How to Change an Unhealthy Relationship with Food 1

How to Change an Unhealthy Relationship with Food

January 20, 2020

What is your relationship with food? Do you have an unhealthy relationship with food?

  • What word comes into your head right now as you're reading about your relationship with food?
    • Comfort, emotional, joy, happiness, pleasure, celebration, love, shame, secretive, disappointment, anger, or hopelessness?
  • Do you feel shameful after negotiating a certain food item/snack?
  • Do you feel that you have to “hide” when eating outside of meals?
  • Do you strategize the “sneak?”
  • Do you feel a situation/ emotion/ environment can determine your food choices?

Let’s go through a scenario:

It’s a special meal, it could be a holiday, your birthday, or any celebratory occasion, and your most loved people surround you. You sit down to a table filled with comfort foods that you have been excited to have and proceed to eat significantly more than you need or planned. There’ a second serving, a few extra bites, and a sampling of all the desserts because the thoughts of “I already messed up” or “it’s a holiday, I’m allowed” run through your head.

And then you spend the next few days disappointed in yourself, feeling guilty, thinking about “getting back on the diet, the program” instead of maintaining the happiness and comfort the special celebrations brought you just a few moments/days ago.

Or, this scenario:

It’s a long day at work, and you come home to take care of the house and your family, run some errands and/or go to activities and prepare dinner. It’s getting late, the family has eaten, you nibbled on some food on the go, you're “somewhat hungry,” and then everyone gets settled for bed.

It's late, the house is quiet and the recognizable thoughts of “it's my time, I can finally sit down in quiet, watch my shows and have a snack” run through your head.  It's late at night, but you indulge. Instead of embracing the day's exhaustion, relaxing, and/or going to sleep, you are now “stimulated” from the “snack” you just ate. The thoughts begin to race through your head as you attempt to sleep with “I can’t believe I ate that, I ruined the day, why I cannot stop; or simply, I’ll be better tomorrow because I just messed up again, like always.”

And then you spend the next few days feeling guilty, and most likely are overeating and making poor choices because of your thoughts that “I have already been bad, so why not, next week I’ll start again, I’ll be good.”

The thoughts and your relationship with food become more and more challenging.

Do these scenarios seem familiar? Is your relationship with food connected to your emotions? In the world of health psychology, we spend a lot of time researching emotional eating, mindful/mindless eating, and the behaviors surrounding such.

Not everyone will spend the time or feel comfortable talking about something that’s much more common: the relationship with food, the guilt, the guilt with eating, and the familiar unhealthy relationship with food many people are confronted with, daily.

The unhealthy and healthy relationships with food are so common, and I’m sure we can all relate at different levels. How many people do you know that have said they often felt guilty about how much they ate, what they ate, where they ate and when they ate. Have you?

The unhealthy relationship with food can be seen and heard by a thought or a judgment; “I shouldn’t have eaten that,” I’m so ‘bad,” “I’m weak,” “if I had any self-respect I wouldn’t have eaten that,” “Ugh, why can’t I be strong? I should be smarter than this, and I must have no willpower!” “I guess there is something wrong with me, that I can’t stop,” “I guess I will always struggle with my weight and health,” “this is just who I am!”.

Reminder: You do not become a “bad” person because you opted for a poor choice rather than an apple. You are the exact same person you were before you ate the food/snack.) It’s important to never label yourself good or bad based on the indamine object- food. YOU ARE A GOOD, STRONG PERSON, no matter what you eat.

An unhealthy relationship with food can affect your overall self-esteem, relationships, and even how you spend your time and energy. When we devote our mental space to the dysfunctional food relationship, it can obstruct our thoughts. We will have less of the positive headspace for the people we love, the work we are doing, the books we are reading, the vacations we want to plan, and any excitement we desire. We lose the presence we have in our lives because our thoughts can over-consume our mood.

Remember: Each thought leads to a behavior which leads to a consequence.

Change Your Unhealthy Relationship With Food

You can change your unhealthy relationship with food, especially if it doesn't work for you long-term. These suggestions will give you a headstart.

  • The Relationship With Yourself. Changing the way we talk to ourselves; the way we negotiate, and treat ourselves is imperative. But like many other habits, having an unhealthy relationship with food takes time and confrontation of the thoughts, so let’s change one thought, one moment, one day, at a time.
  • How You Treat Yourself. Let’s start with self-compassion, speak kinder, hear the thoughts you have, modify a negative into a positive, believe in yourself.
  • All-or-Nothing Thinking. Identify the times you catch yourself in the cycle of all or nothing thinking.

Write down those thoughts, write down kinder words, write down the all or nothing thinking, and challenge those thoughts with productive thoughts.

Rather than worrying about all the ways you could “mess things up,” how the willpower isn’t there, how you deserve to have “what you want, when you want,” be proactive, think positively and with confidence about you, your day, your time, your emotions. Think about what you can do to work on the relationship with food that may be impacting your health. Think about what thoughts are working for you and your health and what thoughts aren’t.

Our thoughts create our road map, chose your direction with confidence.

If you’re meeting family and/or friends for dinner, try to say to yourself, “I’m going out to dinner, and I will feel confident about my decisions,” as opposed to “I’m going out, so I’m allowed to be bad.” When you are proactive and look at the menu ahead of time (if possible), you can reduce any vulnerabilities with negotiations and give yourself a chance to get comfortable with the environment and the choices.

Being proactive will complement the excitement by looking forward to the company/meal and feel confident about how you navigate the food. Being proactive with the simplicity of looking ahead at the food choices will afford you the ability to reduce regret and the negative chatter in your head!

Guilt Has No Place in Our Relationship With Food

The negative chatter leads to guilt, and guilt has absolutely no place in our relationship with food. It’s unhelpful, unhealthy, and ultimately counter-productive. So, let’s commit to eating food that makes us feel good. Whether because it’s nourishing or because it’s a pleasurable splurge that you felt confident with, enjoy it, enjoy your moments, no guilt, no shame, true pleasure, and confidence.

Then after you’ve had the meal you felt confident about, and you’re thinking about your next day, say to yourself, “I’m going to continue to eat with confidence, not because I have been bad, but because I chose to. I chose to have a stronger relationship with myself and food, not as a punishment, or because of a diet, but because it makes me feel good…and that’s what I want.”

When we plan, acknowledge, and address the way we feel about food, it’s easier to step back, see the big picture, and read our road map with clarity and confidence. We can decide to happily partake in our indulgences and then move on with healthy confident choices. Most importantly, we release the power that “food” might have over us, and we reestablish the unhealthy relationship to a healthy relationship with food.

Stay confident. Let's not throw away a day for a moment; let's change the unhealthy relationship, change the map, and enjoy each day for all you truly deserve! Happiness and Health!

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Dr. Willo Wisotsky is a NY State Licensed Psychologist and is affiliated with New York Bariatric Group. Dr. Wisotsky has committed her research and clinical practice to the field of eating disorders and obesity with its related medical and mental health comorbidities. Dr. Wisotsky practices from a Behavioral Medicine approach with an emphasis on improving overall well being, increasing mindfulness, motivation, quality of life and health.
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