How to Finally Build a Healthy Relationship with Food

Shannon Hilson

If you’re struggling to overcome a rocky history with food and fall in love with eating again, this is for you.

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Saying food has always been important to me is a tremendous understatement. Even when I was a little girl, food had strong connections to concepts like love, security, happiness, and togetherness. If someone was celebrating something or looking to make a particular event extra special, food was there, and there was more of it than usual. If you scored a win or did well in school, you might be treated to something you particularly loved to eat.

And doing something wrong often resulted in certain foods being taken away. Misbehaving might mean not being given a treat you were previously promised or otherwise not being allowed access to foods you loved. For instance, if my mother thought I was faking sick to stay home from school, it often meant not getting to eat dinner with the rest of my family or have the same foods they were having.

I learned early to see food as both a reward and a punishment. And that’s a message that was heavily reinforced, both at home and by the rest of society.

My mother had a disordered relationship with food.

She’s spent her whole life ping-ponging back and forth between aggressive binge-eating and extreme dieting. She also spent my entire childhood preoccupied with the possibility that I might grow up to be overweight, especially as I approached puberty.

She was not happy with the extent to which I enjoyed my food. I remember being all of ten years old and frequently fed lunches that consisted of only a few bites of food, as well as being given things like appetite suppressant bars to eat.

In reality, I was very skinny, bordering on underweight, and I preferred many healthy foods to the candy and sweets most kids couldn’t get enough of. But my mother didn’t see that when she looked at me. She was worried I’d grow up to struggle with my weight the way she always had, and she thought teaching me to fear food was the answer.

Thankfully, it didn’t work. Or at least not the way she’d hoped.

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Learning to cook as a young adult gave me a sense of control over my food.

Cooking was a way to recapture some of the joy I used to have when it came to food. It was also a way to eat better a lot more often, as I worked retail and didn’t have the cash to be eating out all the time. Finally, cooking allowed me to eat what I wanted without anyone telling me I couldn’t. I found out what it was like to feel full and satisfied after a meal without anyone trying to make me feel bad for it, and it was beautiful.

Food became an essential fixture in my life from that point on. It was undoubtedly an absolute must if there was something to be celebrated. I took pride in making sure there was always plenty of it around. Cooking and sharing food was (and often still is) an instinctual way for me to show love for other people, as well.

But, unfortunately, I still had the message that I was not to enjoy my food so much that I gained weight, especially not to the point where I could even maybe scan as “fat.” If I did happen to put on a few pounds, I punished myself mercilessly by basically starving myself under the guise of “dieting.”

It hardly helped that when I did things like that, I’d be praised by friends and coworkers for my discipline and showered with compliments when I started looking noticeably thinner. It made it difficult to see that, although my relationship with food wasn’t as toxic as my mother’s, it still needed a lot of work.

How can you tell whether your relationship with food is healthy or not?

While it is commendable to care about yourself and want to be healthy, toxic diet culture is everywhere. And disordered eating is everywhere to the point where it looks and feels like a very normal thing to be doing.

Overeating to the point of making yourself sick isn’t healthy, but most people realize that. What so many don’t get is that depriving their bodies of necessary nourishment isn’t healthy either. Unhealthy relationships with food are often at the root of all types of disordered eating, extreme dieting included. Here’s a look at some common signs.

  • You often feel guilt over eating or liking to eat.
  • You don’t listen to your body’s natural hunger cues.
  • You feel compelled to restrict food, binge-eat, or alternate between the two.
  • You’re a yo-yo dieter, forever on and off diets with your weight always going up and down.
  • You’re often the first to jump on the bandwagon when a new diet trend starts making headlines.
  • You worry about what others think about your eating habits or food preferences.
  • You see all foods as being either “good” or “bad,” or otherwise have many rules you follow regarding food and eating.

You don’t necessarily need to relate to all of those to have a bad relationship with food. It’s also possible for disordered thinking to come and go, as was the case for me. The most telling sign is any sort of shame, guilt, or stress — occasional or otherwise — that comes with eating. If that’s something you feel with any regularity, you will do well to reevaluate your relationship with food.

On the flip side, a positive relationship with food comes along with telltale signs as well. They include signals like the following.

  • There are no foods you consider entirely off-limits. You feel comfortable enjoying everything in moderation.
  • You’re in tune with your body’s natural hunger cues, eating when you’re hungry and stopping when you’re full.
  • You pick foods according to what makes you feel your best.
  • You don’t allow the real or imagined opinions of others to rule your food choices.
  • You don’t define your self-worth by the foods you do or don’t eat.
  • You don’t obsessively weigh yourself or agonize over what your scale says.
  • You don’t feel like you have to explain or justify your food choices or habits — not to yourself and not to anyone else.

It’s definitely possible to go from one to the other — from a negative relationship with food to a very positive, enjoyable one. It just takes a little work and a lot of patience with yourself. Here’s a look at a few strategies for turning things around.

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Reframe the way you characterize food.

In retrospect, I realize one of the best things I ever did for myself when it came to my relationship with food was learn to cook. It taught me to see the beauty in different ingredients, appreciate where they come from, and view the act of turning them into a meal as a form of art. I eventually learned to view food as more than just a fuel source. Cooking also gave me a framework to build on when ridding my life of my toxic thinking regarding dieting.

You may find something similar works for you. Spend some time learning about food. Yes, learning about nutrition is extremely important, but so is learning to see different foods as more than just a calorie count and a list of nutritional facts on an app somewhere. The great thing about embracing the culinary arts is it teaches you both and really helps you reframe the way you think about eating.

Give yourself permission to enjoy your food.

Let’s get one thing straight. You are allowed to enjoy your food. You should enjoy your food. You probably did enjoy your food a long time ago, before anyone else wrongly taught you that you should feel ashamed of nourishing yourself.

The next time you catch yourself engaging in negative thoughts about eating, either while you’re eating or otherwise, don’t give in to them. And try to avoid judging yourself too hard for still having them in the first place. Just acknowledge them and allow them to pass.

Then consciously bring yourself back to thoughts of gratitude about your food. Remind yourself that your food is a gift meant to nourish you and keep you healthy. Remember how fortunate you are to have it, and express thankfulness for all the people who helped to get it from where it originated to your plate.

Reevaluate any relationships that might be keeping you stuck.

Repairing a broken relationship with food isn’t going to happen overnight. It takes time and conscious effort to retrain your brain to see things differently. And even then, it may always be a struggle for you to some extent. The people in your life must be willing to support you in your commitment to heal and be healthier.

Have a talk with your loved ones. Explain what you’re trying to do, and ask for their support. If they love you and care about their relationship with you, then they’ll likely be on board. But be prepared for the fact that some people might not be, especially anyone you know who firmly believes dieting yourself sick and hating yourself for eating are positive ways to approach life.

My mother never did overcome her own issues with food, nor did she ever stop trying to make me feel bad for leaving some of the toxic lessons I’d been taught behind. Unfortunately, that meant I can’t involve her much in my various culinary adventures or anything else to do with food anymore. I have other friendships that I’ve had to let go of altogether, as well, because the friends in question were just too entrenched in toxic thinking and disordered behavior.

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Embrace the concept of balance.

One of the most important lessons I’ve learned about food and eating over the years is that health and happiness are all about balance. After learning how to cook, I’d say the most impactful decision I’ve made regarding my relationship with food was to also work on my relationship with exercise.

Like dieting, I used to see exercise as a way to punish myself for gaining weight or eating too many sweets around the holidays. It was also something I only did when I felt like I needed to lose weight. These days, exercise is an essential part of my daily life. It’s also how I choose to start every single weekday. It’s become such an enjoyable, deeply ingrained part of my morning routine at this point that I feel off all day long if I can’t get my workout in first thing.

Like food, exercise is no longer something inextricably linked to losing or gaining weight. It’s something I do because I love the way it makes me feel and gives me a chance to celebrate what my body is capable of. It also helps keep my weight from ever becoming much of a problem. Treating myself to the occasional cheeseburger or cookie isn’t a big deal anymore because I’m active enough that a few extra calories here and there don’t make much of a difference.

I don’t weigh myself with any regularity anymore or worry about what the scale says when I do. I don’t diet anymore, either, nor does my weight yo-yo up and down the way it used to. Instead, I focus on listening to my body, letting its natural cues guide my choices, and that approach has yet to steer me wrong. I now trust my body to ask me for what it needs when it needs it, and that approach has served me very well.

Don’t be afraid to ask for help if you need it.

If you find you’ve done everything you can to repair your relationship with food on your own and still aren’t making progress, there’s nothing wrong with seeking help. This is especially the case if you know or suspect you may be battling a full-blown eating disorder.

Confide in someone you trust and ask them to help you, or express your concerns to your doctor and ask for recommendations. You can also get in touch with help anytime via phone or chat at NationalEatingDisorders.org. They can offer you excellent resources to help you turn things around and get on the road to recovery. Remember, you’re not alone. You can find your way back to health again.

Reclaiming your relationship with your body and the food that nourishes you once and for all won’t be easy, but it’s well worth it, especially in the long run. Don’t be afraid to take that first step. You’ll wind up glad you did, I promise.

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Professional copywriter, blogger, critic, and journalist. Evergreen content on self-improvement, fitness, food, relationships, dating, freelancing, and productivity. Occasional hot takes on news, trending topics, movies, music, and television.

Monterey, CA
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