Healthy Relationship With Food

Say “No” to Diets and “Yes” to a Healthy Relationship With Food

March 1, 2021

If you’re reading this, ask yourself “Do I have a healthy relationship with food?” You’re probably one of the millions of people who have tried to follow a diet and found that it left a little something to be desired. Maybe you intended to lose weight, but you didn’t. Or maybe you did lose weight, only to later watch the scale slowly and insidiously creep back up to your starting weight… or higher.

Or maybe you found that it left you feeling deprived in your day-to-day, left out at celebrations and gatherings, or guilty and ashamed when you “fell off the wagon.” Whatever your reason for throwing in the towel, you’re not alone.

It’s estimated that 45 million people attempt to go on a diet in the US each year. Sadly, most of them will be unsuccessful. If the intended goal is weight loss, statistics show that 95% of people who are successful at losing weight ultimately regain weight within 1-5 years. And it’s not that they failed at following the diet; the problem is that diets often just don’t work.

Consider that a recent study published in the British Medical Journal comparing the effects of multiple popular named diets on weight loss and cardiovascular disease risk factors found that while most diets do result in improvements in these parameters after 6 months, these effects essentially disappear after 12 months.

Overly Restrictive Diets Can Lead To Nutrient Deficiencies

How could this be? It’s a known fact that extreme calorie restriction and weight loss can result in a depressed metabolism, or a lower rate of calorie-burn, which leads to a plateau in weight loss until and unless you restrict even more. Your body may also adapt by increasing levels of the hunger-stimulating hormone ghrelin.

Essentially, your weight loss becomes a constant uphill battle as your body fights back to preserve its energy stores during what it perceives as a threat to its survival. Aside from that, overly restrictive diets can lead to nutrient deficiencies if you’re not careful, which can leave you feeling lousy and creating another obstacle to your success.

And that’s if you stick to the diet. However, the very nature of most diets makes them notoriously difficult to comply with over the long term. Diets require your constant diligence - always checking labels, dutifully packing diet-compliant lunches, scouring the menu at restaurants for a compatible option, even sitting out special meals with loved ones.

This creates a lot of stress around eating and meal prep and takes a great deal of effort, stamina, and extreme willpower to sustain. Even the most determined and disciplined dieter is bound to get burned out at some point.

On a psychological level, dieting can create unhealthy, negative thought patterns and problematic habits that can sabotage your health goals.

Foregoing all of your favorite foods and meal-time rituals or ignoring your body’s hunger cues leads to feeling deprived, and may trigger over-indulgence later.

For many individuals with an unhealthy relationship with food secondary to years of yo-yo-dieting and/or poor body image, this over-indulgence results in guilt and shame at having “failed” at their diet, and a renewed and over-zealous commitment to restrict in the future, and the cycle continues. This is not a simple lack of willpower! This is the diet working against you.

How To Rebuild And Have A Healthy Relationship With Food

All this is not to say that you should give up on healthy eating and weight loss altogether. Rather, if you make your overall well-being your main focus, and practice self-care by making choices grounded in self-respect and compassion, you can once again establish a healthy relationship with food and your body, and weight loss may naturally follow.

Tips to Have a Healthy Relationship With Food

Get Back to Basics

The first step in creating a healthy relationship with food is to (you guessed it)… ditch the diets! True health comes from making sustainable, long-term lifestyle shifts over time. Trade-in those gimmicky, black-and-white diets for some common sense, simple yet effective practices, at your own pace.

  • Reduce your intake of sweets, sugar-sweetened beverages, fried foods, and alcohol (but know that it’s ok if you need to indulge every once in a while).
  • Try to cook at home more than you go out to eat.
  • Eat more fresh, whole foods such as fruits and vegetables.
  • Get some exercise; a walk in the park, some light yoga, or some simple strength training to build muscle, which can help to elevated our metabolic rate. Exercise has the added bonus of being a great stress-reliever and mood-lifter.
  • Try to shift your mindset from one of restriction of unhealthy foods to one of an abundance of healthy foods.

Practice Mindfulness

Mindfulness and intuitive eating are the antitheses of toxic diet-culture. Practicing mindfulness means living in the moment and stopping to notice the subtleties of our life that we often miss, and mindful eating means honing in on your body’s cues and honoring your body’s needs.

  • Notice when you’re hungry, and make a point to eat something healthy before you become famished and reach for anything in sight.
  • Take your time to eat, savor your food, and notice when you start to feel full.
  • Notice how you feel after you eat... satisfied? uncomfortably full? tired? Craving something else? What is your body trying to tell you?
  • Whenever possible, eat without distractions – avoid eating while driving, watching TV, or working. Eating while distracted may not only cause you to inadvertently eat more than you mean to, but it also deprives you of the joy of the experience of eating such that you may want to eat more later.
  • And, perhaps most importantly, notice your motives for eating and your feelings around your choices. Eating, or eating a specific way, for reasons other than physical hunger such as boredom, stress, or social pressure, while perfectly human and normal, can become problematic if it becomes a habit and if those choices aren’t in alignment with our health goals. If this is something you do often, it’s important to explore that and figure out how else you can address the needs you’re trying to meet with food.

It’s All A Matter of Perspective

To create a healthy relationship with food, pay attention to your inner dialogue. Speak kindly to yourself, the way you would a friend. We have unfortunately been trained by our culture to equate part of our identity and self-worth with our weight, our appearance, and even our dietary choices.

This puts undue pressure on even the smallest choices and erodes our self-esteem over time if we feel as though we are failing to achieve a certain outcome. Now that you know that some powerful internal forces are working to keep you stuck each time you start a new diet, you can stop the cycle and choose to practice self-compassion.

For so many, diets are a recipe for disaster. Set yourself up for success rather than failure. Learn to make healthy choices from a place of self-care and respect, rather than self-bullying and disgust. You’d be amazed at how much a simple change in perspective can help you achieve food freedom.

Healthy Relationship With Food
Sarah Kennedy


Sarah Kennedy RD, LD is a Clinical Dietitian with Memorial Hermann Memorial City Medical Center. She has experience serving patients with a variety of conditions in the hospital setting, as well as bariatric surgery candidates in the outpatient setting. She has a passion for food and nutrition and enjoys helping others achieve balance in their diets while attaining their wellness goals.