Measuring. Counting. Depriving. IIFYM (If It Fits Your Macros). Labeling as good or bad. Cheat day. Diet. Guilt-free. I could go on and on. I’m so over all the ways we inadvertently sabotage ourselves. Maybe you are too. Maybe you’re so sick of being stuck on what you think you should be doing, that you’ve lost sight of what your body actually needs you to do.
It’s not your fault though.
Your beliefs, your background, your moral compass, and your social circles all play a role. In fact, there’s a direct correlation between how you talk about food and your relationship to it. Tell me if any of these statements sound familiar:
“Carbs are evil.”
“I deserve this dessert.”
“I’m too lazy to make breakfast.”
“I’m fasting today to make up for yesterday.”
“I only eat junk food when I’m stressed.”
“I didn’t want to waste it.”
“I was bored.”
“I was bad today.”
In my health coaching practice, I hear things like this all the time. And when I dig deeper, which I always do, these statements are quickly followed a good amount of defending, venting, guilt, shame, fear, and comparing their behaviors to that of others.
When you’re born, you have the innate ability to get your needs met in a healthy way. But somewhere down the line things change. You might have been teased as a kid and used food to self-soothe. Or you were rewarded with a treat for getting good grades. Or you just wanted to fit in, so you followed the low-fat, raw diet, sugar-free, or keto crowd to feel a sense of belonging. At some point you probably developed a belief about food that may or may not be serving you right now.
There’s new research coming out of the UK that expands on what I see with my clients. A study from Aston University is the first to suggest that your relationship with food could be influenced by your online peers. In the study, 369 college students were asked to report their BMI and consumption of fruit, vegetables, calorically-dense snacks, and sugary drinks. In addition, they were asked to estimate how often they thought their Facebook peers consumed them.
Researchers found that participants ate extra portions of food in the fruit and veg category as well as the calorie-dense and sugary-drink category when they thought their social circles were doing the same.
All of that to say, your eating habits and perceptions of certain foods may be influenced by things beyond the conscious mind. That’s why I always start by understanding my clients’ current belief systems and coping strategies so that I can help them create an effortless relationship with food, based on my 5-step action plan below.
Keep in mind that health coaching isn’t the same as therapy, so if you find yourself in a complicated relationship with food, I highly recommend you reach out to someone who specializes in disordered eating.
How to have an effortless relationship with food
It may seem like our thoughts about food just happen to us. There are things you can do to change the way you interact with food:
Shift your mindset
Find healthier ways to cope
Always answer hunger with a meal
Work with a pro
Shift your mindset. I can’t tell you how often I hear, “I’m doing keto” or “I’m not eating bread right now,” or “we’re on the egg diet!” People love to shout their dietary preferences from the rooftops, but there’s a difference between having the mentality that you’re on a diet and choosing foods that work for your body. Take a minute to look at your mindset around food. Are you dieting or nourishing yourself with foods that make you feel satiated, energized, and strong? And try to let go of the need to be perfect. Where you are is exactly where you need to be.
Find healthy ways to cope. A lot of my clients use food to check out, numb their feelings, or reward or punish themselves. Think about what emotion you’re experiencing and look for non-food ways to cope with it. If your go-to thought is “when I’m upset, I need a pint of ice cream,” or “everything feels so scary right now, where’s the wine?”, brainstorm other things that capture that same sense of peace and calm. It could be journaling, taking a few deep breaths, going for a long walk, or connecting with a friend in a social-distancing-appropriate way.
Limit temptation. Can’t control yourself when there are chips or cookies or nuts in the house? Don’t buy them. Fill your fridge with foods that make you feel good and skip the ones that don’t. Also, limit your interactions with social media accounts that trigger compulsive or unhealthy behaviours. If your feed is full of raw food fanatics or carnivore crusaders and the constant barrage of dinner pics, food-shaming, and non-supportive comments has you feeling bad or obsessive, remember that you always have the choice to unfollow them. You have different needs than your friends (that includes online friends), and their relationship with food doesn’t have to dictate yours.
Always answer hunger with a meal. Constantly thinking about food is a good sign that you’re not eating enough of it. Sure, everything would be so much easier if you weren’t hungry all the time. But being hungry all the time is an indicator that you need to eat more — including more satisfying foods. I encourage my clients to choose full-on meals when they feel hungry instead of grazing on healthy snacks throughout the day. So, ditch the quick low-fat yogurt and banana routine and opt for a satiating sit-down meal of eggs, avocado, and bacon.
Work with a pro. If you’re struggling to break down some of your limiting beliefs or behaviors around food, don’t hesitate to work with a specialist or a certified health coach like one from the Primal Health Coach Institute community. Personally, I’ve helped hundreds of men and women improve their relationships with food through strategies that eliminate the all-or-nothing mentality. Instead of talking about choices that are good or bad, which can make you feel like you’re a good or bad person when you eat them, we focus on the concept of supportive foods — foods that literally support your body, your brain, your emotions, and your mood.
As a health coach, it’s not my job to change you. It is, however, my job to give you the tools so you can help make changes for yourself. Everyone has stories and beliefs based on things that have happened over the course of their lifetime, but with this 5-step action plan, you can start reinventing your relationship with food right now.
Erin Power is an NBHWC board-certified health coach and the Coaching and Curriculum Director for Primal Health Coach Institute. She’s also the co-host of Health Coach Radio, the podcast by health coaches, for health coaches. Erin lives outside of Calgary, Alberta, Canada, on a hobby farm in the foothills of the Rocky Mountains.