Do you have a healthy relationship with food? It may sound like an odd or superfluous question. You don't have to worry about your breakfast's feelings, whether your lunch loves you or if your dinner is about to break up with you.
But many people struggle with an unhealthy relationship with food and dieting, says Erin Clifford, a wellness coach based in Chicago. For some, that involves cheating on a diet by secretly consuming such diet-busting foods as chocolate chip cookies, muffins, ice cream, fried chicken and hamburgers.
"I've worked with people who would bring me their food journal, and it looked perfect, but they weren't losing weight," Clifford says. "I [would] ask, what's really going on? And they'd admit they ate food they didn't put in the journal. Some people hide what they're eating from their loved ones. I had one client who had a drawer hidden in her bathroom that her husband didn't know about. She used it to store things like cookies and potato chips. If you're hiding what you're eating, that's not a healthy relationship with food."
Yo-yo dieting is another way an unhealthy relationship with food manifests itself. Some people can be on top of their diet game for weeks or months at a time, then relapse and gain weight by eating sugary, fatty and high-caloric items. "That's not good for your body," Clifford says. "If you are constantly going up and down 5 pounds, that's not good for your digestive system or your metabolism. Your body doesn't know what to do. We function best when we're eating in moderation and are consistent."
[See: How to Stop Emotional Eating.]
Some people eat emotionally to insulate themselves from their feelings, which is detrimental to maintaining a healthy lifestyle and losing unwanted pounds. People sometimes eat because they are stressed, sad, bored or lonely. People who eat emotionally typically reach for unhealthy "comfort food," such as ice cream or french fries, which can lead to obesity, diabetes and heart disease.
Then there are people addicted to food, often unhealthy things such as chocolate, pizza and snack chips. "Some people [are compulsive] about food, the same way some are about alcohol or gambling," Clifford says. "There are parallels."
But a food compulsion is different from other disorders. There are rehab centers and 12-step programs for alcoholism and gambling, but everyone needs to eat. Experts offer these tips to achieve and maintain healthy eating habits and avoid having food become an adversary or a too-close friend:
1. Don't label specific foods as good or bad. A cup of broccoli does not have angelic health powers, and a slice of pizza is not demonic. Some foods are better for your well-being than others, but no food is either evil or benevolent, says Anne Lewis, clinical psychologist at Indiana University Health in Indianapolis.
Ascribing moral qualities to foods gives them unwarranted power, Lewis says. If you deviate from your diet and eat junk food, that doesn't make you a bad person, and you needn't beat yourself up over it, which could lead to a sense of defeat and overeating. Maintain a healthy perspective on food by understanding that some foods are better for your health than others, but no single type of food or portion will ensure or ruin your well-being.
2. Minimize your opportunities to make bad choices. If you're on a low-sugar diet, it's OK to have a small piece of cake on special occasions, such as your birthday or when you're out having dinner with friends, Lewis says.
Limit your cake consumption to unusual events. Don't keep cake in the home -- keeping certain foods nearby can promote a habit of eating them, Lewis says. If you have a birthday celebration in your home and have leftover cake, give it away or throw it out.
3. Don't get too restrictive. Rather than cutting out certain foods completely, allow yourself one day a week to have a modest portion of your favorite treat. For example, instead of trying to banish donuts forever from your diet, permit yourself one every seven days, Clifford says.
Trying to never eat a particular food for the rest of your life might be unrealistic. Rather than feeling like a failure if you have that food -- which could lead to more binge eating -- incorporate that food into your eating routine in moderation.
4. Keep a food journal. Write down not only what you eat, but what you're feeling at the time. Documenting your eating habits and emotions will help you detect patterns, Clifford advises.
You might see that you backslide from your good eating habits by consuming chips, cookies or other junk foods when you're feeling sad, anxious or depressed. Rather than reaching for the unhealthy snack, try doing some deep breathing or going for a short walk. "If you try that instead, a lot of times the craving will pass," Clifford says.
5. Try cooking. Instead of heating up your meal in a microwave or picking up your food from a deli or fast-food joint on the way home, take the time to cook. Make a list of tasty and healthy ingredients that you need from the store and enjoy choosing them.
You needn't become a master chef. "Cooking can be really simple," Clifford says. "You can buy a steamer and throw your vegetables in it. There are good indoor grills. It makes you appreciate your food more if you went to the store to pick your ingredients and prepared them. It makes you mindful."
6. Set yourself up for success at the grocery store. The battle to maintain a balanced relationship with food begins at the supermarket, where what you buy will greatly determine whether you will maintain healthy eating habits, says Dr. Michael Russo, a general surgeon specializing in bariatric surgery at MemorialCare Center for Obesity at Orange Coast Memorial Medical Center in Fountain Valley, California.
You can strategize your shopping trips to avoid aisles loaded with unhealthy items. "The last thing you want to do is load up your cart with cookies, snack chips, crackers and other processed or refined foods that are high in carbohydrates," Russo says. "They are the single most important reason we are facing an obesity epidemic." Try shopping at the perimeter of the supermarket, where fresh produce, lean meats, dairy products and baked items are sold, and avoid inside aisles, where snack items and sugary desserts are usually sold, Russo says. When you are in the bakery section, pick up whole-grain breads and avoid the cakes, muffins and cookies.
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