How I Changed My Relationship With Food (& You Can, Too!)

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Disordered eating is rampant. I'm not really here to sugarcoat that for you. It's hard for it not to get ingrained in your psyche. As a female, especially, I find that it's incredibly hard not to turn on the television and find some reason to eat more, or eat less, or not eat at all. I spend all day working in the fitness industry and, while it is an amazing community, I would be lying if I said I wasn't envious of someone's body at some point. But, that's the exact problem. We all struggle with how we see ourselves. That's the real truth of it because we are so hard-wired with our own internal filters that we can't see what is right in front of us. It requires a lot of self-reflection to look at ourselves in the mirror and be happy with what we see. Why is it so hard?

I believe that everyone falls victim to disordered eating at some point. It might be subtle, like not eating dessert because of a missed workout, but it's present. It's present in the woman who wants to get "bikini ready" for an upcoming trip so she starts eating only salads. It's present in the teen who doesn't come down to dinner after being picked on at school for her weight. Disordered eating has a lot of different faces, but ultimately, it comes to one thing: your relationship with food.

Where did your relationship with food go astray? Sometimes, it might be just one thing, or it could be a collaboration of a few things that start the snowball rolling. As someone who has struggled with eating in the past, I can say that even the simplest reasons (stated in hindsight, of course) can start you on a dangerous path. When I look back at my first few years in Austin, I'm ashamed to admit that I, too, fell victim to disordered eating. Perhaps, ashamed is the wrong word. I've come to terms with what was a dark point in my life. But, even though you come to terms with food, even if you meet it face to face and air out your grievances, the daily struggle can be hard. There are still days that I catch myself falling back into familiar patterns and have to snap myself back out of it. 

While each individual's struggle with food is unique, whether it be overeating or under eating, I've found that these 5 steps are the best way to take a positive step and change your relationship with food for the better. 

Stop using food as a reward

This is probably the one step that everyone reads and thinks, “Yeah, I know I should but…” Too often, we find ourselves caught in a vicious cycle of reward vs. punishment. If I work out today, then I can have this (insert food here). While math would tell us that IS technically true (my most-hated phrase: calories in, calories out), what you’re failing to consider is how that makes you feel. Consider the Pavlov dog experiment. The dogs were conditioned to respond to a bell ringing by being rewarded with food. Pavlov soon learned that the dogs started salivating at the sound of the bell, just from the expectation of being fed. The mind had made a connection between the ringing bell and getting food. The same goes for you! If you condition yourself to “get a reward” every time that you work out, you’re no longer receiving any gain from your hour-long sweat sesh. If anything, people tend to overestimate the amount of calories burned and underestimate how many calories they eat. Not only that, but you’re less likely to make healthy food choices, if you reward yourself with a burger and fries.

The same can be said about emotional eating. If you consistently seek comfort in food when you’re sad, you’re more likely to reach for something that is unhealthy as soon as you have a minor inconvenience. Or, even worse, you could begin to associate your go-to comfort food with feelings of sadness. Those same feelings then tend to become feelings of guilt. I only eat this food when I’m sad… but I’m not sad. So, I shouldn’t eat this… It becomes another broken cycle.

I talk a lot about giving yourself grace with food (See my post “On Giving Yourself Grace”). Cheat meals are great if you have worked them into your diet or daily macros, (“What it Means to Count Macros and Why You’re Probably Doing It Wrong”) but poor food choices shouldn’t be a reward for a workout or a bad day.

Stop punishing yourself with food

Let’s take what I just said and flip it. How often do you tell yourself that you can’t have something because you didn’t meet a certain criteria? It’s fairly common actually, and to be completely transparent, it happens to me. All. The. Time. But, even though these thoughts pop up, I have to sit down and tell myself that just because I didn’t complete a workout, or didn’t burn what my brain is telling me is a “suitable” amount of calories, that it is OK to eat! This doesn’t necessarily go as far as to say, “You should eat whatever you want and never do any physical activity.” We all know how that would end up. But truly, it’s about breaking that negative connection with food. Intentionally restricting food from yourself because you didn’t do something hardwires a negative, punishing connection with food.

Just like the reward system loses its luster after awhile, so does the punishment system. It might start slowly as not having dessert (and otherwise, potentially healthy option), to skipping snacks and then whole meals. If left unchecked, you’re laying the groundwork for an eating disorder.

This is why diets so often fail. People very quickly become fatigued with the mental mindset of restriction. We also don’t like to be punished (I mean, who does?). So, even though you may think that you’re “helping yourself” by staying away from something that you have deemed “bad for you,” you’re ultimately creating a negative partnership with all food in general. And, when something has a “forbidden” mystique to it, we find ourselves more and more drawn to it, further setting us up for failure.

If you find yourself self-punishing by restricting food, instead change your mindset from what you can’t have, to what you could have. Instead of constantly saying that you can’t have chocolate cake, instead switch your thinking to say, “I am choosing to abstain from cake” or even “I am choosing to have a square of dark chocolate” instead. Thinking about what you are choosing to eat is much more valuable to your mental health than continually telling yourself that you can’t have something.

Hunger or habit? 

Another topic that I find that I frequently discuss with friends and clients is the idea of unaware eating. Do you sit down at night and immediately have to grab a snack? It goes back to the aforementioned Pavlov thinking. We have wired ourselves into thinking that we need to have a snack to sit and enjoy a show. Why is that? Frequently, we’ve probably just finished dinner. It’s not hunger that is telling us to eat, but rather habit.

Knowing the difference between a habit and a hunger will greatly change the way that you view food. While I am all in favor of snacking, it’s the unwanted, unaware eating that gets us in trouble. Making yourself aware of the food you are eating is a very intentional practice. When is the last time you sat down to dinner without any distractions? Maybe you turned the TV off and talked with your spouse or significant other? What if you live alone? What is your nightly routine? Do you eat in front of your computer/phone/television? If we take the time to enjoy the food that we are eating - actually savoring each bite and being mindful - then we might find that we aren’t so quick to grab casual food.

Listening to your body’s hunger signals is another way to break the habitual eating. Are you hungry? Actually ask yourself that question! Just because it is 12pm, or 6pm, or whenever it is that you usually eat, doesn’t always mean that your body is hungry, especially if you are a big snacker like I am. Instead, ask yourself if you are hungry before eating or grabbing something from the fridge. Change the way that your brain works by stopping the unhealthy habit of binge snacking.

Add Healthy Habits Slowly 

All of these tips and ideas truly mean nothing if you’re not able to implement them. Ultimately, you need to be able to take the positive steps forward on your own accord. And, adapting to new routines or breaking old habits can be really hard.

So, for many people, I never suggest a complete overhaul. It’s too much and it doesn’t work well. Instead, I suggest adding healthy habits slowly. What does this mean? Set yourself a goal for the month, with individual goals for each week. Break down a much larger goal into bite sized pieces so that each day, each week, you can see a change happening. The change is what is the most motivating. For example, if you have a yearly goal to lose 10 lbs, maybe your monthly goal is to eat cleaner, and each week you set yourself a goal to prep all your meals on the weekend, and switch up your sleep hygiene. These are little things that you can do to help yourself reach the much bigger goal.

Focus on what you can vs what you can't 

I mentioned this in a point up above, but I want to go back to it one more time before I leave you all today. Focus on what you can eat. Focus on the foods that are good for you. Just as you shouldn’t use an unhealthy food as a “reward,” you shouldn’t punish yourself by eating foods that you don’t enjoy. It will go a long way in reaching your food and fitness goals if you think about your “why.”

What is it that you want to accomplish with your food goals? Do you want to lose weight? What are the steps that we can take to make sure that you can do that? Think about food in how it can help nourish your body. Choose to eat the healthy, colorful and vitamin-rich fruits and vegetables that are good for you. Think about how these foods can help make you healthy, stronger, and more able for your kids. Foods shouldn’t be categorized into “good” and “bad,” but rather in categories of just how good they are for you.

If you want to focus on making a positive change for yourself, you have to focus on eating as a positive thing and this is the best way to do it!

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