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If you have a love-hate relationship with food, you may find yourself constantly thinking about it, depriving yourself of it, or compensating for foods you’ve eaten.
Like the cycle of an abusive relationship, food seduces you with its charming lure of comfort, often resulting in shame, regret, or physical pain.
You tell yourself you’ve had enough, and this is the last time, but you keep going back to old patterns. This can manifest as food addiction or eating disorders such as anorexia, bulimia, or orthorexia—an addiction to dieting.
If you have an unhealthy relationship with food, there is a way to heal.
In this article, I will illustrate how diet-culture perpetuates counterproductive messages about eating. When these cultural messages result in shame, they fuel the problem they were intended to solve.
Diet-culture moralizes food, resulting in a constant sense of resisting temptations. As psychologist Carl Jung states, “What you resist persists.” In constantly resisting food, it gains more power over your life.
This article will highlight the sociological and psychological forces keeping millions of people stuck in this unhealthy dynamic.
By healing your relationship to food, you can break free from these messages and reclaim your mental and physical health.
What is an unhealthy relationship with food?
If you struggle with an unhealthy relationship with food, you are not alone.
This is an invisible issue affecting the mental health of millions of people, perpetuated by well-intentioned health professionals and diet gurus.
It comes in many different forms and severity, ranging from relatively benign to severe and life-threatening.
Here are some signs you might have an unhealthy relationship with food:
You classify certain foods as good or bad.
Although certain foods are better for nutrition than others, a strong moralizing stance focuses on weight or willpower, making the body something to be overcome rather than nourished.
By labeling foods as “bad,” we feel the need to constantly resist them, fueling even further desire. The sense of deprivation and forbidden nature of “bad” foods amplifies their allure. When succumbing to the temptation, eating “bad” foods leads to shame, fueling even further binging or strict food avoidance, adding to the vicious cycle of unbalanced eating.
You are overly preoccupied with food.
Although it is effective to plan for healthy meals to maintain your energy and nutrition, becoming overly preoccupied with food gives it power over your life. Rather than food serving you, you begin serving it.
Like an addiction, preoccupation with food takes away from your ability to focus on other important areas of your life, resulting in a constant state of vigilance and energy depletion.
You restrict food and or binge on food.
This is the core problem with diet-culture. Since dieting emphasizes restricting certain foods, it gives these foods power. As described above, “What you resist persists.” Although the nutritional science backing a specific diet may make sense, diets don’t work psychologically.
Food restriction often results in food binging, perpetuating the yo-yo dieting cycle.
You eat based on rules rather than internal cues.
Diets are also counterproductive because they disconnect you from your body. Rather than eating based on internal hunger and satiation cues, diets reinforce mistrust of the body’s cues.
Eating based on these external rules keeps dieters in their heads rather than in tune with their bodies, resulting in a sense of deprivation, fueling the desire to rebel against these rules.
You feel guilty when enjoying food.
When enjoyment is synonymous with guilt, it takes away a genuine sense of satisfaction. When genuine satisfaction is lacking, binging on one’s “guilty pleasure” replaces natural satiation.
Like the cycle of deprivation and binging, guilty pleasures become scarce resources. This scarcity fuels binging rather than genuine enjoyment.
You become obsessed with numbers and nutritional labels.
Although it can be helpful to be guided by a food’s nutritional value, an over-fixation on numbers and labels can keep you trapped in a form of preoccupation with food, resembling addiction at an extreme end.
This unhealthy obsession with healthy eating has been called orthorexia. It can result in compulsive label checking and nutrition tracking, resulting in long-term damage to one’s mental and physical health. Like an addiction, the perceived solution is actually the problem in disguise.
You eat for the primary purpose of changing your body.
Although your body can change based on your eating habits, punishing your body to achieve your weight goals sets you up for long-term mental and physical instability.
If changing your body comes from a place of self-loathing, progress becomes about the numbers rather than your mental wellness. This definition of progress can only be sustained for a limited period of time since the underlying strained relationship with your body is increasingly reinforced.
You restrict food to gain a sense of control.
Eating disorders are often an attempt to gain a sense of control in one’s life. If you have been in a chaotic environment or an overly strict environment, your sense of control may have been taken away. Restricting food or binging on food are ways to gain a sense of control.
Like an addiction, this is an illusion of control. When discovering the reality of one’s relationship to food, one may realize how they paradoxically give away further control, allowing food to dictate their lives.
You use food to cope with difficult emotions.
Although many people use certain foods to relax, like alcohol is used to unwind, it becomes a problem when it becomes a person’s go-to solution to underlying problems, resulting in increasing use despite negative consequences in one’s life.
Difficult emotions such as fear or guilt from the past can trigger emotional eating or food restriction to escape the pain or gain a sense of control. As stated above, these are short-term solutions resulting in more significant problems in the long-term.
You hide certain eating behaviors from others.
Moralizing food can lead to shame and secretive eating to avoid further shame. Like an addiction, someone can present as highly functional while hiding their use of a specific substance or behavior.
Rather than reducing the shame, these secretive eating sessions further contribute to a sense of shame, making a person feel even further disconnected from others.
What causes an unhealthy relationship with food?
Diet-culture causes an unhealthy relationship with food. This unhealthy relationship is further reinforced by psychological triggers such as habitual emotional coping through food restriction or binging.
As a former personal trainer, I learned about the toxic side of fitness and diet-culture from within the industry. During my time as a trainer back in 2010, it was also the height of the weight-loss television genre.
It seemed like everyone and their workplace was developing some kind of Biggest Loser challenge. I had even unknowingly participated in this fat-centric fitness focus, creating my own Bootcamp fitness program called “The Last Ten Pounds,” which I ran out of a local facility.
I preached the standard gospel of avoiding sinful foods and exercising to lose weight. Although it made biological sense, I didn’t realize how it was counterproductive psychologically.
Sensing something was wrong with this body-transformation-obsessed fitness culture, I conducted research on the popular weight loss genre in my Master’s thesis in sociology. Completed in 2011, you can find the full thesis here.
In short, I demonstrated how transformation narratives in the weight-loss genre are a warped version of Christian morality, demonizing fat and idealizing reason and rationality as the way to overcome the body and its desires.
In my research, I did a discourse analysis of MTV’s “I Used to Be Fat,” a show where recent high-school graduates are subjected to intense body transformations in the summer before college. Gaining control over their bodies by getting one’s weight down to a specific number on the scale was the sign of overcoming adolescent immaturity and gaining entry into adulthood.
Each episode begins with a confession by the participant standing in front of a mirror, talking disparagingly about their body, reinforcing their underlying self-loathing.
Next, the participant is subject to a penance whereby they “cleansed” their body of “toxins” through an overly intense first workout.
During each episode, temptations such as cookies are presented, generally from a maternal figure. Inversely, a mentor emerges, generally from a paternal figure, who helps them along their hero’s journey.
Lastly, salvation is achieved when the body is overcome through intense discipline, and the final number on the scale is revealed.
Normalizing extreme body transformations sets people up for long-term yo-yo dieting and mental health issues. Rather than focusing on their long-term relationship to food and their bodies, the show normalizes a toxic diet-culture focused on food restriction for weight loss.
The underlying message is that arriving to college without a slender body would result in further shame and lack of belonging.
By focusing on fitness as the cure for low self-esteem, the psychological issues are left unaddressed, leaving a person more vulnerable to disordered eating.
Diet-culture preaches problematic messages about willpower and discipline. Although these may be noble traits at times, they are ineffective when portrayed as the only psychological tools.
As an addiction counselor, I now understand the true shortcoming of willpower. It can get someone over a craving momentarily, but it quickly depletes, leaving a person more vulnerable to temptation if there are no other psychological coping strategies in place.
Although discipline can be an admirable trait as well, it is necessary to question the source of this discipline. The Latin root of the word ‘discipline’ comes from ‘disciple,’ or follower of Jesus. In the modern weight-loss context, we are disciples of diet-culture, disciplining our bodies to overcome their desires.
Accepting the gospel of diet-culture puts you at constant war with your body. It implies the body cannot be trusted and needs strict rules to keep it in check.
By getting out of your body and into your head, your body is put into a constant state of deprivation, resulting in intermittent rebelling, fueling the cycle of shame and disordered eating.
This critique of diet-culture goes beyond a social justice lens. Diet-culture is stigmatizing and psychologically ineffective at achieving its own goals.
How to have a healthy relationship with food
If you are tired of being constantly at war with your body, there is a better way forward.
If you want evidence-based practical advice on how to heal your relationship with food, I highly recommend checking out Intuitive Eating by Elyse Resch and Evelyn Tribole.
This book is written by two registered dietitians whose approach to healthy eating is based on psychological evidence about what works in the long-term.
Their revolutionary anti-diet approach to healthy eating is based on getting in touch with your body’s needs—the exact opposite of diet-culture’s focus on disconnection from one’s body through rules, restriction, and willpower.
Intuitive eating does not mean throwing caution to the wind and engaging in massive fast-food binges. This potential criticism of removing food restriction is steeped in the logic of diet-culture. Instead, intuitive eating sidesteps this the deprivation-binging cycle by not restricting any foods. Taking the morality out of food takes away its power over your life.
Instead of following a strict set of diet rules, intuitive eating rebuilds trust in your body as you listen to its needs and eat according to its hunger cues and responses to food.
Although this approach sounds counter-intuitive, it resonates with my understanding of the psychology of addiction.
Persons struggling with dieting resemble someone struggling with an addiction. Dieting is a short-term solution to a long-term problem. It provides temporary relief, with long-term harms. It gives you the illusion of control, but actually takes away your control in the long-term. It preoccupies your mind, taking away your ability to focus on things that matter. Lastly, it is a process fraught with constant instability and relapse.
Like how someone struggling with an addiction needs to give up the substance to regain control, the intuitive eating approach advocates complete abstinence from dieting.
By giving up dieting, you can end the war and make peace with food. By making peace with food, it takes away its forbidden allure. If everything is allowed, nothing takes on the psychological specialness of being a forbidden fruit. Just as marketers and economists know very well, when something is scarce or rare, its value increases.
By making peace with food, you can focus on satisfaction when eating, increasing your ability to stop eating when your hunger is satiated because you are not operating in a state of deprivation.
Rather than using the term “junk food,” the intuitive eating approach labels these as “play foods.” By changing the moralizing language around food, you take away its power over your life. Consider that we regularly use terms like “sinful, tempting, or cheating” when referring to food. This language only increases the forbidden fruit effect, giving food more power over your life.
Intuitive eating requires getting in touch with your body and its needs. It means honoring your hunger and feeling your fullness. When living in your head, you become out of touch with the body’s needs and are perhaps out of touch with hunger and fullness signals.
By respecting the body rather than treating it as an object to be overcome, you develop self-compassion. By treating your body like something you care about, rather than something to be beaten up and deprived, you heal your relationship with yourself, and therefore your relationship to food.
Healing your relationship to physical activity
Shows like The Biggest Loser often made the gym look like a chamber of punishment, with contestants puking, fainting, or falling off treadmills.
When you heal your relationship to food, you may consider your relationship to physical activity. Rather than seeing physical activity as a punishment, it becomes an opportunity to enjoy the feeling of physical movement.
Since COVID, we have all learned that the gym is not the only outlet for physical activity. Although some people like myself enjoy the gym, the key to long-term health is enjoying the process; otherwise, like dieting, the activity will be temporary.
Also, as a former personal trainer, one would imagine my gym routine would be rigid and numbers-focused, but this is quite far from reality. For the past few years before COVID, I would show up to the gym without a plan.
Walking through the gym, I started moving my body, feeling any soreness from previous workouts. If a particular muscle group was not sore from the previous workout, I’d consider which kind of exercise felt interesting for that muscle group and which type of movement or equipment I felt attracted to at that moment. Each next activity was decided at the moment, without regard for any rules or plans. The gym felt like my playground.
I actually stopped using weights and machines for about a year or so, just enjoying the pullup bars, TRX ropes, gymnastic rings, and other body-weight exercises such as pushups and pistol squats. This gymnastic-style workout kept me highly motivated due to the enjoyment of making progress with new forms of movement and the need to remain highly in tune with my body’s needs and limits.
In my days as a personal trainer, if someone asked me for exercise advice, I’d give them a basic circuit training routine or a more advanced split training routine with an 8-12 rep range. Although these plans may be physiologically adequate, they are often far from psychologically adequate. If going to the gym is a terrible experience, you’ll probably not go for too long. The most optimized exercise plan is worthless if it’s not being used.
These days, when someone asks for a workout plan, I ask them what they enjoy. I inquire about all of the outdoor activities they enjoy, sports they’ve participated in, and what things they’ve perhaps enjoyed doing at the gym. I also inquire about activities they may be curious about but have not tried. I then ask which of these enjoyable forms of movement are realistic, given their current lifestyle and schedule.
Like giving up a diet mentality, healing your relationship to exercise means not depriving yourself of genuinely enjoyable movement, focusing on function rather than numbers gets you in touch with your body, rather than trying to subjugate it to a form of rationalized discipline.
Recognize the six internal food voices
In Intuitive Eating, the authors highlight six food voices that are helpful to recognize when healing your relationship with food.
The Food Police
This is the familiar moralizing voice of diet-culture. Certain foods are forbidden, and the food police condemn the temptation to indulge in these sinful foods.
The food police may have initially been a parent, coach, or partner. Now, the internalized voice of the food police fills your head with “should’s” and “should not’s,” making you feel guilty when breaking a diet law.
The food police are punitive and may even lead to the compulsion to use exercise as punishment for “bad behavior.”
The food police is an unhelpful voice that separates you from your body. When it pops up, it can be acknowledged and gently reminded that its rules no longer apply because you no longer operate in its jurisdiction.
The Nutrition Informant
The nutrition informant feeds the food police up-to-date information on the latest diet fads. In the past, it cautioned against high-fat diets and counting calories. Now, it’s generally focused on counting macros and minimizing carbs.
The nutrition informant can be your ally if its information is used to help you understand the various nutrients and ways of eating so you can more carefully experiment with how your body responds to certain foods.
The Diet Rebel
The diet rebel is the voice that starts getting louder right before a binge. It tells you you’ve had enough deprivation, and you deserve to indulge. It can also appear as the apathetic voice of “screw it, you only live once.”
When you listen to the food police for too long, the diet rebel starts gaining strength. After a period of deprivation, it is only a matter of time before it shows up.
The diet rebel can be your ally when you direct it at diet-culture, body shaming, or other attempts to cross your food boundaries.
The anthropologist is the helpful voice of an observer perspective. Rather than merely reacting to the unhelpful food voices, you can step back and observe what is happening.
Like an anthropological researcher, you can observe the social dynamics of your inner food voices. In addition, you learn to observe your bodily cues, studying their subtle sensations of hunger and fullness.
The nurturer is the helpful voice of self-compassion. It talks to you the way you would speak to someone you care about. If the shame of diet-culture remains strong, this voice may not come naturally and must be ingrained over time.
The nurturer helps you recognize when difficult emotions are triggering the desire to cope by using food. It reminds you of helpful coping skills and encourages you to reach out to others for support during challenging moments.
The nurturer also reminds you to approach intuitive eating gently. It says, “progress, not perfection.” When you are tempted to beat yourself up for any perceived imperfection, it talks to you kindly instead.
The Intuitive Eater
The intuitive eater is the combination of the anthropologist and the nurturer. It draws on the allied version of the nutrition informant and the allied version of the diet rebel.
First and foremost, the intuitive eater trusts your gut.
Healing your relationship with food means healing your relationship with yourself and your body. It means taking the morality out of food, letting go of any attempt to impose rigid rules on your eating habits.
Intuitive eating does not mean throwing caution to the wind and living on a steady fast-food diet. This would be against the tenants of intuitive eating since listening to your body would likely tell you it does not actually feel satisfying choosing these foods in excess.
By taking back your body’s intuitions, you start listening to its cues and regaining its trust. If your relationship with food has been heavily affected by diet-culture, it may take time to regain your own trust. Like any strained relationship, patience is required.
Although intuitive eating sounds simple, many people find it just as difficult as dieting in the beginning. Not having strict rules and regulations around food means you have to constantly check in with your body to maintain balance.
Over time, this approach becomes natural. Healing your relationship to food allows you to take back control over your life and start focusing on what matters, regaining your health in the process.
If you want to learn more, I highly recommend checking out Intuitive Eating by Elyse Resch and Evelyn Tribole. Their approach is supported by a great deal of research and has been revolutionary for many people.
As an addiction counselor and former personal trainer, I believe the intuitive approach to eating is based on a deep understanding of the psychology of motivation.
If you struggle with yo-yo dieting or an eating disorder, I highly recommend checking out the book.