What exactly does a healthy relationship with food look like?
Updated: Oct 28, 2019
We live in a society that is obsessed with thinness, weight loss, dieting, wellness, food rules, and achieving optimal health. So it's no wonder that defining a healthy relationship with food can be murky, confusing, and incredibly challenging. Even less surprising is the significant way that the culmination of all these cultural messages, also known as diet culture, contribute to disordered eating in so many women, men, teens, and sadly, even children.
We are taught to not trust our bodies, our hunger, our pleasure, our intuition, our needs, our desires, our preferences, our joys. We are told that we are wrong or bad for our food choices if they are not free of gluten, carbs, fat, dairy, eggs, nuts, soy, gluten, GMOs, refined sugar, or are non-organic. We are conditioned to develop fatphobic biases that oppress, stigmatize, and shame those in larger bodies. We are sold that being a suitable partner or an admirable postpartum mother means shrinking our bodies. We are advised that exercise and fitness are mandated ways to manipulate, change, compensate for, and punish our bodies. We are simply fed a false narrative that our worth and happiness are contingent on successful weight loss and existing in a smaller body.
The problem is that diet culture is sneaky and can pass as health, wellness, and clean eating. Yet according to research, even those who don't think they're "dieting", are engaging in disordered eating that is reinforced by rigid, compulsive, obsessive thoughts and behaviors around food and exercise.
A huge part of developing a healthy relationship with food means rejecting diet culture and the lies it tells us. Instead of fearing foods, shaming your body, eliminating food groups, and buying into the wellness trap, a healthy relationship with food is about trusting your body so that your body can trust you. It doesn't involve abiding by a set of rules that dictate when, how, or what to eat. It involves listening to your body, respecting your body, honoring your body, and responding to its needs accordingly. It means letting go of guilt and shame around food and body. A healthy relationship with food is peaceful, flexible, variable, enjoyable, and satisfying.
Sometimes it means eating from a place of hunger, nourishment, and other times out of happiness, boredom, or sadness. Sometimes it's three or five meals. Sometimes it means wishing you had more, or feeling stuffed and uncomfortable. It's being able to give some thought to your food selection so you get nutritious food, but not being so wary and restrictive that you miss out on enjoyable food, moments, or experiences. A healthy relationship with food is when food takes up some of your time and attention, but keeps its place as only one important area of your life*. The goal is not to strive for perfection. The goal is to be so deeply self-compassionate that you give yourself unconditional permission to be, eat, and move in ways that feel good and that come from a place of kindness.
Healing your relationship with food does not mean disregarding health in general. All foods can fit into a healthy lifestyle. This includes being mindful of sensitivities and allergies. Veggies are cool. And so is pizza. Bananas are not evil. And neither are chips. But too often diet culture and the obsessive pursuit of wellness, thinness, fitness, gut heath, or even clear skin disregards mental health. And when a relationship with food is fueled with fear, anxiety, isolation, preoccupation, it becomes more than a way to manage body, weight, or appearance. It becomes a way to control emotions and to seek acceptance, worth, and value. Which explains why our relationship with food is not just about weight or food, anyway, but so much more. How we relate to food, use food, view food, reflects a lot about how we see ourselves.
So I invite you to consider your own relationship with food and to see what it feels like to start making decisions that are authentic to your body’s needs. And as you start to understand your relationship with food, where it came from, how it got to where it is, you may even notice yourself dismantling how you view your inherent worth and enoughness, and recognize that you deserve and can find happiness in non-food and non-body related ways.
If you need help navigating your relationship to food, exercise, or your body, there are therapists and anti-diet, health at every size, dietitians that specialize in these areas and can work individually with you to help you get a place of recovery and peace.
For additional support, check out the following books and resources:
Intuitive Eating by Evelyn Tribole and Elyse Resch
Body Kindness by Rebecca Scritchfield
Just Eat It by Laura Thomas
Food Psych Podcast by Christy Harrison
Nutrition Matters Podcast by Paige Smathers
*Normal eating definition by Ellyn Satter, 1991