The Psychology of Eating: How to Have a Healthy Relationship with Food

psychology of eatingStudies have shown many links between diet and mental health. However, when someone is struggling with their eating habits, the problem may not be a lack of will to eat healthily but the psychology of eating itself. How do problems with food manifest themselves and what can be done about it?

What’s your relationship with food?

Although we all need food to survive, food is far more than just fuel for physical health. We all have an emotional connection with food and there are many ways this is shown in our everyday lives. We might use food as a way of connecting with other people (eating together at mealtimes), changing the way we look or live (dieting) or simply for giving ourselves pleasure.

The way we respond to food depends on many factors. For example, if we grew up believing that penance must be paid before we can have ‘treats’, we may deny ourselves certain foods if we feel we haven’t worked hard enough. If we received certain foods to comfort us, we might find ourselves reaching for these foods when we aren’t feeling very well. This is fine if we feel we have a healthy relationship with food, but what happens when our eating habits aren’t making us happy?

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When eating makes us feel bad

People who feel happy with their eating habits are free of any negative thoughts which might be affecting their choices when it comes to food. Some examples of unhealthy attitudes to food can include:

  • “I feel awful so I deserve to eat things which are bad for me.”
  • “I’ve got no willpower.”
  • “I’ve eaten one so I might as well eat the rest.”
  • “I shouldn’t waste food.”

When we have negative feelings about food, this can lead us to behave in ways which exacerbate the problem. For example, if we eat to feel better when we’re feeling low, we may end up overeating and feeling worse physically. If we feel that we don’t have the power to stop ourselves eating unhealthily, we may struggle with weight issues or feel hopeless about ever changing.

How to combat unhealthy eating patterns

Be mindful of your eating

When we are aware of the food we are eating, we are less likely to eat more than we should. Try and slow down your eating at mealtimes and focus on each mouthful you take. This will help you to recognise when you are full and stop eating when you need to.

Recognise cravings

Cravings can often be harder to fight than hunger because they can hit you at any time of the day. However, if you recognise that the feeling is temporary and will pass, you’ll be more likely to ignore it without any problem.

The three-bite rule

If you’re feeling an urge to binge on something unhealthy, try the three-bite rule. Have just three bites of whatever you’re craving and then put the rest away. You will likely find that this is enough to satisfy your craving without making you feel too full or unhappy later.

Banish guilt

Eating sweet treats or snack foods occasionally is not cause to feel guilty. If you can allow yourself to enjoy certain foods in moderation, you’ll be less likely to crave more later. Feeling bad about what we eat is a pathway to eating more unhealthily. Be kind to yourself and banish guilt from your diet.

Counselling: Can it help develop a better relationship with food?

If you are feeling that you are preoccupied with your relationship with eating, food counselling can help you to explore your feelings in a safe space. The types of issues which food counselling can help with include:

  • Comfort eating
  • Pre-occupation with weight
  • Binge-dieting
  • Negative body image
  • Eating disorders (eg anorexia nervosa, bulimia)

A healthy relationship with food allows us to enjoy life and feel good about ourselves. Through counselling, many people have been helped to understand more about they came to have their relationship with food and discovered ways of handling eating related difficulties.

What is your relationship with food? Please leave us a comment below…

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