Victoria Stokes finds out what it means to have a healthy relationship with food.
I love food. There are few things greater in life than enjoying a meal out with friends or tucking into a massive tub of ice cream at home in your PJs. Some of the best memories in my life have been punctuated with spectacular frosted birthday cakes, large glasses of wine and hungover Dominos deliveries. But as much as I love food, I have, for a large part of my life also hated it, resented it and tried to control it and its power over me.
Ask yourself this, when you’ve gone out for dinner, how many times have you considered calorie content before you’ve thought about enjoyment? For me, the answer is innumerable. I’ve scoffed dessert while worrying about the effect it’s going to have on the scale, I’ve grappled with canceling plans with friends, knowing that if I skip that meal out or boozy session I won’t have ruined my progress for the week and I’ve felt feelings of deep guilt, regret and shame for ‘cheating’ on my diet.
Now ask yourself another question: do you have certain rules around food or spend a lot of time obsessing about it? Maybe carbs are the enemy and you feel ashamed of yourself for eating them. Perhaps you deprive yourself of things like chocolate, crisps and ice cream only to binge on them later. Maybe you eat whatever you want so long as it’s ‘clean’, or maybe you allow yourself to ‘indulge’ but only if you’re prepared to burn it off afterwards at the gym. Raise your hand if you’ve ever felt guilty and ashamed of yourself for eating a little more than you think you should have.
For many of us, disordered ways of eating like these are the norm and that’s something Laura Thomas PhD, a registered nutritionist, covers extensively in her book Just Eat It. Before I ask Laura if it’s possible to break free from all the messed up emotional attachments and disordered habits we have around food, I first need to know what causes them. Why is our relationship with food so effed up in the first place? Laura says it boils down to many things:
Body dissatisfaction, diet rules that get lodged in our heads, being on the receiving end of body shaming or weight-related teasing, genetic factors, trauma and abuse… but all of these individual variables are compounded by a society that prizes thinness and reinforces a narrow standard of beauty: diet culture.
If you’ve ever felt like you can’t trust yourself around a box of donuts, that’s diet culture and it’s this lack of trust in our bodies that’s damaging our relationship with food. “Whenever I tell clients to give themselves unconditional permission to eat, they automatically have the fear that they won’t stop eating, they’ll just eat foods that don’t make them feel particularly well,” Laura points out.
“However, what I’ll often do with people is ask them to imagine what it would be like if they spent an entire day just eating chocolate. How are you going to feel at the end of that? People are able to identify that they’d probably feel a bit nauseous, they wouldn’t feel very energised, and more than likely they would like a healthy, balanced meal. The point I’m trying to make is that we all have that capacity to think through how our bodies would react to that and it’s diet culture that has taught us that we can’t trust our bodies. We have that innate ability, but it’s just been undermined.”
If this is the first time you’ve been told to trust your instincts and eat what you want, then you might feel alarmed. In a world of complex diet rules and restrictions, it’s unusual to be advised to just eat whatever you damn well please. But, says, Laura, this is the part that’s really key.
“This idea of having unconditional permission to eat is really scary and people think they’re just going to free-fall and eat whatever they want whenever they want without paying any attention to how it makes them feel,” she explains. “But when we remove restriction, and the threat of deprivation is lowered, we are much more able to approach food like ‘do I really want this?’ ‘Is this going to make me feel good?’ ‘Is this going to satisfy me or is it just going to make me feel kind of icky?’. We get to make the choices about what feels good for our body in a more mindful, less compulsive way.”
If that sounds good to you, and you’re ready to give up the diet BS and have a relationship with food that isn’t underpinned by guilt and shame, first, a social media cull is in order. “Are you following a lot of models or fitspo accounts?” Laura asks.
Research indicates that consuming these accounts, even if we know they are idealised images can have a negative impact not just on our body image but also on our eating habits, so clear that out and start to follow more food and body positive accounts.
The second thing “would be to think about what external influences you have over your eating,” Laura says. “Are you following macros, counting calories or using a fitness tracker?Ask yourself how much of your headspace is dedicated to thinking about what, when and how much you’re eating and how are these tools playing into that, then get rid of the FitBit and delete My Fitness Pal if needs be.”
Thirdly, “start to tune into your sensations for hunger and recognise it’s not just in your stomach, it can be dips in your mood, in your energy, and loss of focus and concentration. Look at all of those signals and respond to them early rather than letting yourself get overly hungry,” Laura advises.
Recently, I’m discovering what a healthy relationship with food looks like to me. It’s going to the gym because it gives me energy and a sense of achievement, not to burn off something ‘bad’ or to earn a cheat meal. It’s sharing food and drinks with friends and family, not writing off my social calendar to adhere to some fad diet. It’s going for a burger and fries with my boyfriend without feeling guilty. It’s eating until I feel full instead of gorging myself. It’s enjoying my food instead of worrying about its calorie count.
For someone else a healthy relationship with food could look different. It could be not using it as an emotional crutch when you’ve had a bad day or eating just one doughnut instead of the whole tray. The point is, a healthy relationship with food looks different to everybody. There’s no hard and fast ‘eat this, not that’ rule that defines your eating habits as either good or bad. What matters is that food makes you feel good, whether that’s because it’s of nutritional benefit to your body or just because it tastes so damn delicious. As Laura puts it, it’s about “figuring out a way of relating to food that feels right for you.”
So next time, when you’re in a cafe at the till ordering your coffee and you spy that deliciously moist-looking chocolate brownie and you start salivating, your eyes grow bigger with desire, and you know you really want it, just eat it. Go on.