My relationship to food was a bit of a roller coaster through my teenage years and into my twenties.

Though I did lose weight through various diet programs like the Atkins Diet and low carb plans, after losing weight on a particular plan, I would swing back hard in the opposite direction and struggle with things like emotional eating or hoarding food. In college, I found Weight Watchers, marking a move in the direction of eating healthier as a lifestyle and not simply a diet to change my body.

Even with moderate success following the principles of Weight Watchers, I still struggled with unhealthy attitudes toward food and my body from time to time. I still wrestled with the lie that some foods are bad, while others are good. if I just managed to avoid the bad foods for the rest of my life, I would be fine, I told myself, ignoring how unrealistic that was.

Fast forward to several months ago.

I was beginning to hit a brick wall with Weight Watchers. Some unhealthy food and mind patterns were coming up for me. I was not attending my weekly meetings and was beginning to use food as an emotional crutch from time to time.

Several people close to me had done Whole 30 before and raved about the health benefits; they also noticed the way Whole 30 changed their attitude toward food. A change in attitude sounded very appealing to me! Whole 30 is an elimination diet: for thirty days, you avoid sugar, alcohol, grains, legumes, soy, and dairy. You can eat meat, seafood, fruits and veggies, and most seasonings.

From May 1–30 of this year, I completed my first Whole 30. While I deeply missed my sweet treats and favorite coffee creamer, I have been amazed at how those weeks are beginning to change my relationship with food, for the better.

How to properly fuel my body

I am almost 35 years old and just now learning what it means to properly fuel my body. For many years, I trained my body to eat certain foods while following a strict regimen in order to maintain and/or lose weight.

I did not take the time to learn what it means to fuel my body with the right foods it needs. Instead, I went the lazy route, learning to perfect Lean Cuisine microwavable dinners and making lots of salads with the same grilled chicken. I did not take the time to learn how to cook good and healthy meals.

But this first experience of completing Whole 30 has opened my eyes to the difference in how I physically feel when I eat real, non-processed foods. One day three of Whole 30, I hit an afternoon sugar crash. When I fed my body healthy fats like fresh guacamole, it instantly perked me up, much more than a handful of my favorite M&M’s would have in the past.

Slowly, my mind is learning how my body feels when it is filled with real foods. This helps me remember I always have choices when it comes to the food I put into my body.

Learning what my food triggers are

Learning about my own emotional triggers through going to counseling is one of the most helpful things I have learned about myself. As I have begun to work through my relationship with food as an adult woman, I have grown more aware of what my own triggers are when it comes to food and how I use food as a coping mechanism.

One of the things I know about myself is that I have a sweet tooth; I would much prefer my favorite type of ice cream or slice of cheesecake over a strong cocktail. Knowing this about myself, I am learning to notice how I often use sweets as a way to deal with feelings of stress, anxiety, frustration, and overwhelm.

Triggers are a reminder that something deeper is going on in your body or mind. Health science shows us that food is often used as a coping mechanism. Emotional eating is a common way for the mind to deal with stress, anxiety, trauma, or other uncomfortable feelings from daily life. It is not really about the foods we eat, but rather, how our relationship to food interacts with our feelings and emotions.

Knowing what your food triggers are can help you deal with the uncomfortable emotions that are really behind the cravings.

How healthy is my relationship to food?

How healthy is my relationship to food? This is a question I ask myself to help me reflect on what a healthy relationship to food would look like, and to assess whether my relationship to food does look that way. For me, a healthy relationship to food looks like using food as fuel to make my body healthy and strong: choosing good foods that nourish my body, savoring its flavor and textures.

A practical way I remind myself of this and live this out at home is through a few colored, handwritten notes on some of the cupboard doors in the kitchen. They read, “Food is Fuel. How am I fueling my body?” The types of food we put into our bodies have a real impact on how we both physically and emotionally feel. Excess sugar can lead to weight gain and big swings in our moods; not to mention feeling sluggish or slow. Healthy fats like coconut or avocado oils are healthier, natural fats that are better for our bodies.

Regardless of whether you struggle with a dieting culture or have found a healthy eating plan, we all need to evaluate and take stock of our relationship to food; whether it is healthy or unhealthy.

Learning to listen to my body

For too many years, I have not listened to my body. I have ignored caring for and respecting my body. I have felt uncomfortable in my own skin, often wishing I could look different or focusing too much on what I would change about my appearance if I had the chance to do so.

Rather than placing emphasis on one particular type of diet, we can work on listening better to our bodies with a practice called intuitive eating. Dieticians Evelyn Tribole and Elyse Resch characterize an intuitive eater in their The book Intuitive Eating: A Revolutionary Program That Works as someone who makes food choices without experiencing guilt or shame while honoring their personal hunger. What does it mean to “honor your hunger”? The idea is to focus on nurturing and listening to our bodies rather than limiting food or calories. It is a more holistic way that encourages natural weight loss and helps people to let go of the harmful lies of diet culture. Tribole and Resch outline a series of principles that inform and underly the practice of intuitive eating, such as, “reject the diet mentality” and “make peace with food.”

The intuitive eating approach has helped people heal not only their food-body relationship, but also the harmful side effects of chronic dieting. A constant dieting approach can lead to negative emotional and health side effects. With so much pressure in the world when it comes to how our physical bodies look, learning to release and let go of food shame is a way to change our relationship with food for the better.

When we as women can learn to listen to our physical bodies, we are able to trust ourselves more; and hopefully begin to release and let go of unhealthy messages we have absorbed for too long.

Today, I feel more at home in my body than I have felt at any other time in my life. No, it’s not perfect, but there is much more peace. I am learning what it means to listen to my body and to notice how I feel better when I am running well-fueled on healthy foods.