How To Have Healthy Relationship With Food, According To Experts
7 minutes read
“Anxiety about eating, skipping meals, obsessive exercise, relying on calorie counters or apps to control your food intake, constantly weighing yourself and obsessing over your weight, having a history of yo-yo dieting or always following the latest diet trend, these could all be signs of a bad relationship with food or an eating disorder,” Gail Warren, Owner of Nutrition on the Hill tells Beauty Daily.
Statistics show 35% of ‘normal dieters’ progress to pathological dieting. Of those, up to 25% progress to partial or full syndrome eating disorders. One in five women struggles with an eating disorder. Eating disorders have the highest mortality rate of any mental illness.
In light of February’s National Eating Disorders Awareness Week (NED Awareness Week), global organisations and charities unite their efforts to increase awareness to educate the public about the realities of eating disorders.
Beauty Daily speaks to leading experts about what an unhealthy relationship with food looks like, signs of eating disorders, and expert-backed ways to repair your relationship with food.
Why is your relationship with food important for your physical and mental health?
Food is an integral part of social relationships, a means of connecting with others, and sharing unique experiences. Research from the University of Oxford revealed that the more often people eat with others, the more likely they feel happy and satisfied with their lives.
“Nurturing a good relationship with food means that it continues to provide these functions and promote emotional and physical wellbeing,” Dr Bev Marais, Specialist in Eating Disorders and Addiction and Founder and CEO of The Eating Disorder Psychologist, says.
Aside from the social aspect and the pleasure food provides, our body needs food in order to grow and develop, provide energy and repair and maintain the body’s cells.
Nutritional Therapist Warren explains: “Food is there to nourish the body and overall wellbeing to prevent medical conditions such as diabetes, obesity and heart disease.
The emphasis is on ‘your body’, not anybody else’s. Your relationship with food is as important as what you eat. Consider your body a friend, not an enemy. Developing good eating habits and consuming a diverse range of nutrients will help to keep your body functioning optimally, making your life healthier in general.”
What causes an unhealthy relationship with food?
A person’s unhealthy relationship with food can be multifaceted and complex. Experts say it is more likely to happen if one has experienced or is currently experiencing emotional trauma or abuse.
“Anxiety about being overweight, daily chronic stress or anxiety and a family history of eating disorders, depression or substance abuse can all be factors,” Warren says.
Body image also plays a role in cultivating unhealthy relationships with food, especially during the day and age of unrealistic portrayals and representations on social media and advertising. One in 10 women said they had self-harmed or deliberately hurt themselves because of their looks.
“Once food is used as the sole coping strategy for managing emotions and life events, this relationship becomes distorted. An unhealthy relationship with food develops for various reasons. However, these are often linked with self-esteem,” explains Dr Marais.
Some people may restrict their eating to manage uncomfortable emotions, or feel more in control of their bodies, reinforcing underlying beliefs that these behaviours will result in them feeling better about themselves.
Dr Marais explains: “As human beings, our bodies are primed for survival and any restriction will result in overpowering thoughts and preoccupations with food and eating.
These, in turn, elicit feelings of anxiety about body image and weight, which can lead to further unhelpful behaviours, such as obsessive body checking, weighing, avoiding social interactions, etc.”
The signs of an unhealthy relationship with food
Experts say an eating disorder can emerge when people begin placing their relationship with food above all else, compromising human relationships, studies, careers, physical and emotional health.
Types of eating disorders and symptoms you need to be aware of
“Having an unhealthy relationship with food is something that doesn’t happen overnight. It can even stem back as far as childhood. The signs of an eating disorder are varied. Many immediately think of extreme weight loss such as anorexia but the eating disorder category is wide and varied,” says Dr. Bunmi Aboaba, Certified Food Addiction Coach and Founder of the Food Addiction Academy.
According to BEAT, a UK-based eating disorder charity, around 1.25 million people in the UK suffer from these illnesses, many in secret. They are of all ages, genders and backgrounds – eating disorders do not discriminate.
Here are seven types of eating disorder types and their symptoms as explained by medical experts Dr Bunmi and Warren.
- Binge Eating Disorder (BED): involves eating large amounts of food rapidly and in a short period of time at least three times a week. Eating is out of control.
- Bulimia Nervosa: episodes of out of control binge eating followed by compensatory methods to control such as purging, such as vomiting, taking laxatives, over-exercising or fasting.
- Anorexia: symptoms are keeping an extreme reduced weight. The person has a distorted body image and fears weight gain.
- OSFED (Other Specified Feeding And Eating Disorders): is an umbrella term for a variety of symptoms that account for the vast majority of eating disorders such as Night Eating Syndrome whereby someone eats repeatedly at night, either by waking up during the night or by eating a large amount of food after their evening meal. Another OFSED disorder is Purging Disorder, whereby a person purges or uses laxatives to influence weight and shape but not as part of a binge/purge cycle.
- ARFID (Avoidant Restrictive Food Intake Disorder): is similar to anorexia, but unlike anorexia, there is no concern about body shape or size.
- Orthorexia: refers to an unhealthy obsession with eating ‘super healthy foods.’ This may cause them to miss out on whole food groups potentially affecting their overall health.
- Rumination Disorder: involves repetitive, habitual bringing up of food that might be partially digested. They rechew it, and then either reswallow it or spit it out. This problem is a psychological disorder. It may be mistaken for vomiting or other digestive problems.
Eight expert-backed tips on how to fix your relationship with food
The relationship with your body is the longest one you will ever have. Treat it with respect, nurture it with love, down to the nutrients it needs to function optimally.
Internationally renowned Food Addiction Coach Dr Bunmi lists eight tips for repairing your relationship with food.
- Be kind to yourself – daily self-love affirmations help.
- Choose healthy whole foods that don’t trigger overeating.
- Eat regular meals -try not to graze
- Eat when you are hungry and start to listen to the hunger cues your body gives you.
- Eat the rainbow diet and eat mindfully. If you are looking for a cookbook, Beauty Daily recommends Dr Olivier Courtin-Clarins Beauty in My Plate Book. It is packed with tips to eat right every day. Delicious and simple recipes that are easy to make.
- Plan your meals ahead of time.
- Remove trigger foods that leave you feeling not so great after.
- Set up a buddy system where you can talk to a friend who can be supportive of your efforts.
Pro Tip: In order to take back control over your eating patterns, you would need to become the observer of your mind, mood and behaviour patterns. Dr Marais strongly encourages keeping a journal.
“Journaling or keeping a food diary (without calorie counting) will allow you to reflect and increase your awareness of your eating patterns. It will highlight the times when hunger is the problem and times when your emotions are in the foreground. Your function is to observe your thoughts, feelings and behaviours, with curiosity and without judgement. Once you are engaged in this process, your perception of your relationship with yourself, food, your body and others, will determine your response.”
What should one do if they think they have an eating disorder?
The first step is acknowledging and admitting that there is a problem and something that needs to be fixed. This is why awareness is important.
“If someone thinks they have an eating disorder, that, by itself, is a great start. Admitting you have an eating disorder can be difficult, as there can be a lot of shame or stigma around it. It can elicit feelings of low self-worth which means the person may not feel deserving of any help or treatment,” Dr Bunmi says.
If you are struggling, help is available. Talk to a professional. There are plenty of support groups and group programmes out there that are inclusive and diverse where you can also get help.
BEAT has email support and a telephone helpline open 365 days a year that you can call for either help or further information about eating disorders. These helplines are open to anyone and are available in England, Northern Ireland, Scotland and Wales. Click here.