Just three little words — “relationship with food” — yet they can elicit very different reactions. Some people immediately understand what that means (deeply, not just intellectually), while others are more like, “Huh?” If you fall in the latter camp, not to worry, as the idea of having a relationship with our food can sound a bit odd. It could even be a bit annoying, if you are not a fan of personifying inanimate objects. (“What do you mean I have a ‘relationship’ with my food?”)

Having a relationship with food is not, “I love this chocolate cake so much I want to marry it.” (Or maybe it is, since some people do have that depth of feeling about their food.)

Which brings me to this: So what do I mean when I talk about developing a healthy relationship with food? I’ll explain in the form of three questions.

1. What is food doing for you?

Food provides fuel for your body, sure, but what else is it doing for you?

  • Does it provide pleasure? What percentage of the pleasure in your life does it provide? 20%? 50%? 100%?
  • Does it provide nurturing? What percentage?
  • Does it provide comfort? What percentage?
  • Does it provide entertainment and mental stimulation? What percentage?

All of these food-related benefits are positive…but the devil is in the dose. It’s a wonderful thing to find food pleasurable, and to be excited by a fabulous meal with exciting flavors or presentation. It’s totally normal to find food nurturing and comforting when times are tough. But when food becomes your primary source of pleasure, or nurturing, or comfort, or stimulation, the pendulum has swung too far. You expect your food to do too much for you, to take the place of other people, other interests, and that’s not the best way to support your mental or emotional health. It’s also a sign of an unhealthy, or dysfunctional, relationship with food.

I have a client who, after decades of dieting, started working with me to learn intuitive eating about a year ago. In our session the other day, she told me, “I have the easiest relationship with food that I’ve ever had in my adult life. I’m having so much fun right now. I’m eating a wide range of foods, but I’m not going nuts.”

2. What is food doing to you?

Is food a source of fear, guilt, conflict or distraction? That’s not healthy, no matter what the dose.

  • Do you fear that if you eat the “wrong” food, it will make you unhealthy or cause you to gain weight?
  • Do you feel guilty if you eat foods you consider “bad,” whether because they too low in nutrition or too high in calories, fat or carbs?
  • Do you obsess about what to eat, and then unable to enjoy your chosen food, feeling conflicted about what you did choose and whether it was a “good” choice?
  • Do you use food to distract you, whether as procrastination from an undesirable task or perhaps to actually numb out from reality for a while?

I have another client who’s been working at overcoming some of her food fears. She was recently able to reintroduce milk, and is enjoying it. Not only has she expanded her food world, but never again will going to a coffee shop become a “thing” because they don’t have almond milk.

3. How do you use food?

Sometimes, a less-than-healthy relationship with food may be not just about how you eat, but about how you offer food to others. Here are a few examples:

  • Do you use food to show love and caring? If you offer someone food, and they don’t eat it, do you feel as hurt as you might if you said “I love you” to someone and they didn’t respond in kind? (I once had a boss who literally wouldn’t speak to me for the rest of the afternoon if I declined one of the cookies he brought back to the office after lunch. Which I was actually fine with, because then I could get some work done.)
  • Do you use food to gain respect or bolster your self-esteem? Do you pride yourself on your baking or culinary skills, and feel disrespected if someone who eats your food doesn’t praise your skills to the degree you hoped for? Do you walk away feeling that your ego’s been bruised? (See aforementioned boss.)
  • Do you use food to demonstrate status or superiority? Do you only go to the “best” restaurants, or place great importance on being the first person in your peer group to “discover” a hot new food truck or culinary trend?
  • Do you use food to display your virtue? Do you only buy and eat organic, local, sustainable, food? Do you curl your lip at anything that comes in a package? Do you only shop at farmers markets? Do you only cook from “clean eating “ cookbooks? More importantly…do you freely share that you do these things, and judge those who don’t?

All of these are examples of using food for non-food purposes, and not only does this suggest an unbalanced relationship with food, but it’s a sign that you may have areas of your mental/emotional health that need tending, with big helpings of curiosity and self-compassion.

Building a better relationship

Often, how and what we eat isn’t just about the food — it’s about how we relate to food. Unless you are an intuitive eater, in which case food is both your fuel and one of many sources of pleasure, nurturing, comfort and stimulation in your life — but it’s not your fallback, your go-to.

What can you do if your relationship with food is far from uncomplicated?

Look at areas of your life where food is perhaps playing an outsized role. What other sources of pleasure, comfort and nurturing do you have? Do you need to cultivate a broader variety of sources in order to get your needs met? If you find yourself using food to alleviate boredom, what activities can you bring into your life that engage and stimulate you?

As for fear, guilt and conflict, these don’t make you healthier. Look at these aspects of how you relate to food and ask yourself if it’s made your life better — or worse? What has this sort of relationship cost you, in terms of time, money, energy, health, well-being and human relationships?

Carrie Dennett, MPH, RDN, is a Pacific Northwest-based registered dietitian nutritionist, freelance writer, intuitive eating counselor, author, and speaker. Her superpowers include busting nutrition myths and empowering women to feel better in their bodies and make food choices that support pleasure, nutrition and health. This post is for informational purposes only and does not constitute individualized nutrition or medical advice.

Seeking 1-on-1 nutrition counseling? Carrie offers a 6-month Food & Body program (intuitive eating, body image, mindfulness, self-compassion) and a 4-month IBS management program (low-FODMAP diet coaching with an emphasis on increasing food freedom). Visit the links to learn more and book a free intro call to see if the program is a good fit, and if we’re a good fit!

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