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Building a healthy relationship with food

The term ‘food freedom’ and having a good relationship with food allows for being relaxed around your food choices and being comfortable listening to changes in your appetite. A good relationship with food involves not feeling guilty about eating certain foods, with no foods being prohibited or classed as ‘good’ or ‘bad’ for you, and ultimately enjoying eating food that makes you feel good. 

It can take time to build a good relationship with food, as it would with learning any new behaviour or changing a pattern of thinking. A first step is to understand what rules you set yourself around food and make a note of how food makes you feel. You can then pick a place to start. 

It’s important to recognise what having a good relationship with food looks like, so you can identify whether you need to make some healthy changes. If you find that you experience these signs, you might have a negative relationship with food: 

–          Feelings of guilt, stress, shame, or fear around food or when eating 

–          Food restriction of unhealthy or foods commonly described as “bad” 

–          Having strict rules about what you can eat 

–          Finding it difficult to listen to your body’s hunger cues 

–          Following diet trends 

–          Experience stress, worry or anxiety when eating out with others 

–          Patterns of either restriction or binging food (eating a large amount of food in a short period of time) 

–          Feeling as though you need to calorie count every snack and meal, perhaps using a food diary or calorie tracker 

–          Feeling that food defines who you are or your value 

–          Feeling like food controls your life, or you find yourself constantly thinking about food 

It’s common to experience some of these things occasionally, but if we regularly experience them, it could be a good idea to focus on making some positive changes to help you find greater food freedom. Here are some tips: 

1.       Follow your hunger cues 

If you restrict certain foods or create strict rules about what or when you can eat, it can lead to increased feelings of hunger, lack of satisfaction after eating, and can develop into a fear of food. To help overcome this, try to focus on your hunger cues and distinguish between physical and emotional hunger (e.g. from boredom). This could be leaving some food if you’re full or having an extra snack on a day you’re feeling more hungry. 

2.       Find out what resources or techniques work best when you feel out of control, stressed or anxious around food. 

Keep a journal or diary to note down your thoughts and feelings when eating. Practice eating mindfully, focusing on your senses, emotions, and physical feelings to help identify what to write down. Ask yourself whether you’re enjoying your food, whether it has satisfied your cravings, and whether you chose the food for reasons of hunger or something else instead? Tracking how you feel can help to identify your reasons for eating and highlight where to start focusing on making positive changes. 

3.       Encourage all foods into your diet. 

It is common that when we restrict certain foods from our diet, or label them as “bad” or a “cheat meal”, that we often view that food as a rarity and are more likely to struggle to control our intake of these foods when we allow ourselves to have them. It can be helpful to encourage all foods into your diet, and to eat according to how you feel and satisfy your cravings, rather than restrict and give these foods the power. Over time, you will find that you don’t feel guilty having these foods anymore and your cravings for them will cease or at the very least reduce. 

4.       Avoid short term solutions and diet fads. 

Dieting is a short-term solution, which can have the desired outcome, but also lead to an unhealthy relationship and a negative outlook towards food. Dieting culture assumes you need to be in a deficit or restriction to achieve your goals, but this isn’t necessarily the case. You can still enjoy all your favourite foods by developing an understanding between physical and emotional hunger, and by choosing foods based on having a good balance. Try to unfollow a diet culture and instead focus on building a healthy relationship with all foods in moderation. 

5.       Think of food as fuel. 

Food is an energy source. It can be helpful to think of food as fuelling our body for all the movement we do in the day, including any exercise. Try to pick activities and ways to move that feel good for you and are enjoyable. Food can then be viewed in a more positive way – something that is helping you to progress further in a specific activity and something you need to continue with the same level of enjoyment. 

6.       Take some time to understand how to nourish your body. 

It’s important to eat when you’re hungry and not to restrict any particular foods or class them as “bad”. However, eating a nutritious and balanced diet is important for overall good health, to maintain energy levels throughout the day, and to feel satisfied after a meal. Focus on learning what foods make you physically feel good, and work on achieving a healthy nutritional balance between most meals, allowing space for following your cravings and listening to your hunger cues where needed. 

If you feel your relationship with food is impacting your mood and wellbeing, it may be helpful to seek further support from your GP.