broken relationship with food

How To Fix A Broken Relationship With Food

January 13, 2021

Your relationship with food is one of the most important relationships of all. If you’re not prioritizing this relationship, it may impact your physical and psychological well-being which can, in turn, affect almost every other part of your life. Fixing a broken relationship with food can feel overwhelming. It can be helpful to reflect upon your history and then focus on the here and now to determine how to build a stronger relationship with food moving forward.

7 Tips on How to Fix a Broken Relationship With Food


Examine where problematic behaviors or thoughts related to food came from

Though we cannot change the past, it can be helpful to understand what experiences led to developing a distressed relationship with food. This step may be helpful to do with a therapist if the answers to the questions below are highly emotionally charged.

Go as far back into your past as you can remember and think about what you were taught about food and what you observed as a child and adolescent regarding food.

  • Were you made to feel guilty if you didn’t clean your plate?
  • Were you rewarded with food? Deprived of certain types of food?
  • Did you see others in your home always on a diet or eating emotionally? Were you put on a diet?
  • Did you grow up in a household of instability? Did you find consistency in the comfort of food?
  • Were you involved with cooking meals and choosing snacks?
  • Did you have family meals without distractions?
  • Were you teased as a child for what or how much you ate?
  • Have you suffered from physical, sexual, or emotional abuse? Did food give you a sense of control or help you escape the physiological and psychological experiences of trauma?

As an adult,....

  • Did a medical issue or medications lead to more or less hunger? More digestive issues? Do you use food to manage anxiety?
  • Did the stress of increasing responsibilities lead to less time for self-care?
  • Did your peers or significant other teach you that certain foods are toxic and should be cut out all together?
  • Did you experience loss, tragedy, or trauma that led to changes in your relationship with food?

When we are born, we eat when we are hungry and stop when we are full. Developmental growth, learning through observation, and various life experiences can really alter the homeostatic nature of nourishing ourselves. Being mindful and aware of how the past continues to influence you in the present moment can open a window of opportunity to do things differently.


Keep a log to find patterns of experiences that are harmful to your relationship with food

Many people trying to fix their relationship with food will have gone through diets and systems to track points and calories. What I find to be far more important is understanding the context you’re in when you’re overeating, binge eating, emotionally eating, not eating enough, or choosing foods that make you feel unwell. Keep a log of what you’re eating and alongside of it, track what kind of physical space you’re in, how you’re feeling emotionally, what thoughts are running through your mind, and what behaviors you might be engaging in as you’re making decisions about what to eat. Are you finding that your relationship with food is worse when…..

  • You overextended yourself and said “yes” to too many things in a day?
  • You’re feeling stressed, sad, happy, tired, bored, lonely, angry, shame, or guilt?
  • You notice certain physical sensations in your body?
  • You have negative self-talk?
  • You’re distracted by television, your cell phone or others?
  • You’re in certain settings (restaurant, someone’s home, by yourself)?
  • You’re under the influence of alcohol or substances?

This is again an opportunity to observe deeply ingrained, automatic patterns. As we increase mindfulness, we increase the opportunity to be in the present moment and make different decisions.


Figure out what you need to accept and what’s in your control to change

As you learn more about what variables from your past and present make you more vulnerable to making decisions that worsen your relationship to food, it’s important to understand what you can and cannot control. We can’t change our past experiences. We can’t control every thought, feeling, or emotion that pops up. We also can’t change our environments all the time either. What can you change, though? Can you…

  • Try a new hobby if you find that boredom is frequently linked to mindless eating?
  • Practice saying no when you’re overextending yourself?
  • Choose to turn the TV off when you’re eating food?
  • Change the “Clean your plate” rule you learned so long ago?


Ditch strict dieting and listen to your body’s specific feedback

The dieting industry is a billion dollar industry that is constantly promoting new things for you to buy to once and for all solve all your food- and weight-related concerns. There truly is no one-size-fits all solution to improving your relationship with food and your body. As you can see from the points above, everyone has their own personal history with food. Everyone’s genetics and physiology is different too! So instead of following someone else’s rules about what to eat and not eat, figure out what works and doesn’t work for your specific body and for your specific life.

 When eating certain foods and certain quantities of food, do you notice feeling…

  • Like you’re in a food coma?
  • Brain fog/difficulty concentrating?
  • Shaky and nervous?
  • Tired, fatigued, low energy?
  • Stomach pains, nausea, severe bloating, constipation, gas, diarrhea?

With the exception of certain medical conditions, there are truly no foods that your body cannot handle at all. Instead of making gluten, carbs, dairy, sugar, etc. the enemy, figure out how much and how often your body can tolerate different types of food. It’s possible that if you eat a lot of dairy all at once, your specific body may have a significant physical reaction. But you may also find that small amounts of dairy on a daily basis is something your body can totally handle without consequence. Listening to your body and putting these pieces together isn’t always easy. Consider working with a registered dietitian for additional help sorting through this piece.


Notice shame, judgment, and criticism and introduce self-compassion

Along with noticing the physical effects of your body, notice any shame, judgement and criticism that shows up related to decisions you make around food. Self compassion is the antidote to these internal experiences. Be kind to yourself. Try to see yourself through the eyes of someone or something (a pet, for example), that sees you with unconditional love. You don’t need to join in with your mind and participate in the automatic shame, blame, judgement, or criticism that might show up. Notice these thoughts and feelings and choose to meet yourself with warmth and empathy. When you think about healing something, it rarely involves punishment. You’re more likely to heal by being kind towards yourself.


Be present, slow things down, and be intentional

In order to heal your relationship with food, you have to spend time with food and think about it intentionally. This may mean changing the pace of your day to create more space and time to tend to your relationship with food.

Think about the following questions:

  • What do you want your relationship with food to look like?
  • What do you need to do to create more space and time in your life to tend to your relationship with food?
  • When making food decisions, what is it that you want to eat? What quantity of this food and in what way would it best be cooked/prepared such that your body will best respond to it?


Eat mindfully

Food can often be used as a substance to make experiences go away, to enhance experiences, to numb, or to avoid unpleasant emotions. Instead, whenever you eat, try to be present with your food. Eat it slowly. Savor the flavors. Pay attention to your experience with food.

I want to close this article with encouragement for you. Your weight loss journey is life-long. Be mindful, be kind, and learn from your experiences. Let your experiences teach you what works and doesn’t work. Keep refining and tweaking how you’re relating to food. With continued commitment to this process, healing a broken relationship with food can occur over time.

Dr. Sapna Doshi specializes in the treatment of weight
management and eating disorders at Mind Body Health.

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Sapna Doshi


Dr. Sapna Doshi specializes in the treatment of obesity and eating disorders. She received her Ph.D. in Clinical Psychology from Drexel University. She completed internship at Duke University Medical Center and trained at the Duke Center for Metabolic and WLS. Dr. Doshi provides pre-surgical psychological evaluations for WLS at Mind Body Health. Dr. Doshi works in Arlington Virginia. Read more articles by Dr. Doshi!