How Healthy Is Your Relationship with Food?

Picture it: Sicily, 1956...sorry, I couldn’t resist the nod to Sophia from the Golden Girls.

Let’s try again. Picture it: You’re at a baby shower and out comes the cake.

Just envisioning this might be stirring up some physical reactions. Maybe your chest gets tighter in anxiety, maybe you start salivating thinking of how delicious that sounds right about now. Have a torrent of thoughts kicked in?

Maybe you’re wondering, “what kind of cake? I hope it’s chocolate!” Perhaps you’re thinking, “meh, I’m not a fan of cake, I’ll eat it to be polite.” OR maybe, just maybe, you are in the camp of, “Shit. Now I’m going to have to forgo what I wanted to eat for dinner,” or “how long am I going to have to run on the treadmill to burn that off?” or, “I don’t know if I can stop at just one piece, once I start eating, all bets are off.”

For those of you in the first and second camps, congratulations! It sounds like you’ve got a pretty healthy relationship with food.

Unfortunately, the latter is all too familiar for many of us. We scrutinize what we eat, label it as “good” or “bad”, and pass judgments about ourselves based on our consumption. All too often we experience deep-seeded feelings of guilt, or worse, shame around what we eat. We move past the cake as a treat, and perceive it as a failure of our willpower, turning it into, “I’m a failure.”

Why do we give food so much power? There are SO many reasons, and probably too many to list for the sake of this post. But here’s one: food is an easy scapegoat.

It’s easy to externalize and think that our weight, our diets, our consumption is the problem. If we just lose 5 pounds then we will be happy. We slave away in the gym to “keep up” our bodies. But for what? What would happen if we weren’t as toned, or as “fit”? Would that somehow make us...God forbid it...average? Is our worth so conditional that we actually believe that our bodies, good or bad, are the things that give us value as people?

Have you ever been on a diet? What was your reasoning for it and how did you feel about yourself if you strayed? If you messed up for the day, ate more calories then your points allowed or complex carbohydrates or sugars – did you feel like you blew it for the day?

Our world is not black and white, and neither are our eating habits. Like many things, our relationship with food exists on a spectrum. That spectrum ranges from healthy relationships with food on one end to eating disorders on the opposite end.

A healthy relationship with food would be a wonderful place to be. However, we are not all there, and it is important to be honest with ourselves and identify where we are on the spectrum. This is SO important for a few reasons:

  1. The jump from diet mentality to disordered eating to eating disorder is subtle and can happen very quickly. Research has shown that diets are ineffective for long term weight loss, yet 95% of all eating disorders start with a diet.

  2. Eating disorders are serious and complex illnesses, not lifestyle choices.

  3. Eating disorders have the highest mortality rate of any mental illness.

  4. Treatment is necessary for eating disorders and disordered eating, and the sooner you begin treatment the better.

Dr. Janean Anderson, a psychologist and certified eating disorder specialist, has laid out descriptions of what it looks like to have a healthy relationship with food, to be in a diet mentality, to have disordered eating, and to have an eating disorder. Get honest about where you fit on the spectrum. You may hit the mark for some, but not all, items in a category. You do not need to fulfill all the marks in a category to still fall into that category.

Healthy Relationship with Food:

  • You think about nourishing yourself - What fuel and nutrients your body needs to operate.

  • You honor satisfaction. You eat things because you enjoy them and get pleasure from them. You enjoy eating to be social or experience culture.

  • You don’t experience anxiety or guilt before or after you eat.

  • You don’t feel like you have to “make up” for what you ate by exercising or restricting what you eat.

  • You feel a peaceful balance between nourishing yourself and satisfaction by “atuned eating” choices- you give your body what it is asking for.

  • You eat when you’re hungry.

  • You stop eating when you’re full.

  • Your food and exercise choices are not effected by your body image.

  • Food and body image are separate.

  • You feel kindness and love towards your body.

  • You don’t judge foods or label them as “good” or “bad”

  • Food doesn’t take up much mental energy.

Diet Mentality

  • You have rules around food.

  • You think of foods as “good foods” and “bad” foods.

  • Some foods are allowed, others are not.

  • Wrapped in the guise of health – you judge your food and the food choices of others.

  • You count calories.

  • You weighing yourself frequently.

  • You track or log the foods you eat.

  • You believe that “if I can just eat this way” or “exercise the right amount” then you will lose weight, and all will be well.

  • You place value on external rules of the diet rather than listening to your body’s hunger and fullness cues.

  • Food is transactional – you eat x amount of calories, so you must burn x amount of calories.

  • You limit your intake when you still are hungry

  • You focus on external cues like, “carbs are bad” rather than how much your body is hungry for carbs.

  • You are constantly measuring (steps, points, calories, miles, etc.)

  • You continue to search for an easy way out of taking care of yourself and desire a “quick fix” for your self-esteem.

Disordered Eating (Does not meet diagnostic criteria for an eating disorder- therapy is necessary)

  • You skip meals.

  • You severely restrict your caloric intake.

  • You over-exercise

  • You engage in emotional eating frequently.

  • You often find yourself over-eating.

  • You have ritualistic behavior around food (have to eat food in a certain way, time, order, etc. ) or else you become anxious if you cannot.

  • You binge eat – you will wait to eat all day and plan out menu or spread of what you want to eat.

  • Your relationship with food and eating causes emotional distress.

Eating Disorders (Therapy is necessary, earlier you can get into treatment the better)

Include: Anorexia nervosa, bulimia nervosa, binge eating disorder, other specified eating and feeding disorders (OSFED), avoidant restrictive food intake disorder (ARFID), and other specified eating disorders such as orthorexia, pica, and rumination disorder. For detailed criteria for each eating disorder, visit the National Eating Disorder Association's guide to eating disorders.

  • Eating disorder thoughts take over your thoughts most of the day on most days.

  • You begin to organize your life around the eating disorder.

  • You plan around when you will eat (so you can avoid or control eating in front of others).

  • You plan how you are going to engage in eating disorder behaviors (like when you are going to binge, or workout, or how you can look like a heathy eater in front of others).

  • Life becomes about doing the eating disordered behaviors (fearful food planning, bingeing, purging, calorie restricting /counting, planning, measuring, counting, weighing, using laxatives, exercising, etc.) and you lose site of who you are.

  • You spend so much time doing or thinking about eating disordered behaviors that you lose interest in other things, your values, your hobbies, etc.

  • Eating disorders care about how to continue eating disordered behaviors and they care about your weight. They do not care about your health or nourishment.

  • You ignore your body and cues for hunger and satiety.

  • You have rigid rules and judgments about the kinds of foods you eat or how you can eat certain foods, when, how much, in what way, etc.

  • You feel pressure and anxiety around food choices.

Did you see where you fit? Are you living with a diet mentality? The old “slippery slope” adage is particularly true when it comes to our beliefs around food.

This purpose of this post was to give an overview of relationships with food. The National Eating Disorders Association (NEDA) offers a free and confidential online screening that I HIGHLY recommend you take if you fall into the categories of diet mentality, disordered eating, or eating disorder.

If you or someone you love falls into the disordered eating or eating disorder end of the spectrum, it is important that you seek help from an eating disorder professional. The National Eating Disorders Association has some tremendous resources and can link you to a professional in your neck of the woods. To find a treatment expert near you visit NEDA’s Treatment Finder.

Recovery is a long process, but it is possible, and it happens every day. The first step is to understand your relationship with food. Is it healthy? Is it on the fringe of diet and disordered? There is hope and there is help.

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Disclaimer: The information shared on this website is intended for educational and marketing purposes. It is not a substitute for seeking help from a licensed mental health or medical professional. If you or someone you know is in need of immediate assistance dial  911.