Ways to improve your relationship with food

How do you feel about food? Perhaps you worry that you don't eat enough fruit. Or maybe years of dieting have taken the pleasure out of treating yourself to a slab of celebration cake?

Whatever the answer is, your feelings are unlikely to be neutral. Yet, when everything is stripped back, food is simply the fuel we use to nourish and energise ourselves. Working on our emotional reaction to what we eat is a great way to improve our relationship with food.

What is a healthy relationship with food?

"I'd describe a healthy relationship with food as being able to eat when you're hungry and stop when you've had enough," says Senior Therapist Sally Baker, co-author of '7 Simple Steps to Stop Emotional Eating'. "Eating real food, and being able to enjoy it without any negative self-judgement or any overthinking."

If you feel a twinge of guilt when reaching for the biscuit tin, or regret at chomping down that last slice of pizza, it's a sign of being out of touch with your body's needs and eating for the wrong reasons.

Why do we associate emotions with food?

The chances are, your emotional connection to food started in childhood.

"Children pick up emotions around eating by about 3 or 4 years old," explains Baker. "The whole mealtime regime within a family will soon imprint upon a child's receptive mind. They will know whether they're being good or picky or what responses they get from their carers if they refuse food. It's rare that a child eats within the home without having some sort of loaded emotion."

So how can we get back to basics?

You may have heard of the expression 'intuitive eating' - this is where people try to tune into their bodies and eat what they truly want without self-judgement.

The problem with this, according to Baker, is that very few people can really successfully practise true intuitive eating. "Intuitive eating means that you've got to be very measured and neutral about food. Very in touch with your body. It's something to work towards attaining but for many people it's almost impossible," she explains.

In order to begin to 'reset' our relationship with food, Baker recommends that we first acknowledge when - and importantly why - we eat when we do. "It’s useful to run a food and mood diary for a couple of weeks," she says.

"When you're triggered to eat, tabulate on a scale of 0-10 how hungry you are. Then check in with how you're feeling - are you bored, angry, sad, lonely, happy? Start building awareness and intuition. What emotions are happening when you're triggered to eat?"

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Finding the why

Looking back at the end of our two weeks, we should be able to identify the times when we reach for comfort food - the feelgood hit of sugar when we're feeling down, or the crisps we chomp in the evening because we're bored.

However, if you notice that rather than feeling a strong emotion, you're reaching for the chocolate because of a genuine energy slump, it's worth getting checked out at the doctor's. "There are physical reasons we might be looking for a boost," agrees Baker. "It's worth talking to your GP and getting checks on your thyroid for example."

We often associate the idea of having a negative relationship with food with those who are overeating or have a nutritionally poor diet. But the food diary may also reveal that we're not eating quite enough. "You might find you don't eat until you're at 8 or 10 - almost ravenously hungry," says Baker. "Going around feeling hungry all the time can be miserable - it's important to nourish your body and not push it to extremes."

Others may find that they're barely letting hunger hit the sides before they reach for a cure. "Some people eat when they're barely hungry - perhaps a 1 or 2," says Baker. "Often we find that these people have grown up in a situation where there was 'food chaos' - where mealtimes weren't regular or food was scarce. This means they have developed a fear of the feeling of being hungry."

Starting to heal

Those who are simply looking to work out why they are snacking, or try to limit their crisp intake, may find that simply identifying when and why they are giving in to emotional eating triggers sufficient to improve their relationship with food. But others may benefit from counselling. "Therapy can introduce people to a range of techniques that can help and support this process," agrees Baker.

Some people may also benefit from speaking with a dietitian who can work with them to develop a meal plan which suits their lifestyle and needs.

Identifying that you tend to reach for chocolate when you're stressed, or that you munch more than you need when watching EastEnders is one thing. But what should we do when we identify moments when we are at risk of reaching for comfort food?

According to Baker, the key is to find something to replace that emotional crutch given to us by food. "For example, you could be feeling lonely - could you call a friend, or talk to your partner?" she says. "If you're not hungry, but you're looking for something, try to work out what that is."

The road to discovery

Understanding ourselves and why we eat is a key part of learning to develop a healthier relationship with food. However, as with many emotional issues, learning about ourselves is just part of the process to developing a healthier relationship with food.

It's important to remember, too, that it's OK to enjoy food and eat for reasons other than hunger at times. "People sometimes ask if it's OK for them to eat cake at a celebration," says Baker. "I tell them of course it is! Food can give us great pleasure and is an important part of our culture. The important thing is understanding the when and why to remove bad habits and move towards a healthier attitude to eating."

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