A healthy relationship… with food?
You’ve probably heard of a “healthy relationship” with family, with friends, or with a partner, but we talk less often about our relationships with food in terms of their health — beyond simply what we consume and when. A relationship with food is psychological, financial, social, and cultural as well as physical. Like any other healthy relationship, a healthy relationship with food is free of fear or the feeling of being controlled or out of control.
What impacts our relationship with food?
Our relationships with food are impacted by our life experiences and the systems around us. For example, the fad diet industry often uses body-shaming tactics and capitalizes on our desire to be “good” or “healthy” people in its mission to sell more products. These techniques often also promote the idea that some foods are inherently “good” and others are inherently “bad.” You’ve probably heard a friend say, “I’ve been so bad today — I ate (fill in the blank).”
However, there are no “good” or “bad” foods — and furthermore, what we consume can’t make us “good” or “bad” people! Just like eating kale all the time doesn’t make you somehow better or more moral, a bag of chips doesn’t suddenly make you a “bad” or “unhealthy” person. A healthy relationship with food involves knowing that your morality or value as a person is not determined by what you consume.
Our relationships with food can also be shaped by a desire to attain an (often unrealistic) “ideal” as portrayed on TV, in movies, or through other media. This ideal of “health” or “fitness” often depends on visible body shape/size, and provides a very narrow window of “healthy” shapes/sizes. However, research tells us that we cannot tell how healthy a person is — or how healthy his/her/their relationship with food is — by the size or shape of her/his/their body.
Overall, our bodies need different things at different times. Only you can determine what’s best for you based on your body, access to resources, and belief systems. One rule or set of guidelines does not apply to everyone in regards to diet, and people have many different ways of getting the nutrients we need.
What can I do to have a healthier relationship with food?
- Remind yourself that your value does not depend on what you eat, and that there are many more ways to be healthy than are shown in the media.
- Listen to your body. To the extent that you are able, try to eat when you’re hungry and stop when you’re full. Don’t wait for your hunger or your fullness to “yell” at you – keep in touch with what your body needs to the best of your abilities based on your access to resources. This can take practice!
- Don’t be so hard on yourself! Being rigid and restrictive about what foods you “allow” yourself to eat can be harmful to your body and your mind. Focusing excessively on what foods you have eaten, or counting calories obsessively, are often a sign of an unhealthy relationship with food.
- Pick the foods that give you the energy to do what you do during the day. After all, that’s what calories are — energy! The more nutrients that come along with that energy, the better.
Find more information:
Balanced eating as a vegan or vegetarian
Finding balanced and nutritious foods on a budget
If you feel concerned for yourself or a friend, or want to talk more about your relationship with food, you can find more information and contact options here.
This article was originally published September 4, 2014, by Mary Koenig, a program assistant for Student Wellness. She was in the school of Social Work and Public Health at UNC Chapel Hill.