There is so much conflicting advice around what is “healthy” that some days it feels impossible to know what to eat.
I grew up reading various fitness magazines, and I took those articles as gospel truth. I remember the first time it dawned on me that the new food I was being told to avoid was one that I was told to eat just a few issues earlier. Instead of critically thinking and realizing this magazine probably isn’t an expert on my health, I chose to believe the fad diet they were promoting and immediately stopped eating the forbidden fruit of the month (quite literally).
It took going through recovery from an eating disorder for me to finally wake up to the lies that society had been peddling to me about food and what my body should look like. Diet culture is rampant, and often food restriction and dieting put people on a risky path to disordered eating.
No one plans to develop an eating disorder, but it can be a life-changing challenge once you’re in it. So it is worth careful consideration to determine if your relationship with food is living up to your intentions of health, or if your desire to care for your health has gone too far.
Here are seven signs that your relationship with food might be hurting your health.
01. You count and/or limit calories
We have all heard the (now outdated) phrase, “Calories in, calories out” as an approach to weight loss. In reality, the practice of counting calories hinders more than it helps. If you are constantly focusing on external data like the number of calories on a label, you risk losing touch with your own internal hunger and fullness cues. This means you can’t actually give your body what it needs on any given day.
Your nutritional needs change based on where you are in your menstrual cycle, how much sleep you get, your activity levels, age, and more. If you are obeying external or pre-determined rules over your real-life internal cues, you may be dipping your toe into the water of disordered eating.
02. You weigh yourself
Studies show that weight and health are not as intertwined as we have been led to believe. If you weigh yourself frequently (or at all!) and notice your mood or emotions change based on the number that flashes on the scale, that could be an indication you have veered into disordered eating or negative body image territory.
Instead of focusing on what number appears on the scale, focus on how you feel about yourself and how you are treating your body. Are you getting enough sleep? Eating enough vegetables? Prioritizing movement and exercise that you enjoy? It is important to eat in a way that includes variety, balance, and moderation, yet we need to focus on our health first, not an arbitrary number on a scale.
03. You have a list of good and bad foods
Barring allergies, one of the key tenets I learned from my own eating disorder recovery, and which I continue to share through my work at Rock Recovery, is that all foods can fit into a healthy way of eating. There is no moral judgment tied to food, even if you have been told that certain foods are “bad” and should be eliminated from your diet, whether from magazines, so-called health coaches, or other sources.
Often, if we try to avoid or restrict certain foods, we are more tempted to binge on them. By no longer making certain foods off-limits and removing judgment around food, you can start to experience freedom and listen to what your body actually needs and wants at any given moment. Of course, you should not eat cookies for every meal (and if you are truly eating intuitively and listening to your body’s cues, I promise you won’t want to!), but there is no reason why cookies can’t be a part of your normal eating.
04. You don’t listen to your hunger and fullness cues
If you skip meals or snacks because you perceive that you have already eaten too much for that day, or you don’t allow yourself to eat before or after a certain time, even if you are hungry, this can build problematic habits. Remember, we need to try to learn to trust our internal cues, not have our body’s cues be overridden by external ones.
At times it can also be normal and healthy to eat food just because it tastes good, even if we aren’t hungry (think warm muffins straight out of the oven, yum)! However, if you find yourself in a pattern where your go-to coping method is food when you are stressed, bored, angry, lonely, tired, and so on, this can be a sign of deeper disordered eating patterns.
05. You get anxiety about changing your eating plans
One of the key pieces of food freedom is having flexibility. While it is important to plan for the day to make sure we have enough meals and snacks, life happens, and sometimes things don’t go according to plan!
Back when I was struggling with food, if I had planned to go home and eat one of my “safe” meals I would decline an impromptu dinner invite from a friend, even if I was feeling lonely and could use the company. If changing up your eating plans makes you feel anxious, or you choose to control what or when you eat at the expense of relationships, this could be a sign that you are developing unhealthy patterns of isolation and control.
06. You feel afraid of being around certain foods
I used to keep all sweets out of the house since I felt like I couldn’t trust myself. Once I learned to remove judgment around food and let myself eat all foods, I regained balance with my eating. Now I keep pints of ice cream in my freezer for months, and totally forget about them.
If you refuse to keep certain foods in the house or dread or avoid social events because of the food that will be served, this might point to a larger issue. Being able to attend a friend’s birthday celebration and enjoy a piece of cake should be a joyful (not stressful!) part of life.
07. You find yourself being preoccupied thinking about food.
Are you already thinking about what you will (or won’t) eat for lunch before your feet have hit the ground in the morning? Do you ruminate over lunch plans with friends or feel the need to check out the menu in advance? This could be a sign that you are devoting too much mental energy to the food you are eating and neglecting other areas of your life. You can learn to trust your body in the moment and give it the nutrition it needs without having to always plan ahead.
Remember, as humans we need to care for our whole selves—body, mind and spirit. Food of course has nutritional value, yet there is also relational value that comes from breaking bread together and connecting with loved ones over food. As someone who has recovered from disordered eating, I can tell you that food freedom is possible and worth it.
If you resonate with any of these patterns listed above, it might be time to seek clinical expertise via a therapist or dietitian to learn to listen to your body and begin a journey toward intuitive eating.