February 6, 2023

How Mindfulness Repairs Your Relationship With Food

Do you remember what you last ate or how it made you feel? Were you satisfied when you finished eating, or were you craving more? Perhaps you only remember what was on TV, or you were consumed by thoughts about your body. This is common; many of us have unhealthy relationships with – and habits attached to – food. From judging ourselves for what we do (or do not) eat, to eating mindlessly when we are stressed, mindfulness and the way we think about (and relate to) food has changed dramatically in the last few decades.

As well as increasing the risk of health issues, unhealthy views of food and diet can impact our mental and emotional health. Luckily, the psychological concept of mindfulness could change all that.

How Diet Culture Has Changed Our Relationships With Food

In the ancient world – and, in fact, the early modern world – the word ‘diet’ simply meant what a person ate daily. The word represented the cumulative total of food and drink consumed and held no implicit judgment.

Today, it has another meaning. When we see the word ‘diet’ now, we think of weight loss, muscle gain, or big promises about prolonged life and youthfulness.

Diet culture is everywhere, and many dieticians and nutritionists believe that it has wreaked havoc on our relationships with food. Dietitian Nicole Korodetz believes that this culture creates a fearful relationship with food and instills negative beliefs in many people from a young age… but what is diet culture? How did we get here?

Though the concept of eating for health has been around since Ancient Greece (and probably longer), the ideal of thinness as a beauty standard came much later. The concept of being incredibly thin and waif-like as a beauty standard was very popular in the Victorian era, for example, but the first known ‘diet’ books were published as early as the 1500s.

Today, there is a billion-dollar diet industry that revolves around selling products, systems, and ‘life hacks’ that promote weight loss. These companies fund studies that tell us what to eat, when to eat, and, perhaps more importantly, when and what not to eat.

The implied connection between weight, value, and beauty has created a lot of fear around food, turning it into a negative or threatening thing. This has led many people to have a bad relationship with food, where we judge our worth and goodness based on our size and what we eat.

How Can Negative Relationships With Food Impact Our Health?

Food is the very stuff of life; family meals, lunches with friends, and solo dining should be wonderful experiences that fuel the human experience. Instead, many of us are left in a place where we feel guilty for what we eat, for eating too much, or not eating enough. A negative relationship with food makes us feel bad, stressed, and even depressed, but there are wider implications to consider.

A toxic relationship with food can increase the risk of:

  • Obesity
  • Eating disorders, such as bulimia and anorexia
  • Increased stress
  • Higher risk of certain health conditions related to stress, obesity, or malnutrition
  • Higher risk of intense anxiety or feelings of depression
  • Low self esteem
  • Social isolation

Of course, the negative side effects of a bad relationship with food vary, and they depend on how intensely this relationship impacts eating habits. However, the bottom line is that a fearful or negative perception of food lowers quality of life.

Signs You Have a Toxic Relationship with Food

Do you have a toxic relationship with food? Do you feel ashamed of eating, or avoid eating certain food groups because you categorize them as bad? Many people have unhealthy habits and ideas about food, but some of us can be more heavily impacted than others.

Here are signs that your relationship with food is unhealthy:

  • You eat in response to emotion
  • You habitually binge eat or under eat
  • You think about food all the time, primarily in a negative way
  • Your food consumption impacts your self esteem
  • You regularly try fad diets
  • You have tried and failed to lose or gain wait regularly
  • You dislike eating in front of others
  • You use food as a punishment or a reward
  • You ‘purge’ or induce vomiting if you feel you have eaten too much

You may notice that many of these signs are similar to the signs of eating disorders, such as anorexia. That’s because issues like these represent some of the most extreme forms of toxic food relationships.

Medical issues such as these are best attended to with professional guidance. However, using mindfulness to approach unhealthy or toxic eating habits can be helpful for many.

How Mindfulness Can Rejuvenate Your Approach to Food

To put it simply, mindfulness is the practice of living in, appreciating, and being aware of the present moment. It is about relishing the human experience and taking joy in small things, while being aware of the feelings, thoughts, and processes that make us feel the things we do.

When you take a mindful approach to eating, you stop assigning arbitrary values to food and instead appreciate it for what it is and what it can do for your body.

Encouraging appreciation

Mindfulness encourages appreciation for every moment, even when that moment is uncomfortable, and this includes mealtimes. Taking a mindful approach to your meals removes the focus from whether a food is ‘fattening’ or ‘clean,’ and instead puts it on the smells, sounds, textures, tastes, and the appearance of food. It encourages us to appreciate the work that goes into cultivating and preparing food, to consider the impact the food has on us and the world, and to take joy in the taste of a well-made meal.

When we interrupt the cycle of negative judgments that often revolve around what we eat and how much we eat, we can bring the true value of that food to the surface. The sustenance, nutritious value, and experience of eating should never come with shame, fear, or guilt.

Removing the concept of ‘good’ and ‘bad’ food

When we eat mindfully, we learn to remove the idea of ‘good’ and ‘bad’ from what we eat. No food is inherently bad or good, though some are better for us. Mindfulness reminds us that there is value in pleasure and that eating a little of what we love is good for us.

The positive impact that mindful eating has on mental and emotional wellbeing is considerable. A good, well-rounded diet that includes both high nutrition foods and comforting indulgences without judgment provides mental and emotional benefits. The relationship between diet and mental health is strong!

Encouraging health, not weight control

Weight may contribute to the likelihood of certain health issues. For example, those who are extremely underweight may be more at risk of bone deterioration, while those who are very overweight are more likely to develop diabetes. However, weight should never inform all of our food choices.

A mindful approach to eating encourages health-based choices, rather than a focus on weight. One of the main benefits to mindfulness at mealtimes is a better understanding of what our bodies need.

Those who practice mindful eating are more likely to know when their body is signaling hunger or fullness. This understanding, combined with food choices made to promote health and wellbeing, can lead us to find a healthy, happy weight without being preoccupied with our diet or appearance.

Creating a sanctuary

Any good relationship should feel safe and trusting; when we do not trust or feel safe with people, it leads to disordered or toxic relationships. Our relationship with food is no different. When we have a bad relationship with food, we lose trust, gain fear, and do not feel safe.

Mindfulness can help us to understand what we feel when we eat, and, over time, may help us to identify why we feel that way. Knowledge is power, and when we understand what fuels our need to binge, purge, or restrict our food intake, it is easier to seek a solution that is better for us mentally and physically.

Revealing the beauty in food

Food may be fuel for the body, but it is so much more. Food is the sum total of the labor, love, and creative ingenuity that went into making it. By learning to appreciate that, we can see more clearly the beauty of our meals. This, in turn, opens our minds and hearts to gratitude, and promotes respect for every ingredient and every person who helped to make a meal possible.

When you understand yourself, your feelings, and all the good that food can do, it’s hard to be fearful or stressed about that meal. Over time, this new perspective can create a truly joyful relationship with the food we eat. That’s how life should be.