TW: talks about eating disorders & disordered eating, help resources are available below.
The relationship we have with food dictates how we feel about what we eat, what we actually eat and how we make choices in our diets. It’s something we’re talking more about in health and wellbeing, on social media and even with our friends and families. The alarming rates of disordered eating and eating disorders, particularly in young people, highlight the desperate need to improve our relationships with food, how we talk about dieting and the messaging that’s out there about what to eat and when. Whether you’re interested in improving your own relationship or hadn’t even considered you had one with food, keep reading to find out what it really is, and simple ways to improve it.
We know we need to eat to fuel our bodies, give them the energy to complete the many, many tasks we carry out every day, and allow us to do these successfully. We eat to fuel our brains for focus, our muscles with energy to move, and our organs with fuel to function properly, and to survive.
But unlike other animals, humans don’t solely eat for fuel and survival. There are many reasons why we eat; for joy, pleasure, culture, tradition, socialisation, and even to fight boredom sometimes.
While there are many reasons humans eat food, there have been decades of messaging in the media, and now on social media too, about what to eat, when to eat, what’s considered healthy, what might cause illnesses, what we should avoid and which fad diet you should follow next. There's also a lot of talk about what we should look like physically which all filters into how we relate to our food and the choices we make about it. And often this information is confusing and contradictory.
We’ll have picked up rules and thoughts or judgements about different foods throughout our lives too, how our parents relate with food, teachers, peers, partners - people around us in general influence our relationship with food.
As a result, many of us struggle with this relationship, or may not even know that it exists. So what does a healthy relationship with food look like?
It looks like enjoying food without judgement or fear, without rules and restrictions (aside from allergies and intolerances of course), without feeling the need to justify your choices or worry about what others think. It’s about understanding that you are not defined by the foods you eat - Gillian McKeith might have been correct to a degree, but you are not actually what you eat.
With a healthy relationship with food, we’re more likely to listen to our natural hunger and satiety cues (feeling full), enjoy all foods in moderation and focus on what makes us feel good, and feel more at peace over our choices, mealtimes and even meal prep.
But if this doesn’t sound familiar, you are not alone. In fact, data shows that only 56% of adults think that their relationship with food is a healthy one, with men more likely to believe (64%) this than women (49%), whilst only 43% of 18-24-year-olds are happy with their eating habits.
A poor relationship with food might cause us to feel guilty about what we’re eating, avoid or restrict foods considered ‘bad’, or develop a number of rules about what we can and can’t eat. Or we might ignore our natural hunger cues, rely on calorie counters to decide when we’re finished eating (usually when we’re still a bit hungry), and even find ourselves being secretive about food, restricting further or binge eating. Thinking about food and eating might cause immense stress or anxiety, for example in social settings for fearing what others think about our choices or feeling the need to justify them.
A telltale sign you have a poor relationship with food is feeling shame, guilt or fear over what you’re eating. But it can change day-to-day, just as our moods can. On a good day, you might feel mostly carefree, eating whatever you fancy, and feeling satisfied and well-fuelled throughout the day. On those days that we wake up on the wrong side of the bed, or get bad news, we might make more impulsive decisions we shame or judge ourselves for later, justifying eating a bowl of ice cream because it’s a bad day rather than just because that’s what we wanted. Or spend a lot of time ruminating on your meals for the day, worrying about what to eat or whether you’ll feel full for long enough.
We're all different and our relationship will fluctuate. The goal of a healthy relationship with food is to feel more positive than negative about food choices and how it makes us feel, and to feel relaxed and able to enjoy food with less stress or guilt.
Here’s 6 ways to improve your relationship with food (and get that goal ⬆️)
Give yourself permission to eat. Whether it’s a fueling breakfast, a sweet treat for pleasure, a boozy brunch with friends or a big comforting Sunday dinner with the family. When we allow ourselves to eat (we need to eat for fuel, you’ll not reach many goals on an empty stomach) we enjoy the experience of our food more, and our relationship naturally improves. We feel more positive about our choices and get the full experience of eating, without fear of what others are thinking.
Eat when you're hungry. Listening to our bodily needs, feeling hungry, getting full, a bit bloated after lunch, or seeking something spicy or sweet, and honouring them is an important part of improving that relationship with food. Try to encourage freedom to listen to what you need rather than sticking to a calorie limit and going hungry, a schedule or not eating after a certain time even though you’re feeling snacky. Putting these restrictions on our eating, and ignoring our needs, often leads to craving and eating more when we can and feeling shame again.
Consider HOW you eat rather than WHAT you eat. In-house, nutritionist and author, Jenny Tschiesche, preaches this theory. When we focus on how we’re eating, whether we’re distracted, eating past fullness, eating out of boredom or to soothe emotions, or paying attention to how food makes us feel, we naturally become inclined to make healthier choices with food without even really trying. So rather than piling on the pressure to eat healthily, focus on your habits for a moment and figure out how you’re eating. Then you can start trying to make changes, and naturally pick up an apple over a chocolate bar mid-morning.
Welcome all foods. Try to ditch those rules you’ve collected over the years, remove the judgement of ‘good’ or ‘bad’ from foods and reduce those restrictions on your diet. We’ve learnt a narrative of what is considered healthy and unhealthy, and we navigate a sea of contradicting information too, and actually, food is food. There are of course ‘better’ choices we can make, focusing on nutrient-dense, fresh foods rather than greasy, processed foods. But a kebab once in a while when you really fancy one isn’t necessarily an unhealthy choice, and it’ll be a lot more satisfying than forcing down a limp and lifeless salad you really didn’t want, balance is healthier than restriction.
Practice mindful eating. To help reduce stress around meals and food, introduce some mindful practices when preparing your dinner, eating your lunch in the office, or chomping on a protein bar after the gym. Simply bring your attention to the foods you’re eating or preparing, the colours, textures, sounds, and smells to help you focus on the present and reduce stress and anxiety, in general, and around food. It could be as simple as a light snack when you’ve only got 10 minutes to scran - is it crunchy? Soft and light? Juicy? Is it sticking to your teeth?
Stop justifying your choices. To yourself, when you're with friends or family, even at work. Practice letting go of what others think, and resist the urge to explain your packed lunch or why you want a side of chips, or if you’re making the right choice for anyone but yourself. Allow yourself to eat beyond the need to fuel up and what’s considered the healthiest option - it looks different for everyone, and if you absolutely must satisfy your craving for egg-mayo sarnie on the commute home, you do you, just crack a window for your fellow passengers.
All jokes aside, our relationship with food is an important one to nurture and keep healthy, but it’s a complex topic that we might need more support with, from a GP’s guidance on changing habits to psychological support on changing beliefs or rules around food or tackling disordered eating.
And remember, this relationship doesn’t change overnight, there'll be setbacks, judgements will slip in and we’ll make choices we’re not proud of but that’s ok, let it be, and get back to it next time you feel peckish.
While many of us feel we have a less-than-ideal relationship with food, there is a difference between a poor relationship and disordered eating and eating disorders. However, a poor relationship with food can lead to both if we fail to recognise unhealthy habits or seek support in changing this. It’s so important to seek treatment and help if you think you or someone you know might be experiencing disordered eating or an eating disorder. Some helpful resources are listed below.
Resources for support with food relationships, disordered eating and eating disorders;
Beat Eating Disorder Charity Helpline https://www.beateatingdisorders.org.uk/
Phone: 0808 801 0677
SEED Eating Disorder Support Service https://seed.charity/
Phone: 01482 421525
For more information about eating disorders and how to seek help follow the link the NHS webpage https://www.nhs.uk/mental-health/feelings-symptoms-behaviours/behaviours/eating-disorders/overview/