It’s normal to think about our relationships with people, but, how often do you think about your relationship with food? It might seem like a strange question, but if you’ve heard of the 80/20 you’ve probably heard that what you eat counts for 80% of your fitness goals when your activity counts for a mere 20%.
And, it’s also true that you can’t out-train a bad diet.
However, you’re likely reading this because as much as you try, you simply can’t seem to control what you put in your mouth. I just want to say if this is you, you aren’t weak and there’s nothing wrong with you, you just need to learn how to have a good relationship with food.
Let’s start with establishing what a bad relationship with food is…
7 signs your relationship with food is bad.
A bad relationship with food will have you using foods to punish yourself, reward yourself, fill emotional needs or give in to cravings.
Food can also be an avenue for you to show weakness from peer pressure even when you know the foods don’t fit your goals.
You might also try and over-restrict to lose weight, which leads to cravings and bad choices.
I have punished myself with food before. I have eaten entire packets of TimTams in one sitting because I had a bad day. It wasn’t to make myself feel better; it was because I knew they were terrible for me and I was self-sabotaging.
This kind of punishment might also include over-eating to the point of feeling pain in your stomach. Or over-eating so you can then justify vomiting.
Punishing yourself with food is a clear sign of a bad relationship with food.
I love reward meals. I love birthday dinners or celebrations after finishing a semester of uni. However, you can over-do this. You might think to yourself, I have had a great week of eating clean, I have earned an entire weekend of indulgence!
No, you haven’t earned that kind of reward! All you’re doing is reinforcing a bad relationship with food.
The problem is that you can easily cancel a week of good eating in one day. Two days and you’ve gone way over.
However, you should feel good that you had a good week, but you have probably only earned a small piece of cake after you finish your clean meal.
To put rewards into perspective; foods like biscuits, cakes, ice cream, takeaways etc., or anything that healthy eating suggests is a “sometimes food” is something to use as a reward.
Eliminate them from your daily diet and then appreciate them as a reward.
Emotional eating is a sure sign of a poor relationship with food and is similar to, and sometimes the same as, punishment eating.
The truth is, when you consistently eat better, then you are less sensitive and do less emotional eating.
If you are struggling with this, remove the “sometimes” foods from your home so that you have to make more of a conscious effort to get them. That conscious effort can be enough to stop the subconscious emotions from taking over and putting those biscuits in your mouth.
Have you ever felt cravings around your monthly cycle? Did you realise these cravings can be your body telling you that you are a little deficient?
Misinterpreting the signals your body is giving you can be a sign of a bad relationship with food.
For years, salted potato chips were my go-to food for hormonal cravings.
Fried carbs covered in salt. Yum.
In truth, at times I get low in iron. Iron plays a crucial role in the transport of oxygen in the blood. When iron levels are low, common symptoms are fatigue and tiredness, with some suggesting the craving of salt is your body asking for more minerals which have a similar flavour.
Either way, steak with salad leaves me feeling much more satiated than the chips ever did.
A tired body “thinks” it needs energy-rich food, ie. carbs and fat.
If you haven’t had enough sleep or enough water, then you might crave energy-rich foods, especially those containing sugar for energy.
Again, not listening to the signals your body is trying to give you and filling them with junk instead is not demonstrating a healthy relationship with food.
Think through your cravings, check in with your GP if you need to, and find a healthier way!
6. Over-restriction in the morning.
I have seen many food diaries from people struggling to lose weight or maintain a healthy weight.
The early morning foods are often the problem.
What happens is that they start their day on low calories with sweetened cereals and fruit. They get hungry again fast. Then as the day progresses and their energy levels dive, their body is fixated on getting more sweetness.
The issue is, we are already fasting while we sleep and we wake up hungry.
If you only give your body a small portion of simple carbohydrates, it becomes concerned that food is in shortage. It begins to store energy as fat in case of extreme hunger. It pauses the muscle-building process because that requires energy.
Over time, the body will start to break down muscle tissue to fuel other functions. It causes you to feel more hungry and spend more time obsessing over food.
Simply, a sweetened, low-calorie breakfast can fuel a bad relationship with food.
Fruits are great to include in a balanced diet. They’re full of nutrients and fibre.
However, they’re also full of natural sugars so the body burns through fruits fast. This can lead to sugar crashes which causes the body to crave processed sugary products with additives I’d rather not list.
A better breakfast for people struggling with their weight would be something low in sugar and including complex carbohydrates and protein. As they take longer for the body to absorb there will be a slower stream of glucose into the bloodstream.
The protein will also support the building and repairing of muscle tissue. Muscle tissue loves to burn calories even when at rest. If you want to lose weight then eating in a way that supports your muscles is essential.
Some examples of a complex carbohydrate meal with protein might be eggs on wholemeal toast with asparagus. Oat porridge with a scoop of protein powder. Frittata with potatoes and tomatoes.
The sweeter options like fruits, cereals and yoghurts are better utilised to top up energy levels with later in the day.
However, I wouldn’t recommend sweet foods after dinner unless you’re trying to gain weight.
7. Food pressure.
We’ve all dealt with peer pressure as children, but adults do it too! Think of all of the different reasons people need to bring cake into the workplace!?
And, how dare you refuse a slice on John’s retirement day!
Peer pressure with junk food is a real thing, and how you cope with it can indicate what kind of relationship with food you have.
My former workplace was notorious for sharing doughnuts.
It wasn’t until I scanned the package barcode into MyFitnessPal that I realised how toxic and how far outside of healthy eating they were. The flavour didn’t justify the stodgy feeling in my guts, the excessive calories and the complete void of nutrients.
My colleagues did not let me say no without a fight!
Eventually, after I was consistent with my response “no-thanks, they don’t fit with my fitness goals” they stopped offering them, and didn’t stop talking to me!
You always have a choice, and if people realise you prove dedication to your goals then they will eventually back down and respect you! Be strong!
If food peer pressure isn’t in a workplace, keep your eye out for it in social or family settings.
Do you have one of those relatives who complains that you don’t eat enough, and piles your plate high with food and insists that you eat it all. They wait till you are already bursting and then bring out dessert. They are the first to criticise your appearance if you start losing weight. “You’re too skinny.” “There’s nothing left of you.”
For some, particularly those that have grown up with less, might consider food to be a way to show love. For others who struggle with their weight, they want you to stay the same, so they don’t feel bad about themselves.
Either motivator, these people can be easily offended if you refuse their food. Generally, you will know when you are going to see them in advance so rather than try and deny their food plan for it.
It won’t hurt to eat a little less in the 24hrs before (or even for a couple of days prior) you see them and 24hrs after. During this period choose to eat leafy greens and some lean proteins, so your pyramid is more balanced for a few days.
4 steps to create a healthy relationship with food.
I’m sure you’re a little overwhelmed with how many situations display your relationship with food, but I have good news. There are only four key areas that you can address to create a great relationship with your life-line.
A good relationship with food starts with educating yourself on what good choices are. Taking the time to understand and acknowledge how good they make you feel.
Your knowledge will allow you to make an educated decision on whether the flavour of the cheesecake is worth the sacrifice in the gym.
If you are trying to lose weight, gain weight, or feel like an energiser bunny then remember, food is not the enemy!
Step by step. First, try to replace processed foods with whole foods for a couple of weeks but keep your quantities roughly the same — simple changes like replacing 2-minute noodles with a whole wheat spaghetti. Or have freshly baked potatoes seasoned with olive oil, garlic and herb instead of frozen potato gems.
Then for the next couple of weeks keep the total quantity the same and try to balance the ratios from the different food groups. Use The Healthy Eating Pyramid as a guide.
If you still aren’t starting to feel more energetic to hit your workouts and getting results in your body measurements, then you should follow up with your GP and a Dietitian. They will help you to rule out any underlying issues before you start reducing quantities.
We have already discussed planning around eating with family; however, there are other opportunities to prepare. Have you ever taken the fast-food route because you were just too busy to get something healthy? Then regretted because you felt sluggish and tired? The solution is simple.
Plan when you have a clear mind, and you will make better choices.
Even better, meal-prep for busy days so you don’t give yourself the opportunity to make bad choices! Your colleagues will envy your cute packed lunches, and you will feel better for it. A bonus of already having food prepared is that you will feel guilty for wasting it if you think about getting take-out.
Change it up each week, so you don’t get bored. Have a bit of flexibility over the weekend when you socialise.
Change doesn’t have to be complicated.
Simple things like seasoning your baked potatoes with chilli, paprika and lime instead of garlic and herb are easy to implement without much thought. Cooking with natural herbs and spices are a straightforward and low-calorie way to keep food interesting. They also give you an extra boost of vitamins and minerals.
Find great ways to use up leftovers, like my Okonomiyaki Recipe (above). This can avoid the temptation to overeat when there isn’t going to be a full portion left.
Taking the good and the bad to make a healthy relationship with food.
Most importantly, food is not the enemy; it is a crucial part of survival. If you treat it with respect, it will nourish you.
Your body and mind will reward you with clarity, endurance, better sleep, fewer cravings, better skin, more strength, and fat loss with muscle gain if you feed it right.
Educate yourself on nutrition, plan and prepare nutritious foods so that the “eat-occasionally” foods don’t trick you.
Over time the dirty processed foods will no longer hold the same appeal. The smell lingering around a fast-food joint will no longer entice you. You will find yourself preferring to eat clean and green.