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How to Have a Healthy Relationship with Food

By Sondra Kronberg, MS, RD, CDN, CEDRD-S & NEDA Staff

Eating disorders are a collection of thoughts, feelings, and behaviors that are not just weight and food related but also include disordered thoughts about health. This creates rigidity or chaos that impacts quality of life and perpetuates the striving for “healthy” ideals--which then borders on disordered. As the aggregate of thoughts and behaviors become driven, automated, or compulsive, there is initially a loss of vitality and spontaneity replaced by rigidity. At the very least, this creates eating disordered thoughts and behaviors and, at worst, it precipitates an eating disorder. 

Forming a healthy relationship with food takes conscious effort, but it is possible. This relationship includes relaxed eating, choosing preferences over positions, and practicing balance and flexibility in your eating. These principles will let you feel more at peace with food, as well as help you recognize and stop unhealthy habits.  

“RELAXED EATING”  

"Relaxed eating is the ability to be at ease with the social, emotional and physical components of food and eating. Relaxed eating is attuned to the body’s hungers and intuitively provides for its needs. It is the ability to listen and satisfy your hunger allowing for pleasurable and whimsical eating with flexibility and the absence of remorse. It allows you to eat when you are hungry and stop when you are satisfied. It affords you the choice of eating more or less or differently than usual without judgement, punishment or the need to compensate. It incorporates choices and beliefs about food through a filter of self-love and body wellness that is balanced, not extreme or all consuming. Relaxed eating responds to changes in your routine, your moods, and your physical demands with compassion and ease. It is an extension of self-care and body acceptance. Relaxed eating is supported by relaxed thinking about your food, your weight and your body and is a true manifestation of self-trust and self-expression.” (Kronberg, Sondra)

“PREFERENCE OVER POSITION” (© KRONBERG, SONDRA)

Everything you do requires that you make a choice.  When to get up, what to wear, what to watch on television -- these are all daily decisions that shape us.  Often, we fall into habits because we prefer certain options.  Maybe you watch Game of Thrones every night because it always entertains you, or perhaps you wear sparkly green eyeshadow because it makes you feel glamorous.  While it can feel secure to have some reliable, tried-and-true options, it is unrealistic to make them your only ones.  You may love Game of Thrones while your best friend hates it, so when she comes over you watch something else.  You feel awesome in your bold eyeshadow but you don’t wear it to your office job interview.  This flexibility is necessary in order to live a healthy life.  

Not every preference fits every situation, and it would be inappropriate to not change your decisions when you’re in a different environment or circumstance.  Food exists by the same rules.  Of course, it’s natural to have a favorite dessert or restaurant.  But if specific foods become your only options, your mindset might be one of obsession.  Rigid habits, such as only eating certain foods, can quickly turn your preferences into positions and leave you stuck.  “Positions” refers to inflexible spots where you feel you have no other choice but to do what you’ve created as a habit.  Instead, eating should be a balanced activity that is neither the best nor the worst part of a day.  You should enjoy the foods you consume but not worship them.  Flexibility, exhibited through the willingness to forego a preference temporarily, is an essential aspect of a healthy relationship with food.  Preferences need to remain just that, and not become an unflinching regimen. 

BALANCE

The word “balance” gets tossed around a lot, but nowhere is it more important than in your eating habits. In the world of food, balance pertains to many aspects of eating.  For one, it means feeling comfortable consuming a wide variety of foods, including all food groups. In order to fulfill your body’s nutritional needs, you need to consume adequate portions of protein, fats, and carbohydrates. Some or all of these macronutrients are present in every food group, so there is no biological or chemical need to cut any group out (unless instructed by a doctor). The phrase “everything in moderation” is highly applicable--there is in fact a place for everything in your eating.  

In addition to variation in type of food, balance indicates an ability to eat both for pleasure and for hunger. Both types of eating are extremely important for your health. Eating for hunger is great because it nourishes your body and helps keep things running the way they should be. Ignoring hunger cues is a dangerous habit that can lead to more disordered eating patterns and health consequences. Eating for pleasure is just as important as eating for hunger because, well, it’s pleasurable! Some foods just taste good. Some foods simply make us happy. Those are valid enough reasons to eat them on their own. Food does not exist only to power our bodies. Instead, pleasure eating allows us to associate positive feelings and experiences with food.  

Finally, balance also means avoiding diets. Diets usually employ some kind of restriction, be it through food quantity or type. Some diets advocate that cutting out all fats is the key step to losing weight, while others swear that carbs are evil. The fact that there are literally thousands of diets out there promoting different tips and tricks should indicate that there is no one diet that works. Most diets are far too restrictive to keep up for long. In fact, 95% of people who lose weight regain it within a few months or years. The diet industry profits from exploiting societal expectations and people’s insecurities by selling ridiculous books and pills and DVDs and “industry secrets.” Even ignoring the fact that diets are completely nonsensical, they are also mentally unhealthy. It is neither healthy nor logical to deny yourself food groups or to limit your calories. No food or macronutrient is your enemy. They each serve a unique purpose--be it fulfilling hunger or causing happiness--but diets reject this in an attempt to give easy explanations on how to lose weight. Because of this, diets promote the kind of restrictive eating that makes it easy for an eating disorder to take hold. And that is the opposite of balance.  

FLEXIBILITY

Flexibility is another key aspect of a healthy relationship with food. It refers to the absence of strict rules surrounding eating and food habits. Rather, there is more of an ability to “go with the flow” and accept deviations from preferred foods as a natural part of life, instead of viewing those deviations as a judgment of yourself or your worth. For example, we too often deem certain foods “good” and “clean” while demonizing others as “bad” or “junk.” These quick labels let us feel in control of what we’re consuming. But in reality, they don’t mean much at all. They are constructs that serve no health purpose, and instead only make people feel poorly for certain food choices and proud of others. Most days include a mix of stereotypically “healthy” and “unhealthy” foods, and that is okay. It is more than all right to have dessert after dinner!

This flexibility extends into all aspects of life. What if your partner takes you to a restaurant but they don’t serve the “clean” option you feel you need? Or what if your family is at a baseball game and the stadium only serves specific “junk” foods? You can’t just leave the date or not eat lunch. Those are times when it becomes necessary to let go of obsessive labels and live in the moment with your food. It’s important to give yourself the freedom and flexibility to make unplanned food choices that may not have been your #1 preference. Instead of taking you out of the moment to a place of unhealthy thoughts, being spontaneous with these choices allows you to remain present anytime your preferred food options aren’t available. Besides, no single food item will change anything about your health or weight. Deviating from planned or preferred meals happens to everyone, and is not a reflection of poor health or a lack of self-control.

Additionally, flexibility relates to the amount of food you consume. Sometimes, we eat beyond our comfort zone. Maybe you’re not completely mindful or conscious while eating one day, and don’t feel your hunger cues until a bit later. This is not a cause for alarm. Doing this every so often will not alter your health. Conversely, sometimes we eat less. Over the course of life, both of these experiences will happen to most people. There are ways to reduce these, such as mindful eating or eating regularly when hunger does not register. However, when occurring sparingly, neither are dangerous, wrong, or immoral. Trust your body; it is much smarter than you give it credit for. It knows where you need to be and can deal with a little bit of variation. The key is remembering these principles–-having variation, preference, flexibility--and accepting the changes that come with life.

Reference:  Kronberg, Sondra. The Comprehensive Learning/Teaching Handout Manual for Eating Disorders  © 2001 Sondra Kronberg, MS, RD, CEDRD-S. Wellness Programs Publishing, 3rd Edition, 2016. 516-513-1284

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Sondra Kronberg, MS, RD, CEDRD-S, and founder and spokesperson of National Eating Disorders Association (NEDA) 

Sondra Kronberg is a certified eating disorders specialist and clinical nutritionist with 35 years of experience as a recognized leader in the field of eating disorders. She is a founding member of the National Eating Disorders Association (NEDA) and currently a media spokesperson for NEDA. She is the Founder and Executive Director of Eating Disorder Treatment Collaborative and F.E.E.D. IOP, Connect and Concierge Treatment Programs of New York. Sondra Specializes in the treatment and training of the collaborative approach to eating wellness, orthorexia, anorexia, bulimia and binge eating disorder. She is the author of the Comprehensive Eating Disorder Learning/Teaching Handout Series Manual and contributing author to the book, Eating Disorders in Special Populations: Medical, Nutritional and Psychological Treatment. Sondra received the 2017 NEDA Legacy Award, IAEDP 2010 Certified Specialist Award, the NEDA 2004 Excellence in Treatment Award and the 2002 Sports Cardiovascular and Wellness Nutritionists Excellence in Practice Award. Sondra trains professionals, is a national workshop leader, author, speaker, and spokesperson who appears regularly on television including PBS, Good Morning America, ABC, CBS, Fox 5, Dr. Oz, 20/20, and Anderson Cooper.