In today's diet-obsessed culture, where the concept of body positivity is still a niche one, it's not unusual to flip through a magazine and find "the most decadent chocolate cake recipe ever!" on one page, and a passage berating you for not having "controlled" yourself enough around carbs this winter on the very next. Most of us are raised around these kind of mixed messages when it comes to food and our bodies. And because of all this, it's more important than ever that we understand the ramifications of the ways that we view food, and how they impact our greater mental health.
This was one of the biggest lessons around food that I learned during my recovery from anorexia nervosa. I'd fought a hard battle with the disorder for five years, and when I finally began to recover, I realized that I was approaching food in a way that was far from helpful. I was highly conscious of what I was consuming, but completely oblivious to the fact that my negative internal dialogue about it was still as loud as ever.
Needless to say, my initial attempts at recovery were not successful. It was only after a lot of research and a lot of introspection that it dawned on me: Our body image is impacted far more by the things that we tell ourselves about food than it is by most of the actual foods that we consume.
Today, I work as a body image educator, and have a decade of research and personal experience under my belt. In that time, I've learned a lot about five of the most common ways that we undermine our body images while eating — as well as how we can learn to stop.
1. Don't Tell Yourself That Foods Are Either “Good” Or “Bad”
"I can't eat that, I'm being good!"
"Oh God, I'm so bad for eating this!"
"[Insert food] is so bad, my thighs are gonna pay for this tomorrow!"
If you're trying to develop a healthier diet, obviously you might be monitoring your intake of certain foods — particularly highly processed foods or foods containing lots of sugars. But when you add emotional connotations to foods in an attempt to help yourself avoid them, you may end up making moral judgements about yourself based on what you consume. But here's the thing — no foods are inherently "good" or "bad." They only become that way when we add an emotional value to them.
This isn't about lying to yourself and telling yourself that all foods are wonderful for your body. Some foods are genuinely more nutritionally dense than others. It's just about being realistic and reasonable in the way that we view what's on our plate. Telling ourselves that certain foods are "good" or "bad" doesn't drive us to only eat healthy foods; more often, it just makes the "bad" foods feel more tantalizing, setting ourselves up for negative cycles involving fear, guilt and shame around the food, and making us feel bad about ourselves. And dieting can make those cycles even more intense; as Traci Mann, Ph.D., a scientist who studies the ways that we eat, said in her book, Secrets From The Eating Lab, restricting certain foods can “lead to obsessive food thoughts, and cause stress, which leads to increases in your levels of the stress hormone cortisol.”
To avoid this, you can try to frame your internal dialogue in a way that's emotionally neutral, rather than emotionally charged. Some foods are more nutrient dense than others. Some foods are less nutrient dense, but pleasurable to eat. Both of those things are OK. Chips are not the devil and kale is not your savior — they're just different foods with different purposes, and both of them are just different types of fuel for your body. And, like fuel for your car, different foods have different fuel purposes for your body. You choose your fuel according to what your vehicle needs in that moment.
2. Don't Ignore Your Hunger Cues
Your body is pretty damn smart. And that's why you should be paying attention to those hunger pangs and headaches that you're getting at 4 p.m. They're your hunger cues — your body's natural sign that it requires food — and they’re trying to tell you something. Your body tells you it is hungry when it needs more food to continue to function. So when you ignore your hunger cues, you're not able to function at your best, physically or mentally. And by ignoring those hunger cues, you're subconsciously telling yourself that your body's needs aren't important or that it's good to avoid eating.
Instead, start to tune in to what your body is trying to tell you — are you skipping meals and noticing that your hunger cues don't sync up with the times when you want to feel hungry? Do you feel fuller when you eat fewer large meals, or more frequent smaller meals? Pay attention to what your body is trying to tell you, and act accordingly — see how much better you feel mentally when you're honoring your body's specific needs, instead of forcing it to work with what you think it "should" need.
3. Try Eating Mindfully
Have you ever noticed that when you're not listening to your hunger cues and you delay a meal far past the point that your body needed it, you tend to overeat? That’s no coincidence. The longer we let hunger go on, the worse we feel — and after a while, a mindset of desperation may start to kick in, leading us to inhale food as soon as we see it. And when we don't even notice what we're eating, our brains don't fully process that we've actually had a meal.
This is because digestion begins in the mind. There's a process known as the cephalic phase digestive response, which has to do with the way your senses perceive what you eat via taste, smell, satisfaction, pleasure and aesthetics. If you've ever looked at your favorite food and had your mouth start watering, this is your cephalic phase digestive response at work — you’re producing more saliva based on a visual cue, and setting your digestive system up to receive the food. If you're inhaling your food or not even noticing it as you consume it, you're not fully engaging those cephalic phase digestive responses and you're not fully noticing your meal — which can lead to not feeling fulfilled and nourished by what you're eating, which in turn can lead to a more negative relationship with food.
When we bring conscious awareness to our meal, we allow for conscious choices. Awareness is all about noticing. We want to notice our food, our environment, our company, our level of hunger or thirst. When we can slow down and bring our awareness to our food and the activity of eating, then we can make choices that support our intentions to be healthy and respectful of our body and its needs. According to the Institute for the Psychology of Eating, "If slowing down is the door to mindful eating, then awareness [while eating] is turning on the lights."
Mindful eating does take training, but it's easy to start with small steps. At your next meal, eat undistracted. Try to notice something about every bite. What does it taste/look/smell like? What does it sound like when you chew it? Notice the sensation as you swallow your food, and let your food go all the way down before you take another bite. If you can do this with at least one bite of every meal, you'll be on your way to eating more mindfully.
4. Stop Confusing Willpower With Moderation
So many of us confuse the concept of moderation with willpower. Again, this ties back to the emotional traps of assigning moral weight to different foods — willpower implies that certain foods are obstacles that we need to overcome, and turns them into emotionally charged objects of happiness/joy or fear/guilt/shame. This charge often leads us to turn, say, a regular chocolate bar into an object of desire and excitement — and thus, eating it creates a sense of rebellion and breaking your own rules. We're telling ourselves that the chocolate is bad and awful and that we mustn't eat it, but also that it's amazing and rebellious and naughty.
This sets us up to not engage in healthy, moderate eating of all different kinds of foods — rather, this is the kind of thinking that leads to ideas like "cheat days" and all sorts of other thinking that is counter-productive to developing an actually healthy relationship with food.
In this way, many of us start to warp the meaning of our own hunger cues — we imagine them as rogue signals designed to sabotage us and keep us locked into a cycle of body-loathing. But in reality, they're purely our body's way of telling us that we need more nutrients and energy in that moment. As health and nutrition coach Isabel Foxen Duke noted, we shouldn't be loading our feelings of hunger with emotions and morality: "From a biological standpoint, that’s all a hunger signal is— INFORMATION."
When you don’t feel like you need permission slips for what’s on your plate, when you view food as fuel for your awesome body, and when you remind yourself that you don’t need to feel guilty for eating, you're better at moderating your intake. You're better at being in-tune to the nutrients that your body needs from you, without overriding that primal force with emotional connotations that you've learned along the way. Not only that, but you’re better at making smarter food choices about the sort of fuel that your body needs and you’re able to think about yourself and your body more positively because you’re not associating guilt with food’s effect on your physical form.
5. Don't Obsess Over Not Consuming Specific Foods
Macronutrient balance — the balance of protein, fat, and carbohydrates in our diets — is a huge driving force behind your appetite. When your body is low in any one of these elements because we're following a diet that doesn't work for our body, our hunger signals will start to scream at us to nourish our body.
Each and every one of us requires protein, healthy fat and carbohydrates to function and flourish. And not only that, but depending on our individual lifestyles, each of our bodies will require these nutrients in different ways. This highlights the need for consumer awareness and mindfulness around dieting trends. Particularly with social media and hashtags now putting trend/fad diets on display, it can be tempting for the average Jane or Joe to be drawn in to eating plans that seem attractive on social media and adopt it into their own life — with no real understanding of whether that particular diet or lifestyle choice is the healthiest choice for their unique nutritional needs.
Emily Rosen, Owner and Director of the Institute for the Psychology of Eating, has studied macronutrients extensively and is an advocate for every person understanding the workings of their body, rather than jumping on trendy diets. "Macronutrient balance is not a one size fits all science," says Rosen. "Each one of us is so so different. The more you’re willing to be a nutritional explorer and listen to your own body wisdom, the better you’ll be at maximizing your macronutrient needs." This means that instead of investing time in the next trendy diet that emphasizes eating all of one certain food and none of another, we're better served discovering what makes us feel healthy, full and nourished.
Gaining a better relationship with your body and ditching the shame, guilt and fear about food, simply by reframing how you see your dinner plate? Now that’s something to work towards.