10 Signs You Have an Unhealthy Relationship With Food and How to Change it

Your relationship with food reflects your relationship with yourself.

When eating and being in your body is difficult, life is also difficult. Or it’s been not easy in the past and you haven’t processed it yet.

When the food arrives, you manage only a small portion, taking the rest home, insisting you’re full. Yet, your stomach protests. By the time you return home, you realize dinner chatter slipped by unnoticed – your focus was solely on the food.

“Why does it have to be this way?” you ponder.

Food seems to hold an inexplicable sway over you. I often hear “food is the only thing I just can’t get right” – your successful in so many ways but eating and your body always feel like a failure.

If this sounds familiar, you likely have a difficult relationship with food.

Hey, I’m Shannon, a nutritionist and therapist. I’ve helped 100s of people overcome disordered eating so they can have a happy relationship with food and their body.

Let’s dive into what a troubled relationship with food is and what you can do about it…

We are meant to have a close association with food. Food is linked very closely with our development, attachment, and how we are moulded.

It’s not a surprise that when life gets tricky, many people have tricky relationships with food. Pair this with a world that is obsessed with health and wellness, we have a difficult time with food, our body, and eating.

“I don’t want to have a relationship to food”

I hear this a lot!

I know you would rather flip a switch and never really think about food again.

You want to be able to eat “normally.” But normal eating IS having a relationship with food.

Food isn’t just fuel for our bodies; it’s an integral part of our lives, intertwined with our culture, traditions, and emotions. It has the power to bring people together, create memories, and evoke strong feelings, just through its smell or appearance.

What affects your relationship with food?

Your relationship with food is made up of lots of different factors.

Including:

  • Biological and genetics
  • Social and environmental
  • Psycological and personal

I know you want to break free from being stressed and overwhelmed with food.

But first, try to consider the reasons you got to this place. It’s never random. And focusing on food and your body might have just been your way to cope.

An unhealthy relationship with food takes a toll on both mental and physical well-being. The good news is that it’s not a lifelong sentence.

Your relationship with food is on a “spectrum” – from a normal healthy relationship to disordered eating/an eating disorder.

You can probably name a few signs of disordered eating.

Awareness is the first step to overcoming something, so I’m sharing with you lots of signs that might have slipped your mind.

Common signs of a tricky relationship with food include:

1. Fixating on food choices

Are you constantly thinking about what to eat? Categorizing foods as good verus bad, or healthy versus unhealthy?

You might feel anxious or guilty about what you eat. Perhaps you feel like you just can’t quite get eating right?

Fixation can lead to different things for different people. It could be restricting food, binge eating, or engaging in compensatory behaviours to make up for eating.

2. Engaging in dieting behaviours

If you’re engaging in dieting behaviour, this is disordered eating.

Dieting is anything that aims to change or manipppulate your body shape or size.

There are different types of “dieting”. There is traditional dieting, like following a plan or programme, juicing, or taking weight loss shakes. Or there are more modern types of diets: such as intermittent fasting, being “mindful”, avoiding sugar, limiting carbs, or being on a “detox.”

There are so many impacts that dieting has. Dieting often leads to a cycle of deprivation and overeating (e.g. the binge/restrict or binge/purge/restrict cycle), and triggers feelings of failure and shame.

3. Binge eating and overeating

Binge eating and overeating are some of the most common signs of disordered eating. This can be due to the impact of restricting and dieting, emotional reasons, and as a way of coping mentally.

There are so many side effects of binging and overeating. Including physical discomfort (e.g. acid reflux or gut problems), guilt, shame, and emotional distress.

4. Guilt, anxiety, or shame about eating

Feeling guilt, anxiety, or shame about food isn’t normal. You deserve (and you can!!) eat without guilt while nourishing your body.

Guilt, anxiety, and shame around eating impact your mental health, self-esteem, and your health in general.

5. Using food to cope with emotions

Emotional eating is when you turn to food to manage stress, sadness, or other emotions.

Emotional eating is very normal sometimes. It can be a part of coping, but it shouldn’t be the whole way to cope with emotions.

Usually, emotional eating happens with other signs of disordered eating. Often it goes alongside restriction or guilt around food. This plus the need to deal with emotions with food keeps you stuck in a cycle.

6. Uncontrollable food cravings

Strong urges to eat specific foods might be a sign of disordered eating.

Not always, however. Sometimes it can just be for the taste of a food! But with other signs, it might be a dominant sign hat you’re struggling.

Strong urges to eat certain foods might be due to restriction backfires, food obsession, emotional triggers, and even nutritional imbalances.

7. Exercising to make up for food

Do you go on a run on the days you know you’re going out for dinner? Or do you tell yourself “I’ll do a workout if I want to eat these cookies”?

This is compensating for exercise and is a form of purging, like in bulimia. It’s a way of burning off calories to prevent weight gain or body change.

Not only does this cause mental distress and preoccupation, it can result in physical health problems. Such as injuries, and exhaustion, and can lead to period loss.

8. Food preoccupation

Food preoccupation is when you constantly think about food and eating.

It shows up like meticulously checking nutritional information, meal planning, or watching food-related content. Are you unable to concentrate on anything because your brain is filled with food thoughts?

If you’re always preoccupied with food, it will be taking up huge amounts of your mental energy and having a big impact on your life.

9. No connection or lack of connection to your body/food

In my 4+ years helping people heal their relationship with food, I’ve noticed one key thing. Everyone with a poor relationship with food and their body has some level of disconnection. This is disconnection from themselves, food, their body, or their emotions.

You can be disconnected physically (like a lack of hunger or fullness cues), emotionally, or from your life in general.

10. Brain space and life space

When you’re struggling with disorded eating, food and body thoughts likely take up a lot of space.

When I start working with a new 1-1 client, I ask them “How much of your brain space is filled up with food thoughts?” I’ve heard up to 90% are filled with food and body thoughts. I would say anything above 30% signifies disordered eating.

Recovery is possible, even if it seems daunting.

Understanding a healthy relationship with food: A healthy relationship with food goes beyond just eating healthily; it’s about mindful and intentional eating, free from fear or judgment. It means enjoying meals with friends without anxiety and confidently saying “yes” to dessert without guilt.

A healthy relationship prioritizes both physical and mental well-being! It doesn’t involve comparing meals or feeling guilty for choosing something perceived as “less healthy.”

It allows you to eat without intrusive thoughts about calorie burn. Flexibility in eating habits, sans stress, is a hallmark. Indulging occasionally doesn’t equate to failure; it’s about balancing enjoyment with moderation.

Decisions rooted in self-care, not self-loathing, are characteristic of a healthy relationship with food. Pursuing aesthetic goals like weight loss is acceptable but not at the expense of overall health and happiness.

Most of us have room for improvement. Let’s explore steps to enhance your bond with food.

There’s no one-size-fits-all solution to transform your relationship with food, there are practices that can help:

1. Listen to your body cues

Body cues are signs that your body sends you. In disordered eating, these cues become dulled and might be cmpletely absent.

The main cues that dull in disordered eating are your hunger, fullness, and satisfaction cues. To be able to detect these ain, focus on fully nourishing your body and paying attention to how it responds.

2. Include fun foods

I call the foods others think are “unhealthy” as “fun foods.” Fun foods are those that taste really great but aren’t the most nutritionally rich. They’re still an important part of our diet, and should never be forcefully limited!

What’s key is having a good relationship with fun foods. This looks like feeling no guilt around eating them, feeling peaceful with having them at home, and eating them when you’re in the mood.

To begin making peace with fun foods, you can purchase my make peace with food masterclass.

3. Eat regularly

You can’t overcome disordered eating without eating reguarly.

Regular eating not only re-nourishes you, it also rules out physical hunger as the reason for feeling out of control or anxious around food.

I recommend eating at least every 3-4 hours. For most people, this is 3 meals and 3 snacks every day.

4. Include snacks

Snacks are important when healing your relationship with food. Snacking is important for blood sugar balance, mood, and topping up energy levels.

Explore 50 snack ideas for disordered eating recovery and incorporate some into your day.

5. Focus on enjoyment

One of the signs of disordered eating is a poor relationship to exercise.

If you’ve only ever exercised to change your body, it’s no surprise that it’s not something you can stick to or enjoy. It makes sense, right?

You can begin to make peace with movement by exploring what types you enjoy and separating movement from weight-loss.

6. Ditch the diet mentality

The diet mentality is the mindset that thinness, leanness, and ‘health’ is:

  • A look
  • Something that is a moral obligation
  • And something you should strive for even if it causes you harm

To stop being stuck in a dieting mentality, I recommend checking out this TedX Talk on why dieting just doesn’t work. Then, check out this blog on how to stop dieting and eat normally.

7. Welcome emotions

I know this is a cliche for a therapist to say. But it’s true. [I know that’s another cliche!]

Your relationship with food isn’t just about the food. It’s about so much more.

I recommend trying to become more attuned to your emotions by using a emotions wheel.

8. Self-compassionate voice

Building your self-compassionate voice is so important. It won’t just help you in disordered eating recovery. It will help you in all areas of your life.

To begin cultivating a self-compassionate voice, start giving yourself a break. Food and eating can be tough. And our world makes it even worse. Offer yourself a “Wow this is tough” and go from there.

9. Separate health and weight

One of the things that keeps people stuck in disordered eating is the idea that weight equals health. Or they feel so uncomfortable about their body becoming larger or changing.

I recommend listening to my podcast episode on coping with weight gain. It’s designed to help you begin making peace with body change.

Find it on Apple Podcasts, Spotify, or whenever you get your podcasts. Find The Ease With Food Podcast by searching “ease with food” and scrolling to episode 50.

10. Nutrition therapy and therapy for disordered eating

Are you unsure on where to start? That’s why I help people like you!

There are millions of people just like you struggling with your relationship with food. 2/3 of women in the UK have disordered eating.

I’m a disordered eating specialist nutritionist and therapist, ready to help whenever you’re ready!

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