On The Table

A collection of knowledge-based articles to inspire overall wellness.

How to Have a Healthy Relationship with Food

Struggling to make peace with food? Unleash any unhealthy relationship with food with these 10 proactive and effective food and eating habits.

How to Have a Healthy Relationship with Food

Constantly bombarded with advertisements, societal input, and unsolicited advice, creating a healthy relationship with food can be hard. 

For one, the definition of healthy is quite arbitrary. Secondly, creating this healthy relationship involves much more than scooping nutrients onto a meal plate. 

However, through conscious intention and practice, one can avoid developing an unhealthy relationship with food. The following psychology-based habits teach you exactly how to have a healthy relationship with food!

The Importance of a Good Relationship with Food

Food and nutrition are vital, inevitable aspects of life. Planning, gathering, preparing, and eating food consumes many hours of one's life, so maintaining a good relationship with food and how it affects health and external appearance is very important. 

Plus, a poor relationship with food can quickly lead to disordered eating or develop into a full-blown eating disorder. This not only impacts physical health but mental and emotional well-being as well.

Whereas healthy eating is fluid, functional, and simple in nature, disordered eating can be classified as rigid, automated, and/or compulsive. Healthy eating positively impacts quality of life but disordered eating patterns typically create chaos and hinder quality of life. 

Thus, creating a good relationship with food can mean the difference between waging a lifelong battle with body shape and size and living an enjoyable life with food freedom.

10 Steps/Habits to Create a Good Relationship with Food

Forming healthy eating patterns requires conscious effort and practice but is very possible, especially with the tips below. If this feels too daunting, professional help from a multidisciplinary eating disorder specialist team is warranted.

1. Chase Health, Not a Body Size or Shape

It is perfectly ok to have appearance-based goals, but not at the expense of health and wellbeing. People who maintain a healthy connection with food generally understand the functionality of food and how it impacts the body beyond appearance. They make nourishing choices that will benefit all aspects of life and recognize the positive significance of wholesome nutrition.

So why is chasing a body size or shape likely not to last in the long run? This goal is often problematic because it is conditional. Plus, trying to hit a certain number on the scale or trim the waist are less meaningful aspirations than eating healthfully in order to keep up with children, hike a mountain, etc. 

In addition, there is no timeline or endpoint when eating for overall health. Number, shape, and size goals typically have defined points.

2. Practice Moderation

Essentially, moderation can also be referred to as portion control. With so much input and distractions in today's culture, moderation is often easier said than done. Often, moderation involves rationing appropriate portions of foods to fuel and satisfy hunger and cravings. 

Rather than grabbing a whole box or package of food, which inherently makes moderation more difficult, people with a healthy relationship with food enjoy appropriate portions and then move on with the day. In essence, they realize that not every eating experience needs to be the last supper. They are also present enough to use knowledge and previous experience to make choices.

The great thing about moderation is it allows for all foods to fit into a healthy eating pattern. It does not limit the kinds of foods, but rather encourages eating enough to satisfy without hindering health goals. 

Moderation also reflects the 80/20 guideline, where one eats whole foods 80 percent of the time and fun, less nutrient-dense foods the other 20 percent of the time. In moderation, no foods are inherently good or bad (even "junk food"), which knowing this can reduce cravings and emotionally-charged choices. 

3. Listen to Hunger and Fullness Cues

If visibly portioning foods is not a forte, listening to hunger and fullness cues is another way to naturally moderate nutrition. It is rather amazing that the human body has innate mechanisms that indicate when someone is physiologically hungry and satiated. People who eat in this manner, rather than basing eating on extraneous factors like time or cravings, tend to have healthier relationships with food.

Listening to hunger and fullness cues means one is working with their body not against it. As a result, metabolism, hunger, fullness hormones, and food mentality is optimized. Conversely, avoiding hunger cues often suppresses metabolism in the long run and frequently overeating can lead to leptin resistance, a mechanism very similar to insulin resistance

Over or under eating every once in a while will not derail progress. However, it is important to monitor the intensity of hunger and fullness cues to properly regulate them. 

4. Be Flexible

Healthy eating allows for flexibility on occasion. Flexibility with food choices, meal timing, and spontaneity. 

Avoiding joyous occasions like happy hours, birthday parties, and holidays for fear of breaking a food plan or overindulging signifies a rigidly unhealthy relationship with food. It also increases social isolation and depressive or anxious feelings.

Being flexible with food might look like:

• Eating more starchy carbs than normal
• Enjoying a dessert in the middle of the day
• Relishing an extra glass of wine
• Eating differently for a whole week on vacation

No matter the exact details, being flexible with food enhances the quality of one's life and reduces worry about veering from normal or usual.

5. Eat Mindfully

Mindful eating is a technique that encourages one to be fully present with their food. It supports removing external distractions and practicing utter gratitude for a meal or snack. In this way, mindful eating establishes a deep connection and appreciation for food which naturally promotes a healthy relationship to food.

However, mindful eating is largely misunderstood and many people boil it down to listening to hunger and fullness cues. In reality, it involves gratuitously considering the origins of the food, how it was transported and displayed, its preparation, and of course its smells, tastes, and feels. 

Simplistically stated, disordered eating is a disconnect between the body and physiological eating. Thus, mindful eating reestablishes this sacred connection and offers undisturbed time to reflect on decisions. These include noticing what foods will give energy for the next task at hand and which foods would satisfy the soul right now. It also allows for that utter appreciation for all the people and things that contributed to a food or meal.

6. Avoid Food Rewards

Using food as a reward inadvertently ties morality to food, and this is one of the quickest ways to create a bad relationship with food. Note that rewarding with food is different than celebrating a milestone over ice cream or a nice dinner. 

Food and food choices are not inherently moral, but using them as a reward subtly or blatantly implies "if I do this, then and only then do I deserve this kind of food." Oftentimes, the foods used for reward are high in refined sugar and pro-inflammatory fats and low in fiber, protein, and phytochemicals (beneficial plant compounds).

As mentioned, these fun foods are ok and even encouraged in moderation. However, consuming them as a reward can lead to a cascade of mental and emotional connections that promote overindulging, binge eating episodes, and ultimately the restrict-binge-compensate cycle present in nearly every eating disorder. 

It is much healthier to flexibly include fun foods on a regular basis (again the 80/20 guideline) and reward accomplishments with other enjoyable activities like a facial, hike, or spontaneous getaway! 

7. Eat Guilt-Free

Eating freely largely involves how one talks with themselves about food. Creating a healthy relationship with food includes positive self-dialogue, sans harsh criticism, belittling, or name-calling. 

Instead of judging food choices or veering off the regular approach, eating freely allows for grace and compassion. Eating guilt-free also discourages unhealthy compensatory reactions like over-exercising or purging food to "erase" a certain food choice.

Removing guilt from food choices and struggles also inspires one to take the next best step. Instead of allowing one poor choice to turn into a month or year of unhealthy choices, one can simply make a better choice the next time. 

Using principles of gentle nutrition without judgment, one understands that eating too much sugar every once in a while will not harm health. They likewise recognize focusing on hydrating and including fiber and protein in the next meal is a smart idea. 

Notice that the choice is not based on guilt of needing to compensate for the previous choice. Instead, the choice is based on what will benefit them most moving forward.

8. Recognize and Understand Emotional Eating

Amidst stressful situations, diving deep into the pint of ice cream or picking up fast food for every dinner is easy. However, people with a healthy relationship with food can recognize emotions and respond in healthy ways. 

Sometimes the solutions involve food, but often they do not. Food does not usually address the feeling, but rather averts their attention from the feeling, which does not help in the long run.

People who binge eat to deal with emotions are often looking to "fill up" on a different feeling (like love, companionship, success, etc.). On the other hand, those who restrict food are trying to numb themselves from a seemingly unbearable feeling.

Developing healthy coping mechanisms to discourage reliance on food as the only way to cope with strong or heavy feelings is vital. Other healthy coping mechanisms include calling a friend, going to therapy regularly, journaling, taking a walk, meditating, taking a refreshing shower, and many more foodless activities.

9. Include Many Food Groups

Similar to practicing moderation, building a healthy relationship with food usually means being as liberal as possible with choices. Some health conditions like celiac disease or chronic heart failure require specific restrictions.

Outside of disease, the healthiest people include a large variety of foods within each food group. (Yes, healthy people regularly eat bread, pasta, ice cream and fruits, vegetables, lean protein, and healthy fats!)

In addition, people with a healthy relationship with food usually do not follow a specific diet, as 95 percent or more of diets "fail" and unnecessarily restrict foods or whole food groups. For example, the infamous keto diet severely restricts carbs, thus also omitting the recommended amount of fruits and vegetables. Low-fat diets eliminate appropriate amounts of anti-inflammatory fats like EPA and DHA. 

Including enjoyable foods from all the food groups promotes getting a variety of nutrients from colorful, wholesome foods. This practice also allows for flexibility within each food group. 

10. Embrace Intuitive Eating

Finally, this whole article can be summed up by generally following the principles of intuitive eating, many of which are similarly included above. Created by two non-diet pioneers, Evelyn Tribole and Elyse Resch, intuitive eating is considered an evidence-based self-care framework that integrates instinct, emotion, and rational thought to encourage healthy eating.

Intuitive eating principles help cultivate attunement to biological and psychological needs. They also remove obstacles and disruptors that arise in the mind from dogmatic rules, beliefs, and thoughts.

The creators indicate that intuitive eating is a practice aligned with health at every size that honors physical and mental health and reduces health problems, weight stigma, weight cycling, and eating disorders. In fact, intuitive eating is often the ultimate goal of eating disorder treatment. It signifies that all bodies deserve dignity and respect and aims to dismantle diet culture.

So, to summarize how to create a healthy relationship with food, the 10 principles of intuitive eating include:

1. Reject the diet mentality
2. Honor your hunger
3. Make peace with food
4. Challenge the food police
5. Respect your fullness
6. Discover satisfaction
7. Honor feelings without using food
8. Respect your body
9. Exercise– feel the difference
10. Honor health with gentle nutrition

Happy eating!