a relationship with food

Changing A Relationship With Food: Casting Food in a New Role

April 26, 2021

For many people who undergo bariatric surgery, food has become more than just a part of the natural process of eating to fuel a healthy body. Their relationship with food was an issue.

Over a lifetime, food has the ability to take on many roles. It soothes emotional discomfort or is a reminder of happier, more positive times. It distracts us from feeling sad or anxious or provides entertainment when bored or lonely. Celebrations, rituals, or people in our lives are often associated with particular dishes or ways of engaging in meals.

It is possible to develop a healthier relationship with food: one that is free from emotional drives and instead serves a more fundamental purpose of nourishment.

Changing your relationship with food is an important part of a healthy weight loss journey and begins by first changing how we think about food and the role we assign it in our lives. By doing so, we can replace unhealthy uses of food with more adaptive thoughts and behaviors that will bolster physical and emotional health.

Mindfulness and Insight

Mindfulness is one strategy that has successfully helped many people improve their relationship with food. It begins with focusing attention on eating, and the ways we use food to respond to stress or regulate emotions.

Step 1

Identify personal triggers for eating. One strategy is to keep a food journal and identify the times during the day when you have the urge to eat. This awareness will shed light on when and where hunger, whether physical or emotional, occurs.

Note the setting (home, work, social), who is around (family, partner, colleagues), your feelings (bored, anxious, over-worked, tired, sad, angry), and your physical cues (stomach sensations, light-headedness). Eating can provide a distraction or it can help numb distressing feelings.

At the same time, food often rewards completing a task, overcoming a challenge, or achieving success. How many times do we reward good behavior, academic achievement, or a sports victory with food?

Over time, patterns in your triggers for eating will emerge. This recognition is important because often when food has solidified its role as a coping mechanism, it is difficult to see it in any other light. Only by bringing awareness to the situation is change possible.

Fortifying Your Body Becomes Self-Care

Step 2

Redefine the role food plays in everyday life. This is where we change the script and take control. Begin by identifying food as sustenance and nourishment; then, importantly, change eating into an act of self-care.

Food choices become opportunities, not just to provide fuel but also to show your body kindness. Eating becomes a positive action instead of an attempt to deny or subtract something from your diet. Every meal is an opportunity to respond in a novel way to hunger.

Perhaps this looks like stepping outside your dietary comfort zone and seeking out new foods or recipes based upon minimally processed lean proteins, whole grains, vegetables, legumes, fruits, and nuts. Create and adopt your personal menu of foods that your mind and body will appreciate. Next, set the intention to include them in every meal. Habits take at least 30 days to develop, so set out to create your “menu” for 30 days.

Eating Mindfully

When you do sit down for a meal, allow yourself time to eat slowly and without distraction: this is your time to appreciate and enjoy eating as a way of being kind to and caring for your body and mind.

Engage all five senses and appreciate the colors in the food, the smell, texture, and flavor of the food. Tune in to the physical sensations of your stomach and feelings of fullness and stop eating when you are no longer hungry.

Finally, allow yourself missteps and when they happen, let them go and look for the next opportunity or meal to show kindness to yourself. 

New Ways to Manage Stress

If food is nourishment and eating an act of self-care, then new tools may be needed to cope with distressing emotions. If repeated bouts of anxiety, depression or memories of abuse, neglect, or trauma are present, then seeking the help of a licensed therapist to provide evidence-based treatment is recommended.

Even everyday stress, however, may result in increased levels of the hormone cortisol in the body. In turn, cortisol triggers cravings for foods high in fat, salt, and sugar. Consuming these foods increases dopamine levels in the brain, activating pleasure centers and brief feelings of euphoria. Our bodies quickly  become conditioned to seeking the wrong foods because, for a brief moment, the pleasure distracts from the distress.

Combatting stress, reducing anxiety, and improving mood through mindfulness, meditation, relaxation, and engagement in valued and enjoyed activities hold the promise of strengthening emotional resilience, a key to health and wellness.

Health professionals can teach a variety of relaxation techniques but you can also learn many on your own. Guided imagery, progressive muscle relaxation, and deep breathing exercises take only five to fifteen minutes a day.

The University of Missouri T.E. Atkins Wellness Program offers free resources for mindfulness-based eating and stress reduction.

The UCLA Mindful Awareness Research Center also provides free guided meditations and relaxation exercises. At the same time, massage, meditation, yoga, music and art are additional activities which may calm the mind and relax the body.

 Try practicing these activities mindfully as well, letting yourself fully experience them with your five senses and being aware of the positive emotions they bring up as you engage in these forms of self-care.

A New Relationship With Food

Mindfulness increases our understanding of the physical sensations, thoughts, and emotions tied to seeking relief through food. Adapting a new approach that includes identifying the triggers for stress and eating, and applying healthier responses, is the start to redefining one’s relationship with eating and food.

Ultimately, this is possible only after one sets the intention to show compassion, care, and often forgiveness for oneself at every stage in the journey towards better health.

Like in any relationship, making meaningful changes in your relationship with eating and food can take time. Choosing to take steps toward a healthier relationship with food is a decision you can make every day. Remind yourself that you're worth that effort! Over time, the relationship will evolve into one that embodies self-compassion because ultimately you are worth caring for.

a relationship with food


Kimberly C. Kimchi, Ph.D. is a Clinical Psychologist and the Director for Behavioral Health at Missouri Weight Management and Metabolic Institute at the University of Missouri. Dr. Kimchi holds a doctoral degree from Hahnemann University/Drexel University and fellowship training in neuropsychology from the University of Michigan. Currently, she is a faculty member within the Department of Health Psychology at the University of Missouri.