A Healthy Relationship with Food Starts with Understanding

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There’s a lot of conversation today that includes the phrase “healthy relationship with food”. If you’re someone new to this phrase you might be curious: why is everyone talking about this? What does a “healthy relationship with food” even mean? If you’re someone who is more familiar with this phrase you might be wondering: how do I cultivate a healthy relationship with food? Where do I begin? And, why can it be so darn hard?

Today’s culture teaches you that you cannot be trusted to properly nourish your body. It encourages you to follow a set of “rules” when it comes to what, when, and how you eat. When you break these “rules” it is expected that you compensate.

The result?

You are left with feelings of uncertainty, rigidity, and shame. Not ideal, right? If you are someone who has experienced these feelings in one way or another, you know how painful and unpleasant they can be.

So, how do you change the landscape of how you think and feel about food? Where do you start?

You have to unlearn these things that society has instilled deep within you. You have to understand your relationship with food before you can heal it.

But, before we start talking about the importance of unlearning and understanding there a few things we have to discuss. First, what is a healthy relationship with food anyway? Second, what is the biggest obstacle to obtaining it?

A healthy relationship with food involves a trusting relationship with your body.

You can trust your body and your body can trust you. You trust that your body is functioning to the best of its ability and your body trusts that you’ll provide it with the proper nourishment in return. It doesn’t involve a set of rules telling you when, how, or what to eat. It involves you listening to your body and responding to its needs accordingly. There are no “good” or “bad” foods, so in return there isn’t any shame or guilt after eating a certain food. It tends to be more peaceful versus chaotic. Ultimately, a healthy relationship with food fosters a sense of freedom and adaptability allowing you to experience a fulfilled life outside of critical and obsessive food thoughts.

Doesn’t that sound pleasant? If you could have that kind of relationship with food why isn’t that your norm?

We live in a society that is obsessed with dieting, moralistic eating, weight loss, and thin bodies. This is also known as diet culture. And, diet culture is super pervasive.

Let me tell you just how pervasive it is.

The other day I was in the car for fifteen minutes. Within that fifteen minute time frame I heard three radio advertisements promoting dieting and weight loss plans. Imagine if you were exposed to diet culture three times every fifteen minutes within a sixteen hour time frame, assuming you are sleeping the other eight hours of the day.

That would amount to a total of 192 exposures in one day! Even if you aren’t completely paying attention, you are still exposed to diet culture on some level 192 times within a 24-hour period. That’s a lot.

These diet culture exposures could include multiple things. It could be a before and after picture on Instagram that’s reinforcing the idea that one body, often the thinner one, is better than the other. It might be Chipotle's new Facebook advertisement that is promoting their Keto, Paleo, and Whole30 bowls. You might be in the break room at work enjoying lunch as your coworker talks about how they’ve already “failed” their diet. You might be out to dinner with friends who are talking about their new exercise regimen and how it is keeping their “weight in check”. You might be watching your favorite television shows on Hulu and the new Weight Watchers commercial comes on. Are you a LaCroix drinker? They’re reinforcing diet culture too by letting us know their produce has “no calories”.

These are only a few examples of how diet culture can infiltrate our lives. I say “our” because I am not impervious to this messaging either. We are all human, which means we are susceptible to diet culture and it’s pervasive ways.

No wonder working toward a trusting, flexible relationship with food is so difficult. The cards are stacked against us! Not to sound cliché, but it is the truth.

So, here you are recognizing that your relationship with food is wreaking havoc on your life and the journey to a more peaceful one is an uphill climb.

I want you to know I didn’t tell you all those things to scare you. I told them to you so you could feel reassured, even in the most difficult times, that the complications around forming a healthier relationship with food are not your fault. These obstacles come from the environment we live in and its obsession with diet culture. If you keep this in mind throughout your journey, you’ll find strength even it the most taxing times.

I promise improving your connection with food is very, very possible and like I said earlier, it starts with understanding.

You have to understand your relationship with food before you can heal it.

Sure, there might be some simpler starting points like stopping visits to the scale or walking away from diet/weight loss conversations. However, I am talking about achieving long-term healing and true freedom. Even if you start with the simple things, which is totally okay by the way, you will eventually have to do the work to understand how your relationship with food has developed into what it is.

Why?

I am glad you asked! Your current connection with food didn’t simply develop overnight. It likely has been influenced by experiences and learnings that have occurred throughout your entire lifetime. That is what makes your relationship with food so complex and why understanding it can be incredibly useful. And, as you learn about what has contributed to your relationship with food you will also be faced with the task of unlearning it. And, as you unlearn your past beliefs more space will open up for new ones.

So, let’s start by thinking about your past and how your food ideals have evolved.

Consider making a timeline that includes when you first started thinking about food. Include different diets you have tried or food “rules” you enforced. Think about your mood, thoughts, and feelings during these different food-related adventures. What did you like? What didn’t you like? Why did you end up stopping? What wasn’t working?

You could also consider journaling about specific food- and/or weigh-related moments that stick out to you. Here are some questions you may consider exploring:

  • What was the food environment like when you were growing up?

  • What did the people you looked up to think about food and their body size? Were they always trying to lose weight? Were they trying every new diet on the market?

  • When did you first notice thoughts about changing your body size?

  • Have there been times when your thoughts about food and your body size were neutral? What changed?

  • How do you understand the effects of food on the body? Where was this information learned?

  • What types of food and weight messaging are you continuously exposed to?

Understanding your relationship with food is a process, so it takes time. For some, it might take several years. Why? Like most things in life, it is not a linear endeavor. Perhaps you are not quite ready to explore parts of your food-related past or you are enticed into trying a new diet along the way, there are bound to be setbacks.

I know what you might be thinking.

This involves a lot of vulnerability, perseverance, and commitment . Why would I want to embark on this journey?

Well, what is the alternative?

You deserve to have a relationship with food that nourishes your mind and body.

With each piece of the past that you untangle and unlearn, you are making space for personal growth and a newfound freedom around food.

I invite you to stop looking externally when it comes to your food choices and to start making decisions that are authentic to your body’s needs. As you start to understand your relationship with food, you will simultaneously start forming a new one. One that cultivates compassion, trust, and flexibility. One that is unique to the individual you are, because that is how nourishing your body is supposed to be.

*I think it is important to mention that if you haven’t explored your past with food, these exercises may be very triggering. If you start trying to understand your relationship with food and recognize an overwhelming rush of emotions or past situations that are difficult to process then I highly recommend enlisting support from a Health At Every Size® therapist or dietitian.