How to Have a Healthy Relationship with Food That Lasts

Healing your relationship with food isn't necessarily easy, but it can be done. Here, registered dietitians share how to do just that — and when you might benefit from speaking with a pro.

How to Have a Healthy Relationship with Food
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Back when you were just a toddler, you probably never gave your hunger as much as a second thought. You ate a snack when your stomach growled, you stopped munching when you felt full and satisfied, and you repeated the process throughout the day. But as you aged, that intuitive approach to eating may have gone sideways.

There are several factors that may have influenced your relationship with food: your parents' and friends' well-intentioned yet potentially shame-y comments about your food choices, the health education you received in school, and in recent years, social media trends (e.g. "what I eat in a day" videos), says Shana Minei Spence, M.S., R.D.N., C.D.N., a registered dietitian nutritionist who counsels with a HAES and intuitive-eating approach. And that means they've also shaped the way you think about and choose what goes on your plate. "I think that really does affect your relationship with food because then whenever you're eating, you're thinking, 'Okay, am I eating correctly? Should I be eating less? Should I be eating something different?'" she explains. "You're losing your own connection."

But restoring your relationship with food — and the ability to eat intuitively without feeling guilty or stressed — is possible. Here, registered dietitians break down the signs your relationship with food may not be as healthy as it could be and, more importantly, how to start healing it.

What Does a 'Healthy' Relationship with Food Look Like?

First things first, there isn't one specific way to have a healthy relationship with food, and every person is allowed to decide what "healthy" means to them, says Mia Donley, M.P.H., R.D., C.D.N., a registered dietitian who specializes in disordered eating. In general, though, a positive relationship involves viewing food as a source of both fuel and fun, she says. "Food provides us with nutrients that give us energy — it helps our bodies — and food also provides us with sensory pleasure and comfort," she explains. "So, ideally, a healthy relationship with food is where both of those exist.

Under this mindset, you'll also feel comfortable listening to and acknowledging your hunger and fullness cues, adds Spence. Say your stomach starts rumbling just an hour after you wolfed down breakfast. If you have a healthy relationship with food, you might seek out a snack that satisfies you both mentally and physically, she says. "In a non-healthy relationship with food, you would be scared of that feeling," she adds. "You'd be like, 'Wait, I just ate maybe two hours ago, so I shouldn't be hungry. I'm going to ignore my body signals because I feel I'm always overeating.'"

The way you think and talk about food can hint at your relationship status, too. In a fraught relationship, you might classify certain foods as "good," "bad," "clean," or "junk," says Donley. These terms may seem like NBD, but when you eat the so-called "bad" foods, you're more likely to feel ashamed, guilty, or worried about your choices, she explains. In turn, you might change how you live your life to avoid the "bad" or "cheat" foods. Consider this scenario, says Spence: If you're getting together with friends to watch the Bachelor and you know pizza is going to be the only dish served, does that make you feel nervous or scared? Or will you skip the gathering entirely because eating a slice will make you feel "bad?" If you're nodding your head yes to either of those questions, your relationship with food may not be at its best. (

With a healthy relationship, however, you might be flexible and nosh on a piece of the pie, understanding that straying from your preferred eating style for one single meal won't change your health — and doing so "is not a reflection of your lack of self-control," adds Donley. "I think in a more peaceful or neutral relationship with food, food is just one part of our life," she explains. "It is not that binary of the good or the bad. It is foods that just feel satisfying, that feel good to our bodies, that sound good to eat. It will not give us a sense of guilt."

On the same token, the amount of brain space you're dedicating toward food can indicate how your relationship stands. In an unhealthy one, you might regularly think about what to eat and what not to eat, how much to eat, and when to eat — and not because you can't wait to devour the delicious meal you have planned out, says Donley. "If it feels stressful to think about what to eat, if foods do not feel safe or healthy, and if it is hard to be spontaneous or even flexible with food choices…I would say that's a more fraught or unhealthy relationship with food."

In the short term, an unhealthy relationship with food — particularly one that takes up a significant amount of your thoughts — might make you more prone to dieting that can exacerbate your negative relationship, as it can feel like the best way to avoid "bad" foods and eat only "good" ones, says Donley. But in the long run, Donley notes that it may increase your risk of developing disordered eating habits — unhealthy food and body behaviors that are typically done to lose weight or improve health but put you at risk for significant harm, according to The Emily Program, an eating disorder treatment center. These habits can also lead to poor self-esteem and body image. "Our relationship [with food] does not exist in a vacuum — it can also spill into how we see ourselves and how we treat our bodies," explains Donley.

When an Unhealthy Relationship with Food Becomes a Concern

The point at which an unhealthy relationship with food becomes disordered eating isn't so clear-cut, nor is it universal. Still, there are a few signs that your habits may be disordered, and speaking with a professional, such as a registered dietitian, disordered eating specialist, or mental health expert, may be beneficial.

One such sign: consistently using those self-prescribed labels to guide your food choices and serving sizes, rather than considering what your body is telling you to eat and how much of it, says Donley. For example, buying a salad for lunch to "save up your calories" because you "ate so badly yesterday" — not to satisfy your craving for something crunchy and refreshing — could be a sign of disordered eating, explains Spence. "You should be able to order things based on your taste preferences, and ordering something just because you're trying to be 'good' or because it's low-calorie or low-fat (or what have you) is disordered."

The amount of time you dedicate to thinking about food also matters. "If you are feeling like thinking about food — what you should eat, how you should eat, when you should eat — is taking up a lot more space than what you are used to or are liking, I think that might be a sign that it's time to talk with someone and unpack some of these things," says Donley. To help you make that decision, Donley suggests asking yourself what percentage of the day you spend thinking about food or your body, then thinking about what you'd like to use that brain space for instead. If that percentage is too high for comfort or you notice you're missing out on key life experiences because of these thoughts, consider booking an appointment with a health care professional, such as a registered dietitian or disordered eating specialist. (FTR, there are situations in which food takes up a significant amount of headspace due to food insecurityand other factors, and in those cases, the relationship may not be considered disordered, adds Donley.)

TL;DR: "If you feel like your relationship with food is ever interfering with your daily life [due to] the rigidity that might come in or if food is feeling chaotic — meal times just feel [overwhelming] to you — that might be a sign that it would be helpful to talk to someone about this," says Donley.

How to Start Improving Your Relationship with Food

Lose the Labels

To Spence, the first step to establishing a healthy, or even neutral, relationship with food is to lose the labels tied to morality. Instead, describe your meal as if you were a judge on a cooking show, she suggests. For example, The Great British Bake Off's Paul Hollywood wouldn't describe a slice of Black Forest Cake as his "cheat meal" for the day, but he would say it's "packed with flavor" or it "melts in the mouth." "Saying things like that are better for our minds and our mental health than constantly thinking we're being either good or bad," says Spence.

Practice Intuitive Eating

Adopting an intuitive approach to eating, much like the one you had when you were a child, can also be a part of your toolkit, says Donley. Before you can hone in on your hunger and fullness cues, you'll first need to look at how much and how frequently you're eating, she says. "Are you having at least three meals per day? Are you eating enough food and having some variety at those meals? Are you skipping meals?" she asks. "It's hard for your body to get back in touch with those feelings if your body doesn't trust that your needs are being met."

Once you're sure you're properly nourishing yourself, pay attention to how you feel before or between meals, says Donley. Ask yourself: Are there any sensations in your stomach? Do you feel irritated, tired, or scatter-brained? Are you thinking about food more often than usual? If you say yes to any of those questions, there's a good chance you're hungry, she says. Then, "while you're eating your meal, notice how you're feeling," she suggests. "How full do you feel? Do you feel full but not satisfied? Is there something that would make this meal or snack feel more satisfying?" Recognizing these thoughts and sensations, and actually following through on them, can help you start healing your relationship with food. (

Still, if you're struggling to pick up those feelings of hunger, fullness, or satisfaction, know you're not alone, says Donley. "Trauma, chronic dieting, conditions like ADHD, gastrointestinal issues, sensory processing difficulties, or certain medications can interfere with these cues," she explains. "You might benefit from working with an R.D. and/or a therapist."

Set Boundaries

Setting boundaries is also key to restoring your relationship with food. Even if you've slowly come to ditch terms such as "clean" or "junk," your loved ones may not have gotten the memo, and they may take it upon themselves to label and discuss what's on your plate. In those instances, Donley recommends asking them to keep the conversation at the table free of any diet talk. If someone still brings up dieting or even topics surrounding your or other people's bodies, you can ignore their comments and change the subject, "especially if you don't feel like it's a safe place to bring up your concerns or you just don't have the energy," says Donley. Still, if you feel like you need to give a small response, consider saying, "Thanks, but I feel great about what I'm eating" or "I don't feel comfortable talking about this," as Spence suggests on her Instagram.

Or you can try explaining the journey you're on and let them know you don't want to categorize food as simply "good" or "bad," she says. From there, you can change the topic or, if the person seems open to learning more, further elaborate on your path to an improved relationship with food and what you've learned so far, she says. That said, "you don't have to justify your choice to change your relationship to food or to not diet," adds Donley. "Sometimes we have to set boundaries multiple times with others, too, before it sticks."

Take It Slow

Even if you do put this guidance into action, know that improving your relationship with food isn't an overnight process, and your progress may fluctuate over time — and that's okay. "We can have really fraught, really painful relationships with food, and they can move to be more peaceful," says Donley. "And there can be times where our peaceful relationship to food has a wrench thrown into it with all the different stresses of life and it can change." (Hi, COVID lockdown.) Having this toolkit under your belt, however, can help you get back on track to healing your relationship when that wrench does get in the way, she adds.

Regardless of how far or little you've come in your relationship with food, don't be afraid to talk things through with a registered dietitian or mental health expert. "A professional can at least have an objective point of view and be there just to support you in this whole journey," says Donley. "It can be hard when you don't know people in your circle who might be wanting a healthier relationship with food or are talking about intuitive eating or being weight neutral. [A pro] can at least be one person in your corner." (Next up: 8 Situations When You Should Consult a Nutritionist That May Surprise You)

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