How To: Build a Healthy Relationship With Food

A healthy relationship with food though, is meant to be lasting, thus requiring a different mentality.


With foods perpetually labeled “good” or “bad”, relentless lose weight quick gimmicks, and societal pressures to look a certain way, it’s no wonder why developing a strong, positive relationship with food is such a struggle.

Principles on food and eating habits can understandably waver with how much incessant noise is coming from social media, billboards, news, advertisements, “specialists” lacking the appropriate credentials, and even esteemed professionals who are supposed to help rather than harm. But if a solid foundation with food isn’t established, said wavering can lead to an increased susceptibility of disordered eating.

Almost immediately upon hearing “disordered eating”, anorexia and bulimia come to the mind of most. And while those are the most recognized culprits, disordered eating is actually much more inconspicuous and pervasive. At least 30 million Americans of ALL ages, genders, and backgrounds suffer from some sort of eating disorder – which is substantially more, nearly double, than the number of people that suffer from depression in the United States (16.2 million).

The scope of subtle signs of disordered eating is vast:

  • Inflexible eating habits
  • Misuse of supplements
  • A preoccupation with one’s body despite falling within a healthy bodyweight range
  • Rigid exercise routines and feeling agitated if it gets interrupted or can’t be completed
  • Feeling shy, anxious, or fearful about eating in public or around others
  • Self-worth based primarily on body composition and appearance
  • Anxiety about certain foods or food groups
  • Compulsive calorie counting

This is only a sample size of the multifariousness of tendencies that signal to disordered eating. As with all forms of healing, self-awareness is imperative and truly the most restorative, powerful tool you have. Together with self-awareness, the following is a compilation of research, mindset shifts, and my personal thoughts and experiences to support and guide in nurturing a balanced, positive relationship with food.

Food is not the enemy

Serving more than just a physical purpose, food is meant to nourish your body and your soul. It’s not meant to be demonized, so please try to refrain from doing so. A realistic first step would be to be mindful of the conscious and subconscious labeling of foods as bad, off-limits, unacceptable, safe, and “no-no’s”.

Put an end to yo-yo dieting; the cycle of losing, gaining, and losing weight, commonly due to the regular starting and stopping of fad diets. Oftentimes all of the weight that was lost and then some is gained back when a fad diet ends, which wreaks havoc on a person’s metabolism, digestion, and self-esteem while simultaneously setting them up to fall prey to the next promising new diet.

Speaking of, shake the “diet” mindset altogether! It has such a negative, restrictive connotation. When a friend declares they’re starting a new diet, you most likely imagine how their life will be void of happy hour appetizers and drinks, socializing, chocolate, and all other forms of comfort food for the unforeseeable future. How discouraging is that? Diets are seen as quick, short-term fixes; they aren’t made to last. A healthy relationship with food though, is meant to be lasting, thus requiring a different, non-diet mentality.

One of my favorite expressions: don’t DIET, EDIT your food choices.

Emphasize small, gradual changes that are doable and enjoyable, as those are the changes most likely to endure the test of time!

If you do happen to “fall off track” – I use that term very loosely as it implies failure when it’s really a normal and anticipated part of life – let it go. Forget about it. Move on. Laugh about it. It’s in the past. Whatever you do, try not to dwell on it because there’s nothing that you or I or anyone can do to change what’s already been done. Dwelling will only fester into harboring negative feelings and beliefs within yourself and around the food or action that led to “falling off track” in the first place. Allow yourself a minute or two to feel what you want or need to feel, then drop it and set your sights on making the most out of the remainder of the day.

Zero guilt – in any way, shape, or form – around food

I will not feel guilty for the food I eat.

I will not feel guilty for the food I crave.

I will not feel guilty for eating foods that make me happy.

I will not associate any food with guilt, remorse, or shame.

I will not feel guilty for ______________.

Fill in the blank with what you need to hear. And gently repeat this to yourself as often as you need.

Create a lifestyle centered on perfection wellness

Coming from a self-proclaimed perfectionist who is actively trying to break said inclinations, please hear me when I say this: you don’t have to strive for perfection, and I know that’s much easier said than done. The motto “progress not perfection” may get blasély brushed off due to overuse, but it’s a necessary mantra for those prone to perfectionism. As my parents have always told me, “try your best” because that’s all we can do each day.

Numbers – whether it’s the number on the scale, calories, macros, body fat percentage, circumference measurements, or ounces of food – are important, but they’re not everything. Don’t get too fixated on or attached to them. You shouldn’t feel like your life revolves around or is dictated by numbers.

There are ups and downs in life, but even more so in a fitness and health journey. View those ups and downs as both a pro and a con. The highs are rather obvious, although it is important to remain grounded during them. In the midst of lows though, you’re in a unique position to learn a tremendous amount about yourself and your capabilities such as your driving factors, what perseverance means, your “why”, and a realm of other untapped mental and emotional strength. Allow the ebbs and flows to serve as a reminder to shake things up every so often. You’re always presented with the opportunity to try something new – a new style of exercise, recipe, routine, way of eating – and in trying something new, you can discover even more about yourself.

And that’s the beauty of nutrition, exercise, and adopting healthier customs: not only do you get to transform your body, but your mindset as well!

Just as everyone has different goals, aspirations, and physical, nutritional, and emotional needs, everyone also has their own struggles – most of which you do not see. Likewise, everyone is at a different point in their journey; it’s as unique and personal to them as your path is to you. Which is why it’s of the utmost importance to not get caught up in the thief of joy: comparison. Refocus on you and only you (without becoming self-absorbed of course).

Learn moderation, NOT restriction

If I had a dollar for every time I thought, heard, or read “moderation is key” when I was trying to learn moderation. As eyeroll-inducing as the saying may be, it’s not wrong. Too much or too little of most matters in life can be unwise and even detrimental.

For instance, one of my daily supplements is a probiotic. My naturopathic doctor recommends 1-2 capsules per day. Since probiotics are so beneficial, what if I were to take more than the recommended 1-2? More probiotics can only mean more benefits, right? Or on the flipside, what if I suddenly stopped taking them? While I’d most likely be fine if either scenario were to happen for a few days, if I repeatedly made extreme choices like that though, it would start to take a toll on my body. In this case, it’d effect the balance of bacteria in my gut which could lead to leaky gut and poor nutrient absorption.

The more energy spent on what you “can’t” have or do or eat, the more you’ll fuel the fire of desiring what you supposedly cannot have. Practice self-control that heeds the fine line between restraint and restriction.

Regretful feelings are known to follow overeating, so pay attention to your hunger cues. Savor your food while being mindful of gorging or eating past the point of being comfortably full.

An eating disorder that’s seldom acknowledged is orthorexia, which is defined as the obsessive fixation on eating healthy foods while systematically avoiding foods deemed as harmful, bad, fattening, or unhealthy. The rigid structure provides a feeling of safety from overindulging as well as comfort, assurance, and confidence in one’s ability to control their food intake. When one of the strict behaviors put in place to avoid binging falters or a self-imposed rule is broken, the knee-jerk reaction is to tighten the reins to prevent a future occurrence from happening. Getting stricter provides momentary security and structure, but it feeds the obsession with food which can trigger even more crippling eating practices. Eating disorders are rarely intentional; they’re slippery slopes set in motion by good intentions that are inadvertently catalyzed when awareness and discernment are clouded.

If you plan for anything, plan for ~flexibility~

Every workout isn’t going to be the BEST or most productive. Just as every meal doesn’t have to be 100% perfectly planned and measured.

In anticipation of a plan or routine going awry, always leave room for flexibility. Despite your best efforts, you cannot plan out every detail of your life. But if you do factor in flexibility and leeway, it won’t feel like the day is a bust or crush your motivation or headspace if something does come up that throws your schedule off.

Know and accept that setbacks are bound to happen. But instead of viewing them as slip-ups, errors, letdowns, or failures, reframe them in a more positive light. A little blooper is a learning experience that prepares you to better handle adversity in the future!

And when you do have a setback (because it’s inevitable), don’t beat yourself up. Whether it’s having extra dessert, skipping the gym one or two or five too many times, or eating out more than predicted, not being able to carry out your intentions is not cause for punishment. Would you punish your best friend for any of those? Do you see it fit for a loved one to punish themselves for having a setback? So there’s no need to treat yourself that way; it’s unhealthy and unproductive to attempt to reprimand or penalize yourself for “failing”. Chastising yourself, skipping meals, doing a more intense workout or extra cardio “tO bUrN iT oFf”, or resorting to any similar behaviors or thought patterns is destructive to your eating habits, body image, and mentality.

By allowing enough wiggle room, you’re giving yourself a margin of error and opening the door to acting with more kindness, respect, and forgiveness towards yourself.

Physical health is shaped by mental health

Top priority: your mental health, your happiness, and your wellbeing. Prioritize that, always.

In spite of sounding like a walking cliché, you truly can’t pour from an empty cup. When it comes to relationships, I’ve always felt that if a person isn’t happy themselves, then how could they expect to make someone else happy? When you’re taken care of and internally in a good place to begin with, then serving and caring for others becomes instinctive and effortless; like second nature.

Be cognizant of your feelings and reactions.

Especially around certain situations.

If it’s mentally or emotionally draining, see what you can do to change it.

Ask yourself what you want, and ensure your actions align with that.

If it doesn’t make you happy, don’t do it.

A lot of areas will seemingly go smoother and fall into place once your mind and heart are in the right spot.

Don’t hesitate to experiment and figure out what works best for you.

Some prefer morning workouts while others would much rather hit snooze. Salty foods are kryptonite for some people while others have a hankering sweet tooth. A generic workout program or cookie cutter meal plan isn’t going to be suitable for everyone. Just because one person lost 20 pounds on the keto diet doesn’t mean that you will too. Through trial and error, find out what works best for your body, lifestyle, and happiness.

Mood influences food

Food is frequently used to celebrate, connect, and cope. And that’s okay to do from time to time. But it’s when it surpasses occasionally and food used as a reward or coping mechanism becomes a crutch or cover to mask and avoid feelings that it’s not okay. Sooner or later, whatever the food is hiding or theoretically helping will need to be faced head on, sans food. Emotional eating may provide momentary relief, but as they say, moments are fleeting.

Be perceptive of how you feel when you eat wholesome, nourishing foods vs. the not so healthy foods (less nutritious, highly processed, or “junk” foods). Pay attention to your energy levels, digestion, bloating, body image, confidence, quality of workouts, motivation, and overall mood. If you see or feel improvements and positive differences when you eat well compared to when you don’t, you’re going to be more likely to continue to do so.

It’s all too easy to get carried away planning and thinking about the future. Overthinking mutates into worrying. Rather than getting ahead of yourself and feeling overwhelmed about how far you have to go to achieve your goals and get where you want to be, do the opposite. Take a step back and turn around; look at where you are in contrast to where you started. Reflect on how far you’ve come and your accomplishments thus far. Take it one day at a time. Ground yourself in the present so you can make choices each day that put you in the best position to fulfill your goals and dreams.

Keep an eye on the company you keep

“I could never do that. Why are you doing that?”

“You won’t last a week. I bet what you’re doing won’t even work.”

“Food is meant to be enjoyed, have fun with your rabbit food!”

“Yeah, I want to live my life so I’m not going to deprive myself of my fave foods and live in the gym.”

“Are you really going to eat that??”

The people around us have a surprisingly profound impact on our perception of and outlook on life.

You should be able to eat what you want, when you want, around who you want. If you find that you’re eating alone or only around a select few, stashing food in secret places, or avoiding indulging around certain people so you don’t have to fend off their unsolicited comments, consider who you’re surrounding yourself with. It might sound harsh, but it’s true.

When a person starts eating better or exercising more, it’s not guaranteed that all of their friends and family will be excited for them or eager to offer up encouragement – even the loved ones whose moral support is without a doubt a given. Health and body image are sensitive subjects for some. And it takes an incredible amount of courage, motivation, and discipline to make and sustain a lifestyle change. To be met with pessimistic remarks and a lack of support from those you care about is disheartening, shocking, and hurtful to say the least, but know that them not being on board has nothing to do with you. People project their deeply rooted insecurities onto others all the time. Their words and actions (or lack thereof) are a reflection of them, not you. They may be envious, wrestling with dissatisfaction or unfulfillment, or struggling with their own motives and willpower. Regardless, it isn’t personal, so try your best not to take it to heart.

Sidebar: why do people feel the need to chime in with their criticism, disapproval, or blatant judgement about someone trying to better themselves? How a person can have such audacity is beyond me. The golden rules taught in elementary school – “treat others the way you want to be treated” and “if you don’t have anything nice to say, don’t say anything at all” – are too easily forgotten. And have you ever noticed that when someone is facing negativity or cynicism for proactively prioritizing their health, people rarely go as far as batting an eye about it? But heaven forbid that same disapproval is directed at someone doing the polar opposite and ignoring the indisputable importance of physical activity and proper nutrition… it’s paradoxical and nonsensical. But only so much can be done about double standards; one of the better ways to combat them is to keep your head down, remain respectful, refrain from feeding into negativity and adversity, and lead by example.

Others are entitled to comment on your food choices as much as they are your body. Which is not. at. all.

Your body is YOURS and yours alone. How you decide to take care of it doesn’t impact anyone other than you. But anyone can impact you through their point of view; the attitude of those around you can either lift you up or bring you down. Be wary of that by not giving anybody the power or permission to pressure you, make you feel bad, or question your choices.

Have a strategy

While taking it one day at a time was previously advised (and still is), the process of acquiring new habits and reaching goals is smoother and more practical with a deliberate, organized approach or at the least, a set of guidelines to abide by.

Either invest in a meal plan or create a version of one yourself by planning out your meals in advance. Doing so will instill consistency and accountability while saving time spent figuring out what to eat and limiting the likelihood of impulsive, hunger-based decisions.

Settle on non-negotiables. These are guidelines or a personalized set of “rules” in your habits and norms – particularly relating to eating, exercise, and wellness – that won’t budge in the face of hardships or unforeseen circumstances. This grants you much needed adaptability and versatility without compromising on your wants, needs, or priorities.

Non-negotiables could look like:

  • Drinking 85 ounces of water per day
  • Meditating or doing yoga 4 times a month
  • Never skipping breakfast
  • Journaling or doing a daily devotional before scrolling on your phone in the morning
  • Moving your body in some way a minimum of 3 times per week

Food has the capability to harm or heal you. Of course, that doesn’t mean you need to nix Oreos, Cheetos, or your go-to less than healthy snacks entirely. Simply opt for a bulk of your grocery hauls to be made up of wholesome, unrefined, nutrient-dense options rather than processed, nutrient-lacking foods.

If “falling off track” or binging is a persistent challenge, you might consider implementing treat meals into your regimen. Plan to have an indulgent meal (and dessert!) one night per week – even better if it’s something you’ve been craving lately. On top of benefitting your body composition, metabolism, and energy levels, treat meals have an enormous effect on your mental health and relationship with food.

Some foods are straight soul food. It’s not every day that you get to have your family’s cooking, grandma’s banana bread and baked goodies, or a meal from a coveted restaurant in your hometown, so don’t deny yourself of those food-filled experiences!

A parting thought

When it comes to building and maintaining a healthy relationship with food, it’s a continual process. Like any relationship, you have to put forth effort and hard work for it to function and flourish. Focus on one day, one meal at a time and before you know it, you’ll be able to look back and see just how far you’ve come in mending and cultivating a balanced, positive relationship with food!

Statistics drawn from the National Association of Anorexia Nervosa and Associated Disorders and National Institute of Mental Health.

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