It’s common to hear foods like ice cream, chips and chocolate described as ‘indulgences’, while a salad or sugar-free treat is labelled ‘guilt-free’.
On one level, it makes sense. The Australian Guide to Healthy Eating tells us we should eat more vegetables and less foods containing saturated fat and added sugars, like ice cream. By that rationale, it’s easy to take the next step and categorise one as ‘good’ and the other as ‘bad’.
But demonising food – viewing it through a good/bad lens – creates a sense of guilt and shame around diet that can lead to unhealthy eating habits. Yes, guilt can motivate us to change our behaviour, but it’s a negative emotion that can contribute to a problematic relationship with food.
Lisa Mitchell is a personal trainer and nutritional coach from the Central Coast of New South Wales. “To say a food is good or bad creates a notion that we’ve done something wrong by eating that food, and naturally that leads to people feeling guilty,” she says. Trying to remove these labels is something Mitchell spends a lot of time working on with clients.
How to tell if you have an unhealthy relationship with food
Everyone’s relationship with food is unique, says Mitchell. If your attitude towards food starts to become obsessive and restricts your daily life, it could be a sign that you need to rethink your approach to what you eat. In severe cases, an extreme fixation on healthy eating can lead to the development of an eating disorder known as orthorexia.
Mitchell says that, in the past, she felt her relationship with food crossed into unhealthy territory when she followed a very strict ‘clean eating’ regime. “I was putting a lot of pressure on myself to eat a certain way,” she recalls. “When you ‘fall off the wagon’, there’s a lot of guilt that comes with that.”
For Mitchell, a positive relationship with food now means “knowing that it’s OK to have cake or doughnuts or pizza, and that my life wasn’t going to fall apart,” she says. “Mentally, it was moving past the guilt and pressure I would put on myself if I ate something I classed as ‘bad’.”
The first step for Mitchell was to seek help from a professional. “Always know that’s an option if you feel out of your depth, and that it’s not always going to be a quick fix,” she says. “These things take time and, for some people, this type of unhealthy diet culture has been ingrained from an early age. Allow yourself the time to get to a point where food can be a positive and enjoyable experience.”
How to reset your relationship with food
EAT WHEN YOU’RE HUNGRY
Sometimes we eat because we’re feeling sad, happy, bored or procrastinating. Who hasn’t found themselves reaching for a chocolate bar after a rough day, or raiding the fridge to alleviate boredom rather than hunger? During the coronavirus pandemic, when many of us were working from home with easy access to a well-stocked larder, the temptation to snack became even harder to avoid. If this rings true for you, try listening to your body’s cues that tell you when it’s time to eat. At the same time, waiting until you’re ravenous to eat often leads to overeating.
TRACK YOUR INTAKE
Mitchell and her clients track their food intake, a strategy that is particularly useful if you feel you have trouble distinguishing between genuine physical hunger and a psychological urge to eat. “I’ll have a target to hit for the day and then that’s broken down into macronutrients including proteins, fats and carbohydrates. This is different for every person depending on their make-up, goals and activity level,” says Mitchell. “Tracking is not for everyone and doesn’t need to be forever, but it does give you a great insight into what you’re consuming and if you’re meeting your adequate, daily nutritional requirements.”
DITCH THE ‘GOOD’ AND ‘BAD’ TAGS
There is no such thing as a ‘bad’ food. Fat isn’t inherently bad, and eating it doesn’t make you a bad person, either. Think of new adjectives to describe food, such as wholesome, nourishing, satiating.
Too often, eating is something we do while we’re doing something else. Breakfast happens in gulps between putting on the washing and getting the kids ready for school, and lunch is wolfed down at our desks at work. The result is ‘mindless eating’ – or “a lack of awareness of the food we’re consuming” – which Dr Lilian Cheung, a nutritionist from the Harvard Medical School, believes is a contributing factor to the obesity epidemic. Mindful eating, on the other hand, requires us to pay close attention to our food choices and the act of eating. Take time to appreciate your food using all your senses and register how you feel after eating different foods. It’s important to note that mindful eating is a judgement free zone. It’s about feeling empowered by your food choices rather than being weighed down by a sense of deprivation usually associated with dieting.