Many people are lucky enough to go through life without ever having to give a second thought to what they put in their mouths or how they feed their bodies. Other people become completely consumed and overwhelmed by eating to the point that their relationship with food becomes dysfunctional and unhealthy.
Dysfunctional eating can become a struggle for anyone, at any age and of any gender. Often dysfunctional eating starts with simple dieting strategies. Over time, these dieting plans morph into something that no longer resembles a sound weight management plan.
The Struggle Of Dysfunctional Eating
Dysfunctional eating starts to disrupt normal life when it interferes with the healthy intake of food. It is called dysfunctional because eating is no longer about consuming food to satisfy a nutritional need or to satisfy hunger but instead is used for other reasons, which are usually egregious in nature.
Healthy Weight Network describes dysfunctional eating as eating to alleviate anxiety, numb pain, for comfort or to relieve stress.
Dysfunctional eating can go beyond eating behind emotions, it can entail not being able to identify when you are full or satisfied or simply not knowing, or being in touch with how much food, the body needs.
It can also mean eating too much for the sake of pleasure, letting food control you and living to eat instead of eating to live.
Additionally, many people are hooked on carb rich foods, like junk food, chips and sugar that plague our society and many experts believe that carb intake is a one of the if not the main reason for the astronomical obesity rates in the United States, with 1/3 of adults obese.
In essence, in dysfunctional eating patterns food has more power over you than you have over it, in one way or another.
You struggle to justify eating this or skipping that but you never really get in touch with the simple concept of “food for sustenance.”
How Your Relationship With Food Shapes How You Eat
One way dysfunctional eating begins is when people start categorizing their food into good and bad categories. Good foods become safe, easy to consume without guilt while bad foods become forbidden and only consumed in secret and with horrible feelings. Severe deficits in food intake can begin to skew the view of safe and unsafe foods.
Often long periods of food deprivation will lead to an overconsumption of a particular food. This food is now deemed dangerous or harmful because it caused a binge. In reality, the lack of overall intake resulted in the binge of food, but the disordered eating pattern and the unhealthy food relationship will not allow that view to be seen.
Does all of that sound too complicated? How about this?
You ate too much at lunch, so you decide to skip dinner. Then at dinner, you’re starving and eat way more than you need because you gorge on a pile of pasta pesto. Now you know it must be the pasta pesto. Pesto is just too tempting. Can’t eat that again, or you might overdo it. This is one way you can begin a dysfunctional relationship with food.
Those who perceive food as comfort will fall into the emotional eating trap, reaching for chips, ice cream, and pizza when they are stressed, angry, lonely, or bored, leading to guilt, shame and regret.
Those who see food as something pleasurable, will habitually over eat, which also leads to feelings of guilt, shame and regret.
Many people simply are not in touch with the key concepts of healthy eating, such as portion control and moderation as these strategies elude those who struggle with weight and proper nutrition.
The examples are plentiful, but it’s important to focus on solutions so you can have a more healthy relationship with food.
15 Ways To Have A Better Relationship With Food
1) Know Hunger
Many people do not know what hunger feels like. They don’t understand the physiological cues of hunger; they will either ignore them or never let them happen. Psychology Today recommends that you get acquainted with both hunger and fullness. The more you know about these two states, the more you will be able to recognize them. On that note, it’s also important to mention that many of us simply are not in touch with how little food the body needs in one sitting to feel satisfied, typically it is 75 to 90% less than what many people consume in one meal.
2) No Punishment
Many people will punish themselves for what they had to eat earlier in the day, or even yesterday. They do this by starving themselves, skipping meals, taking laxatives, or over exercising. It is important that you stop these punitive steps immediately if you want to stop damaging your view on food.
3) Mindful Eating
The practice of mindful eating is supported by almost every eating disorder website, dieting website, healthy food website, and nutrition website. So, what is it? Mindful eating is the practice of being present and actively participating in the meal you are eating. Take the time to smell the aromas, chew the food, take in the sights of the meals, and actually pay close and deliberate attention to each and every bite. Mindful eating does not happen in the car during 5 o’clock rush hour. Stop and smell the roses, or in this case, your pot roast.
4) Don’t Eat To Fill Time
Many dysfunctional eating patterns emerge when we are younger. We start to eat to fill time. We were bored in the grocery store, so mommy or grandma hands us a lollipop to keep us busy. These habits follow us into adulthood. If you aren’t physically hungry, stop eating. It may take practice, but you can do it!
5) Eat Only At The Dining Room Table
If you struggle with eating when you’re not hungry then eating only at a formal dining space can really give you an advantage. This method doesn’t restrict food content, quality, or type; just how you consume the food, you eat. Snacking to fill time can be a huge problem. So make it a rule only to eat in a formal dining setting.
6) Don’t Let Food Rule Your Life
You have established a healthy eating routine, and now some friends want to go out to eat. To maintain a healthy relationship with food, you have to let these situations happen without freaking out. It’s ok to eat out of your usual pattern, just choose the healthiest meal for you, and move on. Remember food getting in the way of your social life, is a sign of a negative relationship with food.
7) Stress And Food
Stress can actually drive your eating patterns. If you’re not aware of it, then it can destroy any attempt at healthy eating. It’s a good idea to keep a journal to cue into your life’s stress and see how it is driving your craving for foods. Do you notice that you only crave that triple cheeseburger when there is a deadline coming up? Is the only time you eat a half a cheesecake when your boss has screamed at you, or you are bored or lonely?
What activities in your life are driving you to eat the way you do? If you can figure out these eating patterns, you are going to be able to start to shape different responses to your emotional stress. Instead of diving into a basket of fries, you can choose to fall into a pair of yoga pants to help alleviate the stress you’re feeling. The point is there is always a better option than food.
8) Start A Food Diary
A food diary for someone who is looking to change their relationship with food is going to look very different from a food diary for someone who is just trying to track calories. Emotional eating and disordered eating have many elements that are not related to actual food consumption. The level of stress for the day should be considered when writing in a food diary. How you felt when you began eating and how you felt when you were done eating should also be documented. Recording the emotional elements of food will allow you to track how certain foods, triggering events, and even emotional states make you feel and eat.
9) Don’t Keep Trigger Foods In Your Home
With binge eating episodes, often the problem starts with a particular pattern or food. Huffington Posts says that to avoid binging, one thing that you can do is avoid keeping your personal trigger foods in the house. If your binges always start and end with cookies, chips, ice cream and other junk, then you shouldn’t keep those foods in the house. Not having triggering foods in the house will help you avoid the binge in the first place. If there are foods you love, but end up binging on, go out for a treat once or twice a week. It is easier to buy a scoop of ice cream once a month than to live with eating a half a gallon of ice cream three times per week. Find a way to work around the craving and the binge.
10) Use Portions
One problem that many people have is that they sit down with an entire bag of their favorite snack, and then they watch TV while eating until the bag is gone. This is a trap that always leads to over eating. Single serving packages are fantastic because they teach you when the portion is over. The box is empty, and you have a cue to stop eating. If you do buy large bags of treats, then you should portion them out into individual sizes or take a small bowl to snack on. This way you are still getting the cue to stop eating when the portion is done.
11) Stop Using Weight As A Measure of Worth
Often negative relationships with food grow from the fact that our self-worth stems from our weight. The desire to be thin begins to outweigh any other feeling we have. The problem with this is that many times people are not able to view their body with an accurate eye. Often people see themselves heavier than they actually are. Other people, especially those who have developed anorexia or other eating disorders will see distorted images of their body. These images don’t accurately reflect what their body mass index shows, or what other people see. Furthermore, there are cases where people simply place all that they are into how they look or how much they weigh; neglecting to appreciate their worth based on personality, their level of caring for other people or their general goodness and decency.
12) Seek Quality
When people develop unhealthy relationships with food, they begin to do strange things, such as choosing radical diets that include eating cookies before a meal, drinking diet shakes for most of the meals, or only eating cabbage soup for 5 days, just to name a few. Since you want to change how you view food, change what you are eating. Aim to increase pleasure and satisfaction while you eat more nutritious foods as this will allow you to indulge in the experience of eating and reconnect you with your body’s natural response to food. Forcing yourself to eat foods you don’t like or chronically undereating is just reinforcing a weak relationship with food.
13) Stop Making Rules
One of the key signs of a poor relationship with food is having too many dietary rules. These rules could include things like how much you allow yourself to eat, how many times a day you allow yourself to eat, restricting healthy fats or even regulating the number of times that you chew your food. The more rules you have, the more likely it is that you have an unhealthy relationship with food.
14) No More Guilt
Every eating guide available talks about releasing the guilt associated with food. Chances are if you’re eating, it’s because you need to eat. Don’t let every little thing you eat turn into a huge guilt trip. Beating yourself up all day because you had that office doughnut is not going to do anything productive for you or your health. Instead, try to bless and release. Instead, learn the art of moderation, which means eating a healthy nutritious diet on a regular basis, while indulging on occasion and managing proper portions.
15) Seek Help
If you have tried everything that you can think of to help yourself with your relationship with food and still find yourself struggling then it may be time to seek professional help. There are many organizations out there that are dedicated to helping people with disordered eating and unhealthy relationships with food. There is no shame in admitting you need help sorting out why you have problems with how you deal with food. It takes great strength to admit when you need help, but the rewards are well worth it.
Unhealthy relationships with food can start anywhere and at any age. With our culture’s obsession with physical perfection, it is no wonder both men and women begin to obsess over how food will affect their appearance.
Food should be something that you eat to provide your body with fuel and to maintain energy levels. If you are frequently eating because you are sad, you need to cope with stress, or because it seems to be the only way to deal with your anxiety you may be developing an unhealthy relationship with food.
Eating disorders, obesity and overweight can all be indicative of unhealthy relationships with food that include starvation, binging, skipping meals, yo-yo dieting, creating rules about what you can and cannot eat, lack of control, and perceiving food to have other purposes besides how it is intended.
If you can begin to mend your relationship with food and eating, and gain a healthy perspective, you can become healthier, lose weight, and stop the undue suffering associated with how you deal with food.
Stay well and take care!