How to cultivate a healthy relationship with food

Kate's family happily eating at the dinner table

Your health and well-being depend on it

TW: This article discusses disordered eating

The first month of the year is typically filled with resolution and diet talk, which can inundate our feeds and make us feel like we need to change ourselves to start the year off right. It is hard to avoid the pervasive diet culture in our society and you will have to actively steer clear from its far-reaching tendrils – in grocery stores, commercials, ads, etc.

One way to focus less on appearance and cultivate improved year-round eating habits, is to develop a healthy relationship with food. Like any relationship, this shift takes time and effort. We all develop daily habits and beliefs surrounding food and health. These beliefs and personal outlook on food can even become part of our identity. They can then become engrained and validated through social pressures, the Internet, social media and sometimes the actions of well-intentioned friends and family members.

In my first couple years as a varsity athlete in university, I craved the feeling of being hungry. I was grumpy and uncomfortable, but I took pride in that hunger – that I had been able to stave off food long enough to have “earned” a meal. I also avoided foods that I considered unhealthy, including peanut butter, cereal and dairy products with any sort of fat content. I thought that being lighter was faster. Unfortunately, my performances and training environment perpetuated that belief for some time. I was running faster as the number on the scale dropped, so why would I listen to anyone telling me to eat more? At that time, the consequences of my actions had not been realized, yet.

Indeed, “we live in a very weight- and image-focused society, so it can be hard to really break down those beliefs,” says Rachel Hilts a registered dietitian based in Halifax.

At this point, you may be asking yourself, so what? Why does it matter if I have a healthy relationship with food when I’m otherwise healthy? Or I’m running fast and don’t want to make changes. Unfortunately, disordered eating habits can increase your risk of developing an eating disorder.

Mental and physical effects

Studies have shown that 45% of female athletes and 33% of male athletes will struggle with an eating disorder; 44% of all high school aged female athletes believe losing their period is normal and 35.4% of high school aged female athletes have disordered eating patterns.

“Disordered eating includes things like diet behaviours, skipping meals, fasting, or avoiding certain foods or food groups,” Hilts says.

In addition, chronic dieting or weight cycling put people at an increased risk of mortality and morbidity related to heart disease, muscle loss, weight gain over time, binge eating, inflammation, high blood pressure, osteoporosis and gallstones, she adds.

Prolonged weight fluctuations and internal conflict caused by disordered eating can have impacts on mental health, too.

“The mental drain of constantly feeling stressed out about food or eating is also just exhausting in and of itself. Being able to improve our relationship with food can really result in a lot of mental freedom and allow us to better focus our attention on more productive things,” Hilts says.

Self compassion and awareness are key

Fortunately, you can implement practices now to begin to soften those rigid thoughts and eating patterns to approach mealtime from a space of self-love, curiosity and nourishment.

Some ways people can begin to cultivate a friendship with food include relaxed eating, choosing preferences over positions and practicing balance and flexibility in your eating, says registered dietitian and staff member of the National Eating Disorders Association Sondra Kronberg.

Intuitive eating is another way people can improve their relationship with food, says Hilts. “Intuitive eating is a framework for building a healthy relationship with food that focuses on finding a healthy balance between both nutrition and health guidance and advice while also focusing on our inner body cues, mental health, and body/food relationship.”

When individuals recognize and identify food rules or diet methods that are embedded into their habits, they can bring greater awareness to daily choices.

“Once we’re able to do this, it becomes much easier to start working towards … responding to hunger, fullness, and treating our bodies with respect,” Hilts says.

No more labels

Approaching food choices and eating with a curious mindset can also help improve one’s relationship with food.

“Instead of accepting that certain foods are ‘bad,’ or others are ‘good’ – start asking why,” Hilts says.

Embracing curiosity during your meal or snack and checking in with your response to food is an inward approach to better eating. Ask yourself, “how do I feel (physically, mentally, emotionally) when I eat this food?” Hilts says.

“Check in with yourself regularly and ask if you’re hungry, how you’re feeling, and if you’re craving certain foods.”

Throughout this process though, people must ensure they eat enough throughout the day and avoid going more than three hours between meals or snacks.

“If we are stuck in a restriction mindset or regularly skipping meals, it becomes so much harder to recognize and respond to hunger and fullness, to eat balanced meals, and to feel good mentally and physically,” Hilts explains.

If you’re pressed for time and don’t have bars readily available or snacks prepared, a smoothie with quality protein powder for example, is a quick and convenient option to fill the gap between meal times.

According to Dairy Farmers of Canada, other ways to make peace with food and ensure you’re nourishing your body well include:

  • learn to savour the pleasure of meals and snacks
  • let go of deprivation and eating foods that make you happy
  • quiet the inner voice that makes you feel guilty about foods
  • refrain from judging yourself and others for their food choices

Some accounts that I enjoy following for their authentic content and informative tips on body neutrality and cultivating a healthier relationship with food include:

Fuelled is fast

For athletes, a healthy relationship with food is essential for long-term health and performance.

“This can be really challenging in weight classed sports or in a sport that showcases your body,” Hilts highlights.

“Support is always available if this is a challenge but having a healthy relationship with food can really help you to perform more effectively in your sport, if it means you are now nourishing yourself properly and having adequate fuel on board.”

For me, it took several years of reoccurring stress fractures and a change in training environment to adopt more intuitive eating patterns and be more at peace with food choices.

A couple helpful tips that my sports dietician provided to me include:

  • Celebrate Kate!  When that evil voice starts talking, ‘fact check’ this.  Is it ‘true?’ Is it helpful?  Is this voice inspiring me to be the best I can be?  Is there another need that needs to be addressed?  Is it kind? Journalling can be really helpful here!
  • The ‘power of the pause’ is helpful for intuitive eating. Is it a physical hunger? Heart hunger? Do I want sweets because I didn’t eat enough during the day? Is my body craving something other than food? From this unpacking, I can figure out what my body needs and satisfy those gaps
  • Nutrient dense foods are always great options to fuel for and recover from training, but so are treats, if they’re what your body and mind need to be happy

However, everyone will have personalized journeys towards their optimal eating and health goals. Speaking with a registered dietitian or health care professional is the best way to ensure you’re on track to meet your goals in a sustainable and healthy manner.

Are you friends with your food? Share your approaches to cultivating a healthy relationship with food and fuelling.



Leave a Reply

Why “Oats & Grit,” you may ask?

Oats and Grit are two fundamental ingredients that fuel endurance athletes in high performance sport.

This platform is a safe space where athletes can read about topics relevant to chasing dreams, overcoming adversity, calling on resilience and pushing their limits. 

Sign up to receive weekly tasteful newsletters to read about all things athlete, agriculture and Authentically CommuniKate.

[ctct form="339" show_title="false"]