4 steps to restore a healthy relationship with food and enjoy eating again

Having a healthy relationship with food has been a goal of mine the past few years. I’ve always been image-conscious, and therefore tend to view food as a means to attractiveness and to satisfy my desire for perfection. For years I’ve been preoccupied with how food can make me look good, feel good and most of all, feel in control. Furthermore, I’ve also struggled with emotional eating and looking to food to provide comfort in times of stress, pain or even in times of celebration. Can you relate?

Because of my 20-something-years-long struggle with food, I decided it was a topic I wanted–and needed–to address. But, food is complicated! In the initial stages of this post, I thought to myself, ‘Should I even write about this? Is it even possible to have a healthy relationship with food?’ I came to the conclusion that although it is process, it is in fact possible, and something to strive for–here’s why.

As I’ve focused on cultivating a healthy relationship with food, I’ve experienced the benefits of eating for enjoyment and for health. In addition, I’ve learned to let go of toxic ideologies about food, bodies and what it means to be healthy. I can now enjoy eating without fear, restrictive diet/rules, or self-loathing. I am at my healthiest and feel the best I’ve ever felt. And I want that for you, too!

4 Steps to a healthy relationship with food

1. Shift your mentality about food

How do you view food? Is it a way to give your body the nutrients it needs? Or is it a reward for a grueling day at the office? A punishment for overindulging in pizza and ice cream over the weekend?

Many of us tend to view food with a reward/punishment mentality. This means that we see food as a way to reward ourselves for something positive or provide comfort in times of stress or sadness. On the other hand, we also view food as a way to punish our bodies for what we perceive to be bad food choices, or as a way to “undo” food indulgences.

How we think affects what we eat

Unfortunately, this line of thinking can lead to an unhealthy relationship with food. If you only perceive food as a reward or punishment, you will eat accordingly. Food will serve as a reward or comfort for you, which will likely result in the over consumption of treats and foods that are void of nutrition. As a result, you will probably feel bad about your food choices, and do a 180. Then, you will start to punish your body or “get back on track” by consuming something you perceive to be healthy (i.e. a salad), or restrict calories, maybe consuming nothing at all to compensate. While this may seem like an okay strategy, it’s not actually nourishing your body–and it will reinforce an unhealthy mentality about food.

Furthermore, eating this way perpetuates the reward/punishment cycle, will likely lead to distorted thinking about food, your body, and could even lead to an eating disorder. Think about it–if every time you eat a salad with no dressing to combat the calorie-bomb ice cream sundae, then you will develop an imbalanced diet, because neither of these foods are actually giving your body what it needs.

What does your body need? A balance of carbohydrates, fats, and protein–the macro nutrients. These are not optional–you NEED each of these for your body to function properly and maintain a healthy weight. While the amounts will differ from person to person, a balanced-diet approach is the way to go. I talk more about what a balanced diet looks like in my blog post “How to start eating healthy and stick to it.”

A nourishment, enjoyment mentality

In order to have a healthy relationship with food, it starts with your mentality. You must learn to shift your mentality from reward/punishment to a nourishment/enjoyment mentality. With this mentality, you view food as a way to–you guessed it–nourish your body an provide it with the nutrients it needs to function optimally. In this way, food is functional; it’s not intertwined with emotions or feelings about your body. In this way, food can nourish, heal and provide your body with energy.

In addition, a nourishment/enjoyment mentality also allows for food enjoyment. It’s not realistic to say that every bite of food you eat is solely for the purpose of fueling your body. Food is also something we can and should enjoy! There’s a reason that many social events and special occasions revolve around food–it enhances our experiences. I’m a firm believer that a healthy, balanced diet includes treats from time to time. And that’s precisely how to enjoy food–eating for nourishment with the occasional treat that you can really savor. In this way, you’ll feel relaxed about your food choices and you won’t feel deprived of the foods you enjoy.

2. Address Emotional eating

Furthermore, to have a healthy relationship with food, it’s important to uncover reasons why you may be turning to food to fulfill needs that it cannot meet. Food is for nourishment and enjoyment, but when it becomes a way to cope with stress or pain, it can lead to an unhealthy dependence.

Everyone is guilty of emotional eating from time to time. But if you find yourself consistently turning to food in times of stress, sadness, anxiety, etc. you might be dependent on food. While food can temporarily suppress your negative feelings and give you give you that “high” you desire, it is short-lived. Food cannot fix your problems. Just like buying things won’t make you happy, food won’t either. Acknowledging this is the first step.

Once you’ve come to terms with your emotional eating habits, you can start to find healthy outlets for stress, anxiety, etc. that actually help you cope with these emotions.

Healthy outlets can include:

  1. Exercise (disclaimer: not just as a way to burn off the food you ate and never as a way to punish your body, but as a way to clear your mind and feel good physically)
  2. Time with a friend or loved one
  3. Meditation and prayer (I like to meditate on Bible verses about how God views me, like the Psalms)
  4. Cry it out—this always helps me!
  5. Journal
  6. Take up a new hobby

3. Ditch the diets, rules, and judgment

Eating should be flexible, including what you eat and how much. Maybe you crushed your workout class and are famished, or you’re pregnant and need more calories because you’re growing a human. Or it’s a special occasion and you decide to indulge in a piece of cake (or two). And then there are those days where you’re just more hungry, without explanation–that’s okay, too! Try not to judge your body or your cravings. Your body knows when you’re undernourished, so if you’re hungry, you should eat! Furthermore, you can enjoy those occasional treats without being hard on yourself–they won’t wreak your nutrition (so long as they are occasional) or cause you to gain weight, so let go and indulge!

While I do enjoy sticking to a whole-food, plant-based diet (namely, the Plant Paradox diet, which has worked well for me), I do not restrict myself in terms of calories or even types of foods (I do not eat meat, however, but if I decided I wanted to eat it again I suppose I would!). I eat what feels good and nourishing to me, in addition to what fuels my body. Eating healthy, whole foods in general has freed me from counting calories, because I know that the foods I’m eating are nourishing my body. I can therefore choose to eat when I’m hungry and also stop when I am full, without any calorie- or macro-counting, and without feeling guilty about my food choices.

Let go of perfection

Moreover, using food as a way to establish control over your body or as a way of achieving perfection is exhausting. While good nutrition is imperative, there’s a difference between using food to fuel your body and using food to control your body. Toxic thinking like this is what leads to eating disorders. It all goes back to your mentality. The way you think about food affects your behavior and your life.

But no matter what you eat or how much, you cannot and will not achieve perfection. And even if you could, the perfect body or diet cannot and will not make you happy. So, why not let go of the perfection, all-or-nothing mentality, and embrace a flexible, grace-filled, self-nourishing mentality. This way, you can actually find contentment with your food and your body.

4. See a counselor or seek treatment to improve your relationship with food

Counseling is always a good option when you are struggling to change your relationship with food on your own. Having the assistance of a professional can be invaluable in this area, because you can often find someone who specializes in relationships with food and eating disorders. If you do have an eating disorder, it’s imperative that you seek medical treatment. Ask your doctor about your options, and confide in family, friends or anyone else you trust.

Let’s eat

While it will take time (and patience) to build a healthy relationship with food, it is so worthwhile. You’ll enjoy your food, find peace with your body, and learn flexibility with your nutrition, which of course, should include treats from time to time! Starting is the hardest part, but take things one step at a time, and over time, you will restore your relationship with food.