We need to change our relationship with food

We live in a diet culture and are constantly bombarded with messages about what foods are “good”, “bad”, “healthy” or “unhealthy”, mostly in pursuit of weight loss and mostly unfounded. But there are no good and bad foods. All food has nutritional value. Yes, it’s important to get the nutrition our bodies need, but it is just as important to enjoy the food we eat and eat foods that satisfy us. 

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It is important to think about whether we have misperceptions about food or rules about food, and reflect on the reasons for having these. When we eat foods that we have banned or labelled as bad, it’s no wonder that it feels “wrong”. The reason we may feel guilty about eating certain foods (such as sugar) is not that they are inherently wrong but because of these judgements and food rules. We associate eating something we’ve labelled as bad with being bad, or with a sense of failure, which leads to guilt and blame. 

Think, have you ever said to yourself, “I’m never eating chocolate/crisps again!” or something similar? Then when you have some, you feel like you’ve blown it, say to yourself you’re rubbish and have no willpower, and then unsurprisingly, find yourself having eaten the entire family-sized bar. It’s all linked. Depriving yourself and having rules and judgements about food leads to a poor relationship with food.

Commonly, food rules and judgments are held about entire food groups. How many times have we heard that carbohydrates are bad, unhealthy, cause weight gain, or are generally the sole culprit for all that is wrong with our health? Or how about that we should eat more protein because it is healthy, builds muscle or keeps the weight off?

Depriving yourself and having rules and judgements about food leads to a poor relationship with food.

Is this health story that “carbs are the villain and protein is the hero” really true? 

Let’s look a bit closer and shed some light on what is really happening when we eat carbohydrates. To do this, it is worth understanding how carbohydrate is broken down in the body. Carbohydrate is made up of sugar molecules, and so when we eat carbohydrates, our body breaks it down to its simplest form – sugar. 

All carbohydrates, no matter whether it’s sugar, fruit, pasta or quinoa, are broken down and absorbed into the bloodstream in the same way. The only difference between them is how quickly this is done, i.e. how much breaking down needs to happen. The more complex the carbohydrate is, the longer it will take for your body to digest and absorb. 

When glucose (sugar) is absorbed into the bloodstream, it triggers a hormone called insulin to be released. Insulin acts like a key. It essentially opens up the cells within our body (mainly muscle and liver cells) so that the glucose is able to enter. This is how energy is made. No carbohydrate = no glucose = no insulin released = no energy produced.

Insulin also helps us store glucose as “glycogen”. These glycogen stores are vital, as they allow us to draw on a reserve of energy anytime we need it (without having to eat constantly). So, when someone has not been eating enough carbohydrate, there will be little-to-no glycogen stores. 

The important point here is that when glycogen is stored, water is stored alongside it. The more glycogen is stored, the more water there will be. This is why people might notice their weight drop quickly after they eat a low carbohydrate diet. It’s not because they’ve actually lost weight (i.e. fat), but because they have lost water through depleting their vital glycogen stores. 

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What about the idea that carbohydrates are just sugar, and sugar is unhealthy? 

Well, sugar is just a simple, broken-down form of carbohydrate, and carbohydrates are the first source of energy that our body uses. It is also the only energy source from our food that our brain uses. Did you know that your brain needs 120g carbohydrate to function? That equates to six to eight slices of bread, and that’s just for your brain! We’re not even counting the energy the rest of your body needs. Without carbohydrate, therefore, we feel tired and find it difficult to concentrate, both common side effects of low carbohydrate diets. 

Carbohydrates are important. We need carbohydrates to protect our muscles and metabolism. Remember, carbohydrates are our preferred source of energy. If we are not getting enough, our body will look for energy somewhere, and that somewhere will be from our body’s own stores and tissues. 

The key is to listen to our innate internal appetite signals to guide us to what foods we should choose.

To ensure that our body’s protein (muscle and organs) is not broken down to use as an energy source, we need to be eating carbohydrate to provide that energy, thereby protecting our muscle. We really don’t want to lose muscle, because muscle and our metabolism (the rate at which we convert food into energy) are closely related: losing muscle means our metabolism slows down. A slow metabolism often means rapid weight gain and difficulty maintaining a healthy weight in the long term. By eating carbohydrates, we are therefore keeping our metabolism stable and preventing it from slowing down. 

We also need carbohydrates to regulate our mood. Ever wonder why cake, chocolate or just carbohydrates, in general, make us happy? It’s not only because they’re delicious; there is also a chemical explanation. Eating carbohydrates allows our body to synthesise serotonin. Healthy levels of serotonin are important for mood, managing cravings, increasing pain tolerance, and sleep regulation. If we didn’t eat carbohydrate, there would be no serotonin produced. So, is it really that surprising that we might feel low and have cravings when we cut out carbs, or that when we feel low, we often crave carbs? 

Some diets recommend increasing protein or fat at the expense of carbohydrate. Yes, protein is important for growth and repair, a healthy immune system, as well as being the building blocks of enzymes and hormones amongst other things. However, protein is no more important than carbohydrate or fat. 

The use of supplementary protein via shakes or food is often seen and promoted in gyms because of the belief that if protein helps build muscle, then to build more muscle you need to have more protein… right? The reality is that more protein does not equal more muscle. Our body can only use a finite amount of protein for building muscle; the excess will either be stored as fat or result in problems such as compromised physical performance, brain fog, digestive issues and even bad breath. This kind of diet might make you feel fuller for longer, but may not leave you satisfied and instead trigger sugar cravings.

The reality is that there is no good and bad food – carbohydrates and proteins both play an important function in our health. There are no superfoods, nor are there junk foods. All food has value and serves a purpose for us – whether it be for energy, for nutrients, for satisfaction or for enjoyment. 

The key is to listen to our innate internal appetite signals to guide us to what foods we should choose. If we get too caught up in having the “perfect” diet, this can create anxiety, feelings of deprivation, and in some instances, develop into disordered eating and an inability to listen to our bodies and eat intuitively. By having a balance of all foods, our body will get the nutrition it needs and we will have greater satisfaction and enjoyment with eating.

Read Maureen’s article, Why diets don’t work, on Nutritionist Resource.

Heal Your Relationship with Food: Effective Strategies to Help You Think Differently and Overcome Problems with Eating, Emotions and Body Image is published on 1st October by Trigger Publishing, (RRP £12.99) and is available online and from all good bookstores.

All of us are different, and so our bodies require different foods and nutrients to stay healthy. There is no one size fits all approach. To learn more about intuitive eating and to find a qualified nutritionist, visit Nutritionist Resource. 

If you believe your relationship with food becoming a problem, consider speaking with a qualified therapist who specialises in disordered eating. Simply browse profiles and when you find a therapist you resonate with, send them an email.

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Written by Maureen Moerbeck
Maureen Moerbeck is a Specialist Eating Disorders Dietitian at the Mindful Nutrition Practice.
Written by Maureen Moerbeck
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