food begin
A person’s relationship with food is a deeply personal thing. Negative or positive, there are endless factors that can trigger the way you think, feel and act on your food habits. These factors can leave an impact at any age or stage of life.
“There are a lot of reasons someone could develop a poor relationship with food,” says Scheinman. It could stem from childhood hearing certain messages from parents or friends. In some cases, a person might be diagnosed with a medical condition that requires them to hyperfocus on what they should or shouldn’t eat. The possible origin stories are endless, and there’s no one-size-fits-all root from which food issues can emerge.
Another massive influence that can lead to a negative relationship with food is diet culture and its value on thinness. “We live in a culture that idolizes thinness and equates it to one’s virtue, health, and wellness,” says Cortez. “This leaves many of us constantly trying to lose weight, become smaller and reach this inaccurate and flawed beauty standard.”
A negative relationship with food can lead to problems in all areas of life. Some examples include:
- Higher risk for chronic conditions like heart disease and diabetes
- Difficulty concentrating or making decisions
- Obsessiveness and distortion towards food and your body
- Increase in cravings and/or unhealthy eating patterns
- Isolation from friends, family and social events
- Mental health struggles with depression, stress, and anxiety
How to improve your relationship with food
Take a moment to think about the role food plays in your daily life. Is it having any negative impacts on your mental or physical health? Is it something you spend too much time thinking about or analyzing? Recognizing the need for improvement is a great first step in repairing the influence food has on you.
Try these tips to begin working towards a better, healthier relationship with food – whatever that may look like to you.
Cleanse your social media feeds
Social media and the impact it has on society are both evolving at a rapid rate – so much so that research can’t keep up. What we know for sure is that what we consume online can influence our thoughts and feelings (whether we realize it or not). To make social media a safer place, take the time to go through your social media feeds and reevaluate the accounts you follow.
“Delete, unfollow or silence anybody who is making your relationship with food and yourself harder,” says Cortez. This could include fitness influencers or any account that actively engages in diet culture. Instead, follow accounts that make you feel good and your socials a safer space to scroll.
Practice mindful eating
Like breathing, eating can sometimes become second nature and something we don’t think twice about. You could have a full plate of food, zone out, and the next thing you know, the plate is empty. Did you enjoy the meal? Did you savor each bite? If not, becoming more mindful while you eat could be beneficial for improving your relationship.
Mindful eating is the practice of truly allowing yourself to experience the food and be aware of it. This doesn’t mean obsessing over its nutrition value or how it will contribute to your daily food intake. Rather, mindful eating gives you the opportunity to savor meals and be fully present.
This approach to eating can help you get to know what foods you really enjoy, better understand your hunger and fullness cues, as well as identify the reasons for your food choices.
Get professional help
It can be difficult to escape the negative thoughts floating around in your brain surrounding food and eating. When this happens, talking to someone is one of the best things you can do to work through it. Whether it’s with a family member you trust, dietitian or mental health professional, sharing your feelings can be a big step forward in getting the help you need to forge a more positive relationship with food.
Scheinman says that recognizing you have issues with food and trying to figure out where they stem from is one of the first steps. “With expert help, you can really get to the bottom of what’s triggering this unhealthy relationship and get personalized tools to improve it.”
For more tips that can help you better your relationship with food and give your mental health a boost, keep reading: