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Your Relationship with Food

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Namrata Roy

21 March 2023

5 Mins

Food for thought, body, and mind

We have often been asked to address our emotions and attitude towards our friends, partners, family and even our body and mind. We have been told that these relationships are critical for our overall health, especially that of the mind.

As a result, we take active steps in order to strengthen these. However, we are less aware that our attitude towards the food we eat also significantly contributes to a healthy mental state. But what does this mean?

The health and wellness industry is flooded with products and services that feed off of our insecurities. It has placed a lot of our worth on our weight and appearance. This has ensured that we view food purely as fuel, reward, or punishment.

As a result, food ends up becoming a source of anxiety, stress, and guilt. But isn’t food more than that? Food is not only a source of nourishment and enjoyment; it also plays a significant role in our culture!

Our relationship with food is always oscillating on a spectrum and is directly influenced by several factors. However, by reassessing and working on our relationship with food, we can try and prevent tipping ourselves to the extreme. Having a positive relationship with food is thus critical to maintaining a healthy body and mind.

So what are the factors that affect our relationship with food, and how do we make it better?

Let’s break it down.

Our Mentality

As mentioned before, how we view food is extremely crucial for building a healthy relationship with it. When we view food purely as a reward or punishment, we use it to either as a source of comfort in times of distress or as a way to ‘undo’ any indulgence. This mentality leads to a vicious cycle of punishment and reward. For example, most of us use foods such as ice creams, cakes, pizzas, and the likes to comfort us during tough times. This is a scenario where we’re more likely to overeat these foods. When we do overeat and feel sick, a wave of guilt washes over and we decide to punish ourselves for it - by eating ‘healthy’. This is an unhealthy mentality and it leads to an imbalanced diet.

So how do we change this mentality? Start viewing food as a source of fuel, nourishment, and enjoyment. Food is the only source of energy that we provide to our body. We need a well-balanced diet suited to our energy needs for our body to function optimally and in order to go by with our day, with ease. A balanced diet can and should include foods that nourish us along with elements that we enjoy! This will ensure that we do not fall into the toxic cycle of reward and punishment.

Emotional eating:

Ice cream to deal with stress.

Chips to cope with bursts of anxiety.

Chocolates to help with sadness.

Sounds familiar? While it is perfectly okay to use food as an outlet to deal with our emotions periodically, if we use it as our only coping mechanism for sadness, stress, anxiety, and fear, it leads to dependency. We need to realize that food is only a temporary fix; it is not the solution to our emotions. It’s quite common for us to reach out to food because of its easy accessibility; however, this will eventually lead to the punishment/reward cycle. It is also important to acknowledge and be aware of our eating patterns around periods of heightened emotions. If you do find yourself turning to food as a coping mechanism, here are some other outlets you can try:

While these may not work for all, it might be helpful to try and find out what works for you. If you feel like you need professional help with this, then seek guidance for the same!

Dichotomous thinking:

Dichotomous thinking is defined as thinking in terms of binary oppositions such as “good or bad”, “black or white”, or “all or nothing”, etc. We often see this type of thinking in nutrition when we classify foods as ‘good’ and ‘bad’ or ‘clean’ and ‘unhealthy’. For example, whole foods like fruits, vegetables, grains, and nuts are ‘clean/healthy’, and foods like cereal, pizza, ice cream, and pastries are ‘bad/unhealthy. Why is this detrimental to your relationship with food? Isn’t it healthy to avoid ‘junk’ food?

To begin with, no single food is inherently healthy or unhealthy. Some foods are packed with nutrients that our body needs, while some are enjoyable and hyper-palatable (tasty) in nature. This type of thinking is problematic as it might lead to restrictive dietary practices. In turn, this trend of assigning moral values to food tends to create a sense of anxiety or fear around the foods we classify as ‘bad/unhealthy’. For example, when someone with this mindset consumes something they consider ‘bad’, they tend to feel guilty or anxious, and they try to compensate for it by exercising more rigidity in their diet - by entirely cutting themselves off from these foods. This extreme restriction is unhealthy for both the mind and body, as the reward/punishment cycle sets course again.

It is important to practice food neutrality. We assign a higher moral value to certain foods and put them on a pedestal. Try and view all foods on the same pedestal. Each of these foods has a certain time, place, and situation to be eaten! Food should not be a source of anxiety or fear. Eat food for what it is and not for the labels we assign to it.

Eating should be balanced. It should include a mix of nutrient-dense foods and also foods that you enjoy. There is a difference between eating for optimal health and eating to control your body! Your mentality and emotions decide the relationship you have with food. If it is toxic, then it could lead to poor mental and physical health, or even an eating disorder. While these are the beliefs we are conditioned to, it is important to actively take steps to change our mindset. Food should not be a source of fear, guilt, or anxiety. Enjoy the food you eat and make enough time for exercise as well. This, not a change that can be brought in overnight, but remember, one step forward, is one step forward.

With a BSc in Nutrition, Dietetics and Foodservice management, and MSc in Sports Nutrition from Loughborough University, UK, Sharmada Venkat aims to work with clients, develop personalised nutrition plans, and help them reach their goals with ease.

She wants to equip them with the knowledge and skills to develop a better relationship with food during their fitness journey.

Sharmada is also an accredited advisor under the UK Anti-doping (UKAD).

You can follow her on Instagram

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