Healthy weight loss starts with eating well. But if you’re struggling with body image or desperate to get over a weight-loss plateau, it can be easy to veer into not-so-healthy territory with eating habits. The signs you’ve got an unhealthy relationship with food aren’t always easy to spot, says Marjorie Nolan Cohn, RD, owner of MNC Nutrition in Philadelphia, Pennsylvania. But once you identify them, you’re even closer to pursuing your weight-loss goals in a healthy and sustainable way.
Here, nine signs your relationship with food might need a little TLC:
To an extent, it’s normal to take note of what others are eating — as a social being you naturally turn to those around you to see how you’re measuring up, says Katie Rickel, PhD, a clinical psychologist and CEO of Structure House, a residential weight-management facility in Durham, North Carolina. But plate envy isn’t the best for your relationship with food and could signal you’re looking elsewhere for insight into what you should be eating. “Since everyone has different needs, circumstances and eating rhythms, looking at another person’s plate at a single meal often provides useless insight and can lead us to question our own decisions needlessly,” she explains. By looking at one meal you don’t know what the rest of someone’s day looked like nutritionally or activity-wise.
The fix: Order first. “This helps ensure you are making the choices that are based on your needs and desires and less on what other people have chosen to order,” says Rickel.
If you find yourself restricting yourself all week with your sights set on what you’ll eat on your epic ‘cheat day,’ you’re setting yourself up for an imbalanced and unfulfilling relationship with food, says Liz Wyosnick, a registered dietitian based in Seattle, Washington. Feeling deprived all week can also lead a cheat day to turn into a ‘cheat weekend’ or entire ‘cheat week,’ she explains. This could lead you to overeat, slow down your progress, and in turn, zap motivation.
The fix: Do away with your cheat day. Ditching the on-off mentality and treating yourself to foods you love throughout the week in moderation can help you see that indulgences are perfectly acceptable (and necessary) to stick with an eating style that makes you feel good long-term, says Wyosnick. Plus, if you’re getting your (albeit small) fix throughout the week, you likely won’t feel the need to ‘cheat,’ which ultimately is a healthier way to approach food in general. If your ‘cheat day’ typically means all-you-can-eat dessert, try including fruit with breakfast one day, a small piece of dark chocolate after dinner another, or a cookie for a snack instead, she suggests.
Regularly find yourself saying things like, ‘I deserve this,’ ‘I need this,’ or ‘It’s been a long day,’ before eating highly processed foods or drinking alcohol? You might be attaching food to stress relief, says Wyosnick. When you’re stressed, high levels of the hormone cortisol boost your appetite for high-fat, high-sugar foods, and when you eat them, you start to associate them with comfort, and thus begins the endless cycle. If you’re continually reaching for snacks to deal with (or stifle) overwhelming emotions, you’re likely facing an issue that food can never actually help.
The fix: Take time to explore the deeper issue, says Wyosnick. Is your job mentally draining and unfulfilling? Are you taking on too much? Do you have unresolved anger or sadness from something in your past? Instead of stress-eating it away, try taking something stressful off of your plate (or do something stress-reducing in nature like going for a walk). You can also seek help from a mental health professional, she says. Therapy can help you explore what’s really behind your stress or emotions.
It’s easy to view foods as ‘good’ or ‘bad’ since we see it happening in society daily. For example, labels on traditional ‘diet’ foods often include words such as ‘smart’ and ‘guilt-less,’ while more calorically-dense options are seen as ‘cheat meal-worthy,’ notes Rickel. However, foods aren’t inherently ‘good’ or ‘bad’ (some simply just have more calories, more sugar or different ingredients than others). When you start to measure your value as a person based on the kinds of foods you ingest, it’s easy for self-worth to tank, says Rickel.
The fix: Next time you overdo it, find some positives: how thoughtful you are to your roommates or how helpful you were to a coworker in a predicament. You’ll start to see food choices don’t go hand in hand with self-worth, helping the connection fade away, she says.
Then, remind yourself that all foods are merely a collection of ingredients, bonded together via chemistry and physics, she suggests. Identify the foods that leave you feeling nourished, energized and healthy and work them into your diet more consistently.
When eating junk food or going over your calorie limit leads you to eat less at your next meal, over-exercise, or limit yourself to only specific ‘clean’ foods for the next few days to ‘make up for it,’ this can lead to a dangerous cycle of food guilt followed by punishing yourself, says Joanna Foley, a San Diego, California-based registered dietitian. You also wind up seeing healthy food or fitness as a punishment, when those can and should be enjoyable activities (not to mention they are the tickets to weight-loss and a healthy lifestyle in general).
The fix: Be a little bit more graceful with yourself. “It’s normal to make less-than-healthy eating choices from time to time,” says Foley. Since emotions or unhealthy beliefs are often the root cause of overeating, try journaling about how you feel after you’ve overdone it or talk it out with a trusted loved one or therapist, she suggests.
Then, instead of seeing healthy foods and exercise as a punishment, find ways to enjoy them and tune into their feel-good effects. Noticing the energy boost you get from a smoothie and a yoga class (versus the dip in energy from sugary packaged foods and vegging out on the couch) can help motivate you to make healthy choices because you want to — not because you feel like you have to, explains Foley.
It’s one thing to give up sweets because your doctor or nutritionist advises you to in order to prevent diabetes, says Cohn. It’s another to limit your intake of calories to such an extreme that you’re negatively impacting your life (as in hunger bells are ringing 24/7 signaling under-nourishment, adds Rickel). This kind of restriction (and having it negatively impact your life) can be a sign of disordered eating, says the Academy of Nutrition and Dietetics.
The fix: Don’t focus on restrictions, which often backfire. Instead, place an emphasis on overall wellness with a balanced weight-loss plan that covers all three macronutrients (carbs, protein and fat) with enough calories for your body size and activity level. Keep track of what you’re taking in and consult with a registered dietitian if you need help.
While calorie counts and weigh-ins are common and helpful weight-loss tools, when check-ins become constant — and make you feel highly stressed and anxious around food — this can lead to orthorexia, a type of disordered eating caused by an obsession with being healthy.
The fix: Shift your focus from numbers (like how many calories are on your plate) to balance with all three macronutrients (lean protein, high-fiber carbs and healthy fats) in every meal. Fill half of your plate with non-starchy veggies like salad greens, asparagus, or broccoli; a quarter with lean protein like chicken breast, eggs, or tofu; a quarter with a high-fiber carb like quinoa or whole wheat bread; plus, healthy fats in the form of condiments like a dressing or sauce, suggests Foley. If you’re worried you’re veering into obsessive territory, confide in a trusted loved one or reach out to a health professional who can give you the tools you need to make healthy changes.
Miss out on your best friend’s birthday because you’re afraid of the chocolate cake you know will be there? Did forgetting to log a single snack send you into a total spiral? When your eating habits (or avoidance of food altogether) prevent you from enjoying your day-to-day life, it’s a sign of disordered eating, says Cohn.
The fix: Seek help. If you’re struggling to the point of not being able to change your behaviors in relation to food, a registered dietitian and licensed therapist who are specially-trained in disordered eating treatment can conduct a full assessment and help you with a treatment plan so you can properly rehab your relationship with food, Cohn says.
“If you find yourself hungry all the time, then you may need to rethink your daily intake,” says Amanda A. Kostro Miller, RD. “While sometimes hunger is due to boredom or habit, excessive hunger is your body’s way to tell you that you need more calories, even if you’re trying to lose weight.”
The fix: Even for weight loss, men should consume at least 1,500 calories a day and women should consume at least 1,200 calories per day, she says. If you notice you’re hungry between meals, drink a glass of water (sometimes thirst is mistaken for hunger), eat about an ounce of nuts (which have fiber, fat and protein to keep you full), or snack on something like fresh veggies and hummus (with fiber and protein to keep you full), she suggests.