8 Strategies for Maintaining a Healthy Relationship With Food

Stacey C. Slagle

How’s your relationship with food?

A group of women are enjoying a meal in a restaurant with rose wine. They have a king prawns sharing platter , one woman can be seen passing her friend a plate of food. Mixed ethnic group

(Getty Images)

As with any connection, maintaining a healthy relationship with food requires work, and is just as important as any other bonds in your life, says Lisa Jones, a registered dietitian based in Philadelphia.

However, many people struggle with an unhealthy relationship with food and dieting, says Erin Clifford, a wellness coach based in Chicago. For some, that involves slipping up on an eating regimen by secretly consuming such diet-busting foods as chocolate chip cookies, muffins, ice cream, fried chicken and greasy hamburgers.

It’s helpful to keep in mind there’s no “one size fits all” eating regimen that works for every individual. “If your favorite food is pizza and you embark on a diet that eliminates it, that will be hard to maintain,” Jones says.

3 Signs of an Unhealthy Relationship With Food

“I’ve worked with people who would bring me their food journal, and it looked perfect, but they weren’t losing weight,” Clifford says. “I (would) ask, what’s really going on? And they’d admit they ate food they didn’t put in the journal. I had one client who had a drawer hidden in her bathroom that her husband didn’t know about. She used it to store things like cookies and potato chips. If you’re hiding what you’re eating, that’s not a healthy relationship with food.”

Yo-yo dieting is another way an unhealthy relationship with food manifests itself. Some people can be on top of their weight-loss diet game for weeks or months at a time, then relapse and put on pounds by eating sugary, fatty and high-caloric items.

“That’s not good for your body,” Clifford says. “We function best when we’re eating in moderation and are consistent.”

Some people eat emotionally to insulate themselves from their feelings, which is detrimental to maintaining a healthy lifestyle. People sometimes eat because they are stressed, sad, bored or lonely. People who eat emotionally typically reach for unhealthy “comfort food,” such as ice cream or french fries, which can lead to obesity, diabetes and heart disease.

8 Tips to Avoid Compulsive or Unhealthy Eating

“Some people (are compulsive) about food, the same way some are about alcohol or gambling,” Clifford says. “There are parallels.”

But consuming food compulsively is different from substance use disorder or gambling problem. There are 12-step programs to help people abstain from drinking or using drugs, but everyone needs to eat. Fortunately, there are strategies to maintain a healthy relationship with food.

Diet and nutrition experts and a physician offer these tips to achieve and maintain a healthy relationship with food:

1. Think about maintainability.

Before embarking on an eating regimen, ask yourself if you’ll l be able to follow the lifestyle plan long-term. If the answer isn’t “yes,” you may need to make some changes to your plan to set the groundwork for a healthy relationship with food, Jones says. An eating regimen rich in fruits, vegetables, whole grains and dairy products, moderate in lean protein and low in sodium is generally a good choice.

Such an eating plan can help reduce your risk of:

The best way to maintain a healthy relationship with food is to seek support from a professional, like a registered dietitian who can provide strategies based on your lifestyle and food preferences.

The Academy of Nutrition and Dietetics has a referral network to identify a local RD to set up a consultation. In addition, family and friends make a great support team in the effort to build a better and healthier relationship with food. Make sure to enlist a few members of your support system to help in reaching the diet relationship goals desired.

3. Don’t label specific foods as good or bad.

A cup of broccoli does not have angelic health powers, and a slice of pizza is not demonic. Some foods are better for your well-being than others, but no food is either evil or benevolent, says Anne Lewis, a clinical psychologist in private practice in Indianapolis.

Ascribing moral qualities to foods gives them unwarranted power, Lewis says. If you deviate from your diet and eat junk food, that doesn’t make you a bad person, and you needn’t beat yourself up over it, which could lead to a sense of defeat and overeating.

4. Minimize your opportunities to make bad choices.

For example, if you’re on a low-sugar diet, it’s OK to have a small piece of cake on special occasions, such as your birthday or when you’re out having dinner with friends, Lewis says.

Limit your cake consumption to special events. Don’t regularly keep cake in the home. Keeping certain foods nearby can promote a habit of eating them, Lewis says. If you have a birthday celebration in your home and have leftover cake, give it away or throw it out.

5. Don’t get too restrictive.

Rather than cutting out certain foods completely, allow yourself one day a week to have a modest portion of your favorite treat. For example, instead of trying to banish donuts forever from your diet, permit yourself one every seven days, Clifford says.

Trying to never eat a particular food for the rest of your life might be unrealistic. Rather than feeling like a failure if you have a treat – which could lead to binge eating – incorporate that food into your eating routine in moderation.

Write down not only what you eat, but what you’re feeling at the time. Documenting your eating habits and emotions will help you detect patterns, Clifford advises.

You might see that you backslide from your good eating habits by consuming chips, cookies or other junk foods when you’re feeling sad, anxious or depressed. Rather than reaching for the unhealthy snack, try doing some deep breathing or going for a short walk.

“If you try that instead, a lot of times the craving will pass,” Clifford says.

Instead of heating up your meal in a microwave or picking up your food from a deli or fast-food joint on the way home, take the time to cook.

You needn’t become a master chef. “Cooking can be really simple,” Clifford says. “You can buy a steamer and throw your vegetables in it. There are good indoor grills. It makes you appreciate your food more if you went to the store to pick your ingredients and prepared them. It makes you mindful.”

8. Set yourself up for success at the grocery store.

The battle to maintain a balanced relationship with food begins at the supermarket, where what you buy will greatly determine whether you will maintain healthy eating habits, says Dr. Michael Russo, a general surgeon specializing in bariatric surgery at MemorialCare Surgical Weight Loss Center at Orange Coast Medical Center in Fountain Valley, California.

Make a shopping list of tasty and healthy ingredients. You can plan your grocery shopping trips to avoid aisles loaded with unhealthy items. “The last thing you want to do is load up your cart with cookies, snack chips, crackers and other processed or refined foods that are high in carbohydrates,” Russo says. “They are the single most important reason we are facing an obesity epidemic.”

Try shopping at the perimeter of the supermarket, where fresh produce, lean meats, dairy products and baked items are sold, and avoid inside aisles, where snack items and sugary desserts are usually sold, Russo says. When you’re in the bakery section, pick up whole-grain breads and avoid the cakes, muffins and cookies.

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