Do you ever feel guilty after eating something you enjoy, or find yourself constantly thinking about food, weight loss, or calorie counting?
If you’re there, I see you. I’ve been there too. I want you to know that these are signs of an unhealthy relationship with food, but it can absolutely be healed.
It’s important to recognize that having a bad relationship with food is not limited to those with eating disorders.
In this post, we’ll dive into what it means to have an unhealthy relationship with food and how it can be caused by surprising outside factors like diet culture.
You’ll also learn about the mind-blowing link between an unhealthy relationship with food and stress, and how to break the cycle. Most importantly, you’ll learn how to have a healthy relationship with food.
By the time you’re done reading, you’ll know exactly where to start to cultivate a positive relationship with food through self-care.
What Does It Mean to Have an Unhealthy Relationship with Food
Having an unhealthy relationship with food is common and something I see in almost all of my nutrition coaching clients before we start working together. However, just because it’s common, doesn’t mean it’s something to ignore.
It’s often sneaky and can cause quite a bit of stress without you even knowing. The most important thing to know is that if you don’t have or haven’t been diagnosed with an eating disorder, you can still have an unhealthy relationship with food.
Years ago, when my own relationship with food was in a bad place (which, unsurprisingly, is super common for individuals in the health and fitness space), I was completely unaware of it. I just thought I was being healthy and “practicing what I preach.”
I had no idea that most people didn’t think about food all of the time, automatically count calories in their head with each bite, or feel physically stressed when eating certain foods or ingredients.
Luckily I’ve done the work to have a healthy, flexible relationship with food, and now I have so much less stress (and gut issues). But, I wish I would have done it so much sooner.
Curious if this could be you? Having an unhealthy relationship with food is both about how we think about ourselves and food, and having certain behaviors.
Signs to look for
- Feeling guilt, shame, or stress after eating
- Compulsively tracking food, calories, macros, and/or body weight
- Avoiding or feeling anxious about social situations that involve food
- Feeling out of control around food
- Constantly thinking about food, dieting, or weight loss
- Having a hard time stopping eating
- Emotional or stress eating
- Experiencing bloating, gas, constipation, or diarrhea after eating
- Intentionally skipping meals
- Restricting certain foods, ingredients, or nutrients (dairy and gluten are big ones)
If any of these resonate with you, it doesn’t mean you have an eating disorder or even a bad relationship with food. It’s a sign that food or your body could be a source of stress and anxiety, and when left untreated, can impact both physical and mental health.
The good news? It’s completely possible to heal an unhealthy relationship with food through gradual mindset and eating shifts.
Blame Diet Culture
Diet culture is the ever-prevalent, harmful societal beliefs and practices that emphasize thinness, equate weight with health and moral virtue, promote restrictive and/or fad diets, and stigmatize certain foods or eating patterns.
Essentially, diet culture teaches us that thin bodies/dieting/ “clean eating” is good, and larger bodies, junk food, and “unhealthy” eating are bad.
It’s all around us. Diet culture is in the media, in conversations with others, and even in medical appointments. If a doctor or health care provider has immediately blamed your weight for health concerns, you’re a victim of diet culture and weight stigma.
How Diet Culture Messes with Your Food Mindset:
- Promoting restrictive eating and dieting
- Teaching “good” vs. “bad” foods
- Idealizes thinness and weight loss as means of health and beauty
- Selling fads, quick fixes, and supplements that can lead to disordered eating
Ultimately, diet culture perpetuates harmful beliefs and practices that can contribute to someone having a poor relationship with food and their body.
We need to recognize and challenge these inaccurate and unrealistic societal pressures. Then, we can develop a healthy and sustainable relationship with food and our bodies.
What It Means to Have a Good Relationship with Food
A healthy relationship with food is having a positive and balanced attitude toward eating that is free from any feelings of guilt, shame, or anxiety. It’s eating unrestricted with a focus on nourishing your body.
It’s enjoying ice cream in the summer, embracing take-out on a busy night without feeling like a failure, and knowing how to eat in a way that makes you feel your best, physically and emotionally.
When you have a healthy relationship with food, there is no judgment or value associated with food. Food is not “good” or “bad,” food is food. This gives you the freedom to enjoy food and eat without stress because food is a source of pleasure and nourishment.
Signs of a Healthy Relationship with Food
- Eating for physical hunger, rather than emotional hunger or external cues
- Feeling comfortable with a variety of foods and not demonizing any particular food group
- Listening to and honoring body signals, like hunger and fullness cues
- Allowing flexibility and not engaging in rigid or restrictive eating patterns
- Being able to eat in social situations without anxiety or guilt
- Not using food to cope with stress or tough emotions
- Being able to trust yourself around food
- Not feeling out of control or guilty after eating
- Focusing on nourishment and balance, rather than calorie counting or obsessive tracking
- Viewing food as a source of energy and fuel for the body, rather than a source of stress or shame
Overall, a healthy relationship with food is eating in a way that works for you and your body without being restrictive or obsessive. It’s about prioritizing self-care, self-acceptance, and having a positive attitude towards food and eating, which ultimately leads to improved physical and mental well-being.
The Cycle of Stress and Eating
Our relationship with food has an interesting link to stress because it can both cause stress and be a result of stress. Let me explain…
Having an unhealthy relationship with food and experiencing stress and anxiety around food has been shown to increase cortisol (a stress hormone) levels. This means that having a poor relationship with food causes physical and mental stress on the body.
When this becomes obsessive or extreme, focusing on healthy eating can lead to orthorexia, a form of disordered eating that can lead to nutrient deficiencies, stomach problems, and even malnutrition, further putting stress on the body.
On the other hand, stress can lead to unhealthy eating habits and an unhealthy relationship with food. This might look like eating to cope with stress, emotional eating, skipping meals, or relying on less nutritious processed foods.
These habits can create a cycle of stress and poor nutrition, causing someone not to feel great and even experience adverse health problems as a result. This might lead to more feelings of guilt, shame, and stress, fueling the vicious cycle.
In addition to contributing to poor eating habits, stress can also exacerbate existing unhealthy eating habits. Chronic stress can make it even more challenging to maintain healthy habits around food.
When someone is burnt out, they may be more likely to turn to convenience foods, fast food, and other unhealthy options due to a lack of time or energy to cook and prepare healthy meals.
Ultimately, a poor relationship with food can contribute to stress, creating a cycle of unhealthy eating habits that exacerbate stress and might even lead to burnout.
How do we break the cycle? Self-care. (you knew this was coming, right?)
The Importance of Self-Care in Developing a Healthy Relationship with Food
If you want to find a balance between enjoying your favorite less-than-nutritious foods and nourishing your body with nutrient-dense meals, it’s time to work on your relationship with food through real self-care.
If the idea of practicing self-care resonates with you, but fixing your relationship with food sounds daunting and overwhelming, view this process as self-care.
Read More: Self-Care Isn’t Selfish
Having a healthy relationship with food is self-care because our bodies require proper nutrition to function at their best. Eating a balanced and flexible diet that provides everything we need without causing stress supports and improves physical health and overall well-being.
How To Improve Your Relationship with Food Through Self-Care:
- Learn about Intuitive Eating and integrate the framework into your days.
- Eat balanced meals consistently throughout the day and week.
- Focus on what you can add to meals, rather than remove or avoid to make them healthier.
- Practice mindful eating. Slow down and actually taste your food.
- Cook at home. Appreciate the ingredients and effort that go into fueling your body.
- Hydrate enough, but not too much. Don’t drink water as an appetite suppressant.
- Aim for at least 7 hours of sleep. This will help with appetite and energy levels.
- Eat foods that you love, often.
- Practice self-compassion. Be kind to yourself.
- Seek out professional help if you struggle to cope with emotions or stress.
- Create a daily gratitude and/or affirmation practice to celebrate your body just as it is.
- Work with a registered dietitian to improve your eating habits.
By developing a healthy relationship with food through self-care, you can SIGNIFICANTLY reduce the stress and anxiety that come from obsessing over your diet and body.
When you enjoy food without feeling guilty or ashamed, over time, you’ll have a positive, healthy relationship with food and your body. In turn, this can help to improve overall self-care and well-being, leading to a happier, healthier life.
Developing a healthy relationship with food is a journey, and should be taken one step at a time. Self-care practices such as mindful eating, regular exercise, and healthy coping can support you on this journey.
Always remember to listen to your body, nourish it with a balance of nutritious and fun foods, and seek professional help if and when you need it.
With time and patience, you can break free from an unhealthy relationship with food and cultivate positive and empowering eating habits.