Create A Positive Relationship With Food, With Our Dietitian, Catherine Bell

When we think of the word relationship, we often think of our partners, family and friends, but, what about our relationship with food? Although we need food as fuel, our connection with food goes far beyond just nourishment. Food triggers memories, has deep nostalgia, marks special occasions, commiserates losses and celebrates wins.  Everyone’s relationship with food is entirely unique and although many of us have never stopped to consider it, every single day our food relationship shapes our diet choices and self esteem – for better or for worse!

Although food can bring a lot of joy, unfortunately for many people food has the ability to incite emotions that do not make us feel empowered. Perhaps it’s the guilt we can’t shake after eating foods we told ourselves “we wouldn’t”, or the dreaded disappointment of “breaking our diet”. These types of feelings can be deeply ingrained and say much more about our negative relationship with food, than they do the food itself. An important part of any journey to health is understanding your own food relationship, and working to heal it if it is dysfunctional. 

But how do we know if we have a dysfunctional food relationship.Think about the following examples, how many of these do you feel could relate to you?

  • I think about food all day long, at breakfast I’m thinking about lunch, and at lunch I’m thinking of dinner. Food takes up a lot of my mental energy.
  • I think of some foods as “good” whilst others are “bad”.
  • I’m full – but this is my only ‘cheat’ meal this week so I better make the most of it.
  • I set rules for myself when it comes to food, and feel guilt when I don’t achieve them.
  • I get worried when I don’t know which types of food will be available to eat.
  • I tend to be either very hungry, or very full.
  • I often feel tempted by trendy diets, and have tried more than I can count!
  • My health, body weight and nutrition fluctuate a lot. 
  • I prefer to eat ‘treat foods’ when I’m alone – to avoid judgement!
  • I feel like the only way I can not eat “bad” foods is by not having them at my house.

What about recognising examples of a positive food relationship? Those who connect positively with food will often think:

  • I love delicious food, but it doesn’t preoccupy my thoughts. 
  • I don’t feel as though I need to explain my food choices to other people. 
  • All foods fit in moderation! 
  • That looks delicious, but I don’t think I actually feel like any right now. 
  • I forgot I had this in the cupboard!
  • Food is just food, it doesn’t affect my self esteem. 

If your connection with food is something you’d like to work on, the good news is with care and attention, like any meaningful relationship, we can work to improve it. 

Here are some of my top tips for getting started on a more positive relationship with food. 

  1. Recognise your own unhelpful thoughts, and get used to questioning them.

The examples listed above are only some of the many possible unhelpful recurring thoughts someone might experience. It’s important to understand that these thoughts and fears aren’t grounded in reality – more often than not, they’re simply what we grew up hearing from family or friends. Begin to recognise what your own unhelpful food thoughts are. Take note of the types of situations or foods that typically trigger these feelings for you, and self reflect and question why you feel that way. Writing down negative thoughts can be a helpful way to notice any patterns. 

Next, practice rejecting and replacing those dysfunctional thoughts each time. Try saying:

“No, that’s unhelpful and untrue, I only think that because I heard someone say that about themselves many years ago. Instead the reality is…”

Keep practicing, it gets easier!

  1. Stop labelling foods 

Food can be many things, but food can’t be ‘naughty’ ‘nice’ ‘good’ or ‘bad’. Food is morally neutral. When we label foods like this, how can we expect to eat so called ‘bad foods’ and not feel – well, bad?  Try to remove these words from your food vocabulary. Not only can it impact our self esteem, research suggests that when we label foods as  ‘forbidden’ or ‘bad’ we tend to over become particularly preoccupied with them – often the exact opposite of what we’re trying to achieve (1).

Rather than using labels, practice thinking about food in a more objective way by focusing instead on the food’s nutrition and how a food makes you feel physically. 

A food you once thought of as:

“Tastes nice but is naughty, if I eat that I am letting myself down” 

Might instead be thought of as:

“Tastes nice but is a high sugar food, If I eat that it may impact my energy levels this afternoon”

Suddenly, it’s no longer personal and we get better at seeing food on a spectrum of more to less nutritious, rather than categorically being ‘good’ versus ‘bad’. 

  1. Understand that all foods can fit in moderation

It is true that some foods have more to offer nutritionally than others. But, as well as physical wellbeing, we also eat for psychological and social well being – so all foods have a time and a place! It is well established that feeling deprived from our favourite foods can lead to overeating (2,3,4) – so it can feel like you’re trapped in an endless cycle! 

Instead of an all or nothing approach, try to include a large variety of foods in your diet, and practice portion control instead of complete exclusion of foods with less nutritional value. You’ll find much better long term balance this way.

  1. Be flexible and follow hunger, not rules.

Imagine, if a friend of ours said, “I feel thirsty, but I don’t drink water before 11am” or “I feel thirsty, but I’ll go for a walk to distract myself”. It seems crazy, but yet it’s common to set likewise rules for ourselves with food. 

Strict dietary rules, and being inflexible with food may mean we aren’t listening to our bodies natural cues – such as feeling hungry or feeling full. 

Rather than trying to stick to rules, when you think of food, practice rating your hunger on a scale of 1 through 10. It can be challenging at first, but it’s a great way to get used to tuning into your body. Don’t forget our hunger can be different day to day based on many factors such as activity levels, hormones, and sleep.

We can all benefit from taking the time to reflect on our food relationship. Don’t forget, healing a food relationship takes practice, and just like any new skill it can take months, or even years to feel like you’ve got it figured out. There will be times of progress and times of regression and that’s ok. 

Next time you have a negative (and unhelpful!) food thought, take the time to self-reflect. Enjoy your favourite foods in moderation, listen to your body, and above all treat yourself with kindness, no matter the goal.

If your relationship with food is impacting your day to day, there are plenty of services and resources out there, and we recommend seeking advice from a Dietitian or other health professional.

References

  1. Mann, T., & Ward, A. (2001). Forbidden fruit: Does thinking about a prohibited food lead to its consumption?. International Journal of Eating Disorders, 29(3), 319-327.
  2. Weber, J. M., Klesges, R. C., & Klesges, L. M. (1988). Dietary restraint and obesity: Their effects on dietary intake. Journal of behavioral medicine, 11(2), 185-199. 
  3. Goldstein SP, Katterman SN, Lowe MR. Relationship of dieting and restrained eating to self-reported caloric intake in female college freshmen. Eat Behav. 2013 Apr;14(2):237-40. doi: 10.1016/j.eatbeh.2012.12.002. Epub 2012 Dec 20. PMID: 23557829; PMCID: PMC3614005.
  4. Stevens, J., Chambless, L. E., Tyroler, H. A., Harp, J., Jones, D., & Arnett, D. (2001). Weight change among self-reported dieters and non-dieters in white and African American men and women. European journal of epidemiology, 17(10), 917-923.

Catherine ‘Cucumber’

Dietitian, My Food Bag

As My Food Bag’s nutrition guru, Catherine makes sure all our recipes and products follow Nadia’s ‘Nude Food’ philosophy. She works closely with departments across the whole business including the Development Kitchen, Innovation and Marketing! “I have always loved people, food and science in equal parts, so I decided to base my career off nutrition science and become a Registered Dietitian. I like helping people to understand what I like to call ‘down-to-earth’ nutrition – no fads, detoxes, or buzz words here!” Her My Food Bag journey started a few years ago, when she was part of our Customer Love team during her studies. Before returning to My Food Bag, Catherine worked as a clinical Dietitian at a hospital.

When it comes to food, this foodie’s favourites couldn’t be more different! On the one hand, she can’t go without a good bread (especially a sandwich loaded with veggies!), and on the other hand she sneaks spinach into anything and everything that she can. When she’s not working, you’ll find her getting outdoors, escaping the city for a big walk and a picnic lunch, or enjoying the sunshine with live music and friends.

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