This post looks at your food relationship, is it good or bad or does food control your emotions or even life? It’s important to have a good food relationship, otherwise we can have unhealthy eating habits and allow it to affect our mood, health, weight and even relationships with others.
What is a ‘bad food relationship’ and what does it look like?
A bad food relationship, also known as food guilt or disordered eating (different to eating disorder), is sadly ‘normal’ these days! It is not an eating disorder per se, but it is an obsessive view on food and weight. It can not be diagnosed but there are some signs and behaviours that can help pin point how you view your food.
Tell tale signs of an unhealthy food relationship
- You use food as a reward or treat yourself e.g. ‘I’ve worked hard this week I deserve a glass of wine or some chocolate’
- After ‘treating’ yourself you feel guilty
- After treating yourself and feeling guilty, you then continue to binge on unhealthier food choices e.g. ‘I may as well, I’ve ruined my diet now’ or ‘what’s the point I will have gained weight now’
- Label food as ‘good’ or ‘bad’ and in effect cut out the ‘bad’ foods
- You eat foods you don’t really enjoy just because they are lower in calories or suit your diet
- Use food to suppress negative emotions or influence good feelings e.g. ‘I’ve had a bad day, I’m going to have a bag of crisps to cheer me up’
- Feel good or bad about yourself for eating ‘good’ or ‘bad’
- Weigh yourself every day, and depending on the number affects your sense of worth or how you feel about yourself
- You are constantly on a diet or calorie count, or feel as if you are
- You have to clear your plate even if you are full or don’t like the meal
- Eat out of urge not hunger
- Eat because you ‘have to’
- Find cooking and eating a chore and try to avoid it
- Avoid eating with other people
- After eating a lot of ‘bad’ foods you will excessively exercise to ‘burn it off’
- You get anxious if you can’t exercise
- You are healthy but still feel fat or that you could ‘tone up’
What causes an unhealthy food relationship?
This is a question that can not be answered specifically as it’s subjective and could be due to very different circumstances. Examples of possible causes:
- Social pressure
- Negative thought patterns
- Lack of control in personal life or traumatic events (such as divorce in the home, death of a loved one, change to home/school/work life, bullying, witnessing violence or a violent scene, abuse, or personal reasons such as changes to hormones, loneliness or not ‘fitting in’)
- Low self esteem (don’t believe you deserve enjoyment)
- Habits formed by family or friends
Why is having a healthy food relationship important?
Bear with me as I go into science geek mode…your involuntary (or autonomic) nervous system has two parts: sympathetic nervous system and the parasympathetic nervous system. The first one is our fight or flight response, dealing with stress. Once activated it increases your heart rate, your bronchials and pupils dilate, your muscles contract and your stomach stops many of the digestion functions. The parasympathetic system is our rest and digest response. It lowers your heart rate, constricts bronchials and pupils, muscles relax and digestive enzymes are released.
What does this have to do with a healthy food relationship- I hear you cry? Well…a study found that people who enjoy their food gain LESS weight than people who eat the same food but with guilt (Kuijer and Boye 2013). According to Kop et al (2011) anything that elicits a positive mood will activate your parasympathetic nervous system. So if you eat in a ‘stressed’ or guilty state you will gain weight, but also it isn’t good for your health! Chronic stress can cause depression and or anxiety, pain, sleep problems, autoimmune diseases, digestion problems, skin conditions, heart disease, weight problems (causes a storage of fat especially around the abdomen), reproductive issues and thinking or memory problems.
Many people with a unhealthy food relationship tend to ‘treat’ themselves (although who hasn’t treat one self on occasion!) A study found that people who purely focused on treating themselves had no improvements in their overall happiness (Nelson et al 2016). However those who treat others had increased happiness, joy and flourished psychologically! Therefore ‘treating’ yourself won’t do you any good in the long run, especially when it’s to do with food.
How can I improve my food relationship?
Firstly- don’t worry because no one is perfect! Also with the amount of fad diets, lack of help/information on how to eat healthy and social media pushing unrealistic standards, it’s not surprising! As mentioned earlier, these days it is ‘normal’ to have a negative food relationship. Here are some quick tips to enjoy food and reduce the guilt:
- Acknowledge what could have started it– did friends and family drive you to diet, call you names, get you into eating habits (like clearing your plate even if you are full), do you have poor body image, do you try to gain control with the use of food,
- Don’t fully blame yourself – maybe your poor food relationship stemmed from school peers bullying you? Ask yourself do you think the people who did that, had an issue with themselves personally that it made them feel uncomfortable that you are or were over weight? People are very opinionated and feel they have the right to share their thoughts and feelings, even if it hurts the other person. But does that make it true or right? Maybe your parents had a fear of weight gain or loss and pushed their views on you?
- What’s your food thoughts – When you have negative thoughts towards food, where has it come from? Is it your parent’s voice, friends voice, internal voice or outside influence such as a slimming club leader?
- Listen to yourself- are you actually hungry or eating out of boredom or sadness? What are you feeling? Why do you think you are feeling that way? Accept how you feel or accept that you might not know what or why. Remind yourself it is normal to have weaknesses, it’s what you do about it.
- It’s a lifestyle not a diet – Only 2-5% of dieters keep their weight off long term! The amount of people on a ‘diet’ that is either on or off it! It doesn’t have to be this way!
- Enjoy cooking and eating- enjoy your food! whether it’s eating it or preparing it! Remind yourself food is your fuel to be the best you can be. Try using new fancy plates or utensils; arrange food so it looks and smells nice; enjoy every mouthful; eat in a relaxed state (away from your working desk!); give yourself time to eat rather than rush it; did you enjoy your meal or just autopilot?; How did the meal make you feel after? Do you feel full, satisfied, bloated, sick, windy or gassy (keep notes maybe?)
- Slip ups are normal- it’s fine if you slip up, we all make ‘mistakes’ but it’s what you do about it after. Tell yourself ‘I slipped up but I enjoyed it and now I can continue to choose foods that will benefit my body and mood.’
- Looking after yourself- Find out and ask yourself what you need! Don’t just follow orders, do some research! By giving your body what it needs you will feel happier. Caffine, simple carbs, sugar and alcohol affects your hormones and then lowers your mood. Erratic meal patterns can make you feel demotivated and low in confience. Get all your nutrients, remember food is just fuel but it can help balance hormones and help you feel happier and confident.
- Don’t treat or cheat– This tends to come from ‘banned’ or ‘free’ foods! You see food as off limits, bad, not allowed etc. This makes you want it more! Tell yourself ‘I can have whatever I want but I’m choosing not to because in the long term my body will be healthier and I will feel happier.’ ‘ I am choosing something more beneficial.’ When having cheats or treats, when you are not ‘on’ the diet you are more likely to binge and feel worse for it! Turn ‘I can’t have that’ into ‘I don’t want that!’
- Guilt Vs Shame- guilt is ‘I did something wrong’ however those thoughts could lead to shame ‘I am wrong.’ Watch your thoughts before during and after eating!
- Don’t label food or yourself – food is food, it’s not good, bad, unhealthy or healthy, punishment or reward, etc. Again what you label it will determine your thoughts towards it! Food does not have the power or choice over you. A ‘bad week’ doesn’t make you a bad person. Imagine your body is a person, would you speak to a friend like you would about your body? Everything in moderation, you are just redefining what ‘moderation’ is and figuring that out for yourself individually.
Now I’m not saying go out there and eat everything you want in a big binge! As the bible says, “anything is permissible, but not everything is beneficial” (1 Corinthians 10:23). I want you to be able to view food the right way, without guilt. Let’s get it the right way round- You help yourself and your health sometimes by your food choices, food does not help you!
If you have tried all the above or feel you can’t do this alone (which is fine by the way) please get in touch with a professional dietitian for healthy meal planning specific to you or get in touch with b-eat (https://www.b-eat.co.uk/about-eating-disorders/types-of-eating-disorder?gclid=CMzhxKOTtdICFY8Q0woddg0Omw). Maybe you are concerned not for yourself but for a friend, please seek help and just be there to listen and love. You will find it is more to do with your emotions and suppressed feelings than it is to do with your food choices. I recommend seeing a counsellor or therapist of some sort, or maybe speak to close and trustworthy friends or family.
Kuijer R and Boyce J (2013). Chocolate cake. Guilt or celebration? Associations with healthy eating attitudes, perceived behavioural control, intentions and weight-loss. Appetite, 74, pp. 48-54.
Nelson, S. K., Layous, K., Cole, S. W., & Lyubomirsky, S. (2016). Do unto others or treat yourself? The effects of prosocial and self-focused behaviour on psychological flourishing. Emotion, 16, pp. 850-861
W Kop et al. (2010). Autonomic nervous system reactivity to positive and negative mood induction: The role of acute psychological responses and frontal electrocortical activity. Biol Psychol. 86(3), pp. 230-238.