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Revitalize Your Relationship with Food: A 5-Step Guide to a Healthier You in the New Year

As we step into a new year, there's no better time to reflect on our habits, especially those that influence our health. There’s no shortage of detoxes, cleanses, or elimination diets to try. But rather than talking about the food itself, let's spend some time reflecting on our relationship with food. 

The way we approach eating can significantly impact our overall well-being, from physical health to emotional satisfaction. In this article, we'll explore what a healthy relationship with food looks like, how to recognize unhealthy patterns, and most importantly, the practical steps you can take to foster a positive and nourishing connection with the food you eat. 

Understanding Your Relationship With Food 

Before we embark on the path of improvement, it's crucial to understand your current relationship with food. This involves examining your thoughts, behaviors, and emotions surrounding eating, mealtimes, and food in general. Consider how food makes you feel, both physically and emotionally. Are you eating for nourishment, pleasure, or to cope with stress? Understanding these aspects lay the foundation for positive change.

So, ask yourself these five questions and be really honest with yourself. There’s no right or wrong! This is just information for you to see if and where your relationship with food could use some attention. 

1. How do I feel emotionally before, during, and after meals?

Pay attention to your emotions surrounding food. Are you eating for comfort, stress relief, or out of boredom? Are you anxious before meals or if the food decisions aren’t up to you? Do you feel stressed if food plans change? Do you feel guilty after eating certain foods? 

Understanding the emotional aspect of your eating habits is crucial for building a healthier relationship with food.

2. Am I able to enjoy a variety of foods without guilt or shame?

Assess whether you label certain foods as "good" or "bad" and if indulging in your favorite treats brings about feelings of guilt. Does eating a small bite of a food you love send you into a spiral of eating the whole box? If you feel stuck in the all or nothing mentality around food, you’re likely not allowing yourself to truly enjoy the foods you love. 

A positive relationship with food allows for enjoyment without negative emotional repercussions.

3. Do I listen to my body's hunger and fullness cues?

Reflect on your ability to recognize when you're hungry and when you're comfortably full. If you always wait until your stomach is growling, you feel lightheaded and hangry, you’re waiting too long. If you eat past fullness consistently and feel uncomfortable after meals, you’re missing some important cues from your body that you’ve had enough. 

Tuning into these cues is essential for preventing overeating or undereating, but also for promoting satisfaction and a pleasurable eating experience. 

4. What role does food play in managing my emotions?

This is a big one. Food often plays a role in managing emotions and (hot take) that’s okay! It becomes a problem if it’s the only tool you have to manage your emotions. 

Consider whether you turn to food as a primary means of coping with stress, sadness, loneliness, frustration, or any other emotion. Some people have associated food with rest since eating in the evening is often the only time they let themselves relax. If you often find yourself mindlessly snacking when you aren’t hungry after dinner, this could be something worth addressing.  

Identifying alternative strategies for emotional regulation can contribute to a healthier relationship with food - more on that in a minute. 

5. Do I follow strict rules or engage in extreme dieting patterns?

Evaluate whether you have rigid food rules or if you've been caught in cycles of restrictive diets.

There’s a difference between strict food rules

and prioritizing your health with nutritious foods.

Eating healthy is so important, but if you feel like you’re white knuckling your way through every day, avoiding food, spending hours upon hours prepping and packing your own, or experiencing mood swings around food topics, the pendulum has likely swung too far. 

Estimate what percentage of your day you spend thinking about food. Is that number in alignment with what you value? Do you want to spend that much time thinking about food? There’s no right answer here, just some fun thought provoking questions :) If you spend a large portion of your day thinking about food, it’s likely related to the rules you’ve implemented for yourself. 

Eating healthy and having a positive relationship with food can coexist! 

I’d even argue that you can’t really be “healthy” if your relationship with food is causing chronic stress and anxiety. Flexibility and balance are key components of a positive relationship with food, allowing for a variety of choices in a sustainable manner.

By honestly answering these questions, you can gain valuable insight into your current relationship with food and identify areas for improvement. Remember, the goal is to cultivate a positive, sustainable, and nourishing connection with the food you consume. 

What does a healthy relationship with food look like? 

A healthy relationship with food is marked by balance, variety, and mindful choices. It involves eating to nourish your body, enjoying a diverse range of foods, and recognizing hunger and fullness cues. In a healthy relationship with food, there's flexibility and a lack of guilt associated with eating choices. It's about viewing food as a source of energy, pleasure, and sustenance rather than a source of anxiety or control. 

What does an unhealthy relationship with food look like? 

Conversely, an unhealthy relationship with food is often characterized by extremes. This could involve strict dieting, binge eating, or using food as a means of emotional coping. Guilt, shame, and anxiety may accompany eating, and the focus may shift from nourishment to arbitrary food rules. Identifying these patterns is the first step in making positive changes.

Here are some indicators that your relationship with food may need improvement:

  • Experiencing guilt after eating.

  • Obsessively avoiding or restricting foods labeled as "bad" for you and/or hyper-obsessing over “healthy” or “clean” foods. 

  • Having an extensive set of rules for what/when/how you can and cannot eat.

  • Depending on calorie counters or apps to dictate what you can consume.  

  • Ignoring your body's natural hunger signals.

  • Having a history of yo-yo dieting or following trendy diet fads.

  • Feeling significant stress and anxiety when eating in social settings; concern about others' opinions of your food choices or body. 

  • Engaging in patterns of both restricting and/or bingeing on food.

  • Eating in secret or hiding food. 

  • Feeling like the quality of your day or your emotional state is determined by the food you eat or how you feel about your body. 

It's important to note that experiencing any of these signs, not necessarily all, could indicate an opportunity for improvement in your relationship with food. The key indicator is if you feel shame, guilt, stress, or fear around the foods you consume or if food is in some way reducing your quality of life. Recognizing and addressing these feelings can be a crucial step toward cultivating a healthier and more balanced connection with food (and your body).

Five Steps to Start Improving Your Relationship With Food 

1. Check in with your mindset around food. 

Using the questions listed above, get clear on your current relationship with food. Are you satisfied with it or is there room for improvement? How might your life expand if your relationship with food improves? 

Get clear on why you’re eating the way you are. Is it because you think you should? Because it may alter your physical appearance? Or truly for improving your health? Understanding the reasons behind your health habits can help you gain clarity around your relationship with food. Whether it's for improved physical health, increased energy, or emotional well-being, having a clear "why" can help guide your journey. 

Start by reflecting on your beliefs and attitudes toward food. Are you caught in a cycle of restrictive thinking or viewing certain foods as "off-limits"? Awareness of these mental patterns is the first step toward breaking free from them.

2. Commit to one emotional regulation tool that doesn’t involve food. 

Recognize that food shouldn't be your only tool for managing emotions. Identify alternative strategies such as deep breathing, journaling, talking with a trusted friend, or movement to navigate stress and emotions without relying on food as a crutch. 

3. Avoid the all or nothing mentality. 

Shifting away from extreme thinking is pivotal. Instead of categorizing foods as strictly "good" or "bad”, or falling into the all or nothing mindset, acknowledge that a balanced approach allows for a variety of foods in moderation. If you enjoy a treat you weren’t planning on, you don’t have to throw all your healthy habits out the window for that day.

There’s always an opportunity to make your next choice a healthy one. This mindset promotes sustainable, long-term change.

4. Practice mindful eating. 

Mindful eating involves slowing down and savoring each bite. Slowing down will help you tune into your internal hunger and fullness cues so you can stop when you’re comfortably full. Savoring each bite will promote satisfaction at your meals and even improve digestion and gut health.

Try engaging all your senses. Look at your food, smell it, and really taste it. Chew slowly and thoroughly and remove distractions when possible. Sit at a table and eat from a plate (not a bag or box, hovering over your counter). 

Give yourself permission to enjoy the foods you love without guilt, embracing a more positive and intuitive approach to eating.

5. Give yourself permission to eat foods you love and really enjoy them. 

Say goodbye to the cycle of restrictive diets that promise quick fixes but often lead to frustration and guilt. Instead, embrace a sustainable approach to eating. Opt for nutrient-dense choices most of the time, but don't be afraid to indulge in your favorite treats occasionally. But when you do, really enjoy them. Don’t just shamefully inhale a cookie without tasting it. This leads to more shame, restriction and then often overconsumption. Instead, slow down, sit down, and enjoy the food you’re eating. 

This balanced approach fosters a positive relationship with food and avoids the pitfalls of yo-yo dieting.

When to seek professional support? 

If you’re concerned about your relationship with food, reach out to our team of licensed Certified Nutrition Specialists who have expertise in eating behaviors. We’ll provide personalized guidance and support to help you navigate and overcome your challenges. If we’re not the right fit, we’ll help you find someone who is!  

Final Thoughts 

Embarking on the journey to heal your relationship with food is a powerful step towards overall health and well-being. Remember that progress, not perfection, is the goal. By incorporating these practical steps and fostering self-compassion, you can cultivate a positive and sustainable connection with food that enhances both your physical and emotional health. 

Cheers to a new year filled with nourishing choices and a harmonious relationship with the food that fuels your life!

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