How to Improve an Unhealthy Relationship with Food

This blog article is intended to inform and educate and is not a replacement for medical advice.

Have you ever found yourself wondering, “What exactly IS an unhealthy relationship with food? Is mine okay?” Or maybe you’ve pondered, “Is my child’s relationship with food and body healthy?” Well, you’re not alone! 

We live in a world filled with Instagram-worthy meals, before and after photos, endless diet trends, and pressure to raise our kids eating “right.” It’s easy to get tangled up in diet culture messages about what’s “good” or “bad” when it comes to food.

In this post, I unravel the mystery of what an unhealthy relationship with food really means. I’ll talk about the keys to helping you or your family create a healthy, long-lasting food-lationship, without all the guilt and anxiety that can come with eating.

So, whether you’re a parent concerned about your kiddo’s eating habits or an adult navigating your own food journey, grab a comfy seat. Join me for a deep dive deep into understanding what it means to have a healthy relationship with the stuff that fuels our bodies and souls. 

What is an unhealthy relationship with food?

Our food relationship involves how we relate to food, how we feel about all foods, and how we  feel about ourselves in relation to what we eat

In a healthy relationship with food, we see foods as fun, enjoyable, delicious or perhaps just neutral. Eating food, no matter what its nutritional content, does not change how we think or feel about ourselves. Eating does not evoke guilt or shame or compensatory behaviors when our relationship with food is healthy.

An unhealthy relationship with food develops when a person’s thoughts, feelings, and behaviors related to food and eating get in the way of their physical and mental well-being. 

This goes beyond the typical concerns about getting balanced nutrition. It involves a range of complex psychological, emotional, and behavioral issues. There are many signs someone might have a fraught relationship with food.

Image of red flags above text that says 7 signs you might have an unhealthy relationship with food.

7 signs you might have an unhealthy relationship with food

1) Frequent dieting

Chronic dieting often involves cycles of restrictive eating followed by periods of compensatory eating. This pattern, known as the binge-restrict cycle, is not only ineffective for long-term weight loss but can also have negative health consequences.

Yo-yo dieting can be emotionally taxing. It can lead to feelings of guilt and shame when straying from a diet plan or when weight plateaus or weight regain happens. This emotional rollercoaster can contribute to stress, anxiety, and even depression.

Many diets involve extreme restrictions or elimination of entire food groups, which are often unsustainable in the long term. These restrictive practices convince us our body’s cues cannot be trusted – that we need a plan to tell us what, when and how much to eat.

So whether you are (or your child is) counting calories obsessively or making a “lifestyle change,” starting a diet should send up a red flag. With increased restrictions on what, when and how much someone eats comes a compromised relationship with food and body.

2) Eating isn’t fun or enjoyable

Constantly worrying about what you can or cannot eat can take the joy out of meals. People with an unhealthy relationship with food may find themselves unable to savor and enjoy their food due to the strict rules and restrictions they’ve imposed on themselves.

The more rigid and restrictive eating becomes, the harder it becomes to find pleasure in eating. Losing the ability to eat intuitively and savor food, strict dieters become primarily focused on whether a meal met their targets (calories/macros/etc.) rather than if it tasted good or made them feel satisfied.

3) Rigid food rules 

Adopting strict dietary rules to lose weight, such as categorizing foods as “healthy” or “unhealthy” or only eating at certain times of day, can drive someone into an unhealthy relationship with food. 

When food choices are seen as either “good” or “bad,” we can feel guilty or anxious when inevitably we stray from the diet’s rules. Often, we make the leap from eating a “bad” food to being “bad” for eating a “forbidden” food. This is especially true for children. Not only can this thinking lead to an overly restrictive diet, but it can also increase feelings of failure.

4) Unhealthy weight “management” behaviors

When food evokes negative feelings, those with an unhealthy relationship with food may try to compensate for eating with a coping mechanism they believe will help. 

Engaging in extreme behaviors like restrictive eating, purging (vomiting or using laxatives), fasting, or excessive exercise to control weight or compensate for overeating indicate a problem with someone’s relationship with food. These behaviors, while they may help someone feel better momentarily, warrant attention and assessment from a healthcare professional. 

5) Emotional eating

Turning to food not because we’re physically hungry, but because we’re trying to soothe negative emotions can be a real comfort at times. But when emotional eating becomes a frequent go-to coping mechanism, it might indicate an unhealthy relationship with food.

Relying on food to numb emotions or as a quick fix for stress, sadness, or boredom can lead to some sticky situations. First, it doesn’t really address the root of the emotional issue, kind of like putting a Band-Aid on a broken finger. Plus, it can create a rollercoaster of emotions – you feel good temporarily, but then comes the guilt and regret.

When emotional eating takes the front seat, it can overshadow your ability to eat intuitively and mindfully. You might find yourself munching mindlessly, not even tasting the food or recognizing when you’re actually full. Over time, this can mess with your relationship with food and your body’s natural hunger or fullness cues.

6) Obsessing about body and weight

The cultural pressure to achieve a particular body size or weight is so immense that some pursue thinness or weight loss obsessively. Unfortunately, this obsession can contribute to an unhealthy relationship with food and the belief that self-worth, acceptance and love is closely tied to their appearance

This belief can contribute to a negative body image and low self-esteem. Constant preoccupation with appearance and an intense desire to achieve an idealized body shape or size often leads to extreme dieting or exercise regimens. Both warrant closer attention.

7) Social isolation and avoidance

Negative self-perception and strict diet rules can lead to social isolation. People may avoid parties, family dinners, or dates due to fear of eating with others, judgment or comparison. This can further impact their overall well-being and mental health.

Avoiding social events, gatherings, or situations that involve food due to fear, guilt, or shame about eating habits or body image are all red flags about a negative relationship with food. 

Seeking professional help and support is essential for individuals struggling with these issues to regain a healthier relationship with food and their bodies.

Health consequences of an unhealthy relationship with food

As our relationship with food worsens, we may experience a range of health issues. Restrictive eating and compensatory behaviors can lead to nutritional deficiencies, fluctuating weight, and an increased risk of eating disorders (e.g., anorexia nervosa, bulimia nervosa, binge eating disorder). 

Mental health may also suffer, with increased anxiety, depression, and social isolation.

It’s important to note that an unhealthy relationship with food can vary in severity. Not everyone who exhibits one of the behaviors listed above will develop a diagnosed eating disorder. 

However, even milder forms of disordered eating can negatively impact one’s quality of life and overall well-being. Seeking professional help and support is essential for individuals struggling with these issues to regain a healthier relationship with food and their bodies.

How can I improve my relationship with food?

If the way you (or your child) relate to food has become complicated, leading to unhealthy eating behaviors or a poor self-image, there is good news. You can take steps to improve your relationship with food and, in turn, enhance your overall well-being. 

Here, we’ll explore three key approaches to foster a healthier connection with what’s on your plate: self awareness and reflection, getting professional support, and practicing Intuitive Eating.

1) Self-awareness and Reflection

Unhealthy relationship with food quiz

To start your journey toward a healthier relationship with food, it’s crucial to become more aware of your behaviors and thought patterns. 

Take this food relationship quiz to find out if your food behaviors and thoughts need more attention and support.

  • Are you unable to consistently find joy and pleasure in eating?
  • Are you unable to relax and enjoy foods of all kinds with friends and family?
  • Do you feel unable to trust your body to tell you what, when and how much to eat?
  • Do you have rigid food rules about what, when or how much you eat?
  • Do you feel the need to compensate for eating “bad” or unhealthy food?
  • Are feelings of guilt or shame around food or your body common for you?
  • Does the desire for a smaller body motivate your food choices?
  • Do you often criticize yourself for what you eat or how you look?
  • Do you find yourself eating out of boredom, stress, or sadness? 
  • Do you avoid parties, eating out or social gatherings for fear of eating with or in front of others?

If you answered “yes” to one or more of the questions above, you may need support to find a healthier relationship with food. Recognizing these behaviors is the first step in addressing them.

It’s also essential to identify any negative self-talk or beliefs related to food and your body. What does your inner dialogue say about your body? What does it say about what you eat? Acknowledging these thoughts is vital because it helps you understand the root of any food-related challenges.

Understanding Personal Triggers

Everyone has unique triggers that can lead to an unhealthy relationship with food. These triggers might be emotional, environmental, or situational. Take some time to reflect on what sets off your less-than-ideal food behaviors or thoughts. 

  • Stress – does work, school, family, or relationship stress lead to emotional eating or restriction to cope?
  • Past trauma – does an unresolved trauma affect how you interact with food or think about your body?
  • Social media use – how do you feel about food or your body after scrolling?
  • Body image – does having a bad body image day affect your eating?
  • History of dieting – do you hold on to the hope that the next diet will be “the one”?
  • Social situations – do some social situations trigger restriction, binge eating or negative feelings about food or your body?
  • Time of day – is there a particular time of day that triggers restriction, binging or another food behavior?
  • Fear foods – do certain foods make you feel uncomfortable, fearful or anxious?

Pinpointing your triggers empowers you to address them more effectively.

2) Seek Professional Support

Therapy and Counseling Options

Seeking the guidance of a mental health professional, such as a therapist or counselor, can be a game-changer in improving your relationship with food. 

They can help you explore the emotional aspects of your eating habits, addressing underlying issues like anxiety, depression, or past traumas that may be influencing your food choices.

Therapy approaches like cognitive-behavioral therapy (CBT) or dialectical behavior therapy (DBT) are often effective in helping individuals overcome disordered eating habits and fostering a more positive relationship with food.

Nutritional Guidance

Nutritional guidance from a registered dietitian can provide you with valuable tools and knowledge to make informed food choices. They can help you reconnect to your body’s natural cues and learn to eat in a balanced and sustainable way.

Importantly, a dietitian can also dispel common myths about dieting and teach you to approach food with a more positive and nourishing mindset, rather than a restrictive or punitive one.

3) Build a Healthy Relationship with Food

Start an Intuitive Eating Journey

Intuitive Eating (IE) is a compassionate approach to self-care, eating, nutrition, and movement that promotes physical and mental health. It helps you find pleasure in food and the joy of moving your body

Through the 10 principles of Intuitive Eating, you can learn to connect and respond to your body’s natural, biological signals, including hunger, fullness, satisfaction or emotional need. 

Intuitive eaters have higher self-esteem and body acceptance than dieters. They experience more pleasure in eating and are better able to cope proactively with negative emotions. Loss of control eating, emotional eating and binge eating are all lower in intuitive eaters.

Embracing Intuitive Eating can help you rebuild trust in your body’s wisdom and break free from the diet mentality. Working with a Certified Intuitive Eating Counselor can be a game-changer in getting the support you need to put the principles in practice. 

Final thoughts on an unhealthy relationship with food

Building a healthier relationship with food doesn’t happen overnight, but it can happen. It’s about making gradual, sustainable changes to your mindset and eating behaviors. 

Start by building awareness of what your relationship with food is like and what triggers unhealthy eating or coping behaviors for you. Seek out the professional support you need to improve your relationship with food. Practicing Intuitive Eating can be life-changing.

Remember, improving your relationship with food is a journey, not a destination. Be patient with yourself and celebrate each step forward, no matter how small. With self-awareness, professional support, and a commitment to positive change, you can cultivate a healthier, happier connection with the food that nourishes your body and soul.