3 signs that your relationship with food may be unhealthy

What to eat to be ‘healthy’ is now a complicated business. It has sadly become normal practice for many people to be fasting or eliminating carbohydrates or following a new wellness plan. Many a water cooler conversation or Zoom chat pivots around the latest diet craze or celebrity fitness fad, often to an unhealthy level of preoccupation, which we accept as normal.

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For many people, it’s hard to pinpoint when eating was not causing some internal angst. Reflecting on past years, the time spent in counting calories, weighing portions or inputting numbers into My Fitness Pal has robbed many precious hours, never to be gleaned back.

As a culture, we absolutely normalise this obsessional fixation on food and body, cleverly disguised under the guise of health, when in fact it is often not particularly healthy at all. The pursuit of extreme thinness or leanness can bring anxiety, depression, poor body image and low self-esteem from fanatically chasing these goals, with the feeling of being ‘good-enough’ always being a few steps out of reach. People often find themselves in cycles of binge eating, over-exercise or other compensatory behaviours, because of these unsustainable ways of eating. 

We often segment ‘eating disorders’ as a distinct and separate category from yo-yo dieting, emotional eating and other disordered behaviours. And of course, an eating disorder is the ultimate extreme of a dangerous road, but we are all somewhere on the spectrum between full-blown-eating-disorder and healthy-happy-relationship-with-food. So how do you know if you might have an issue that needs addressing?


3 signs that your relationship with food may be out of sync

1. You’re on or off a plan

A peaceful middle ground of eating is an enigma to you. You start a diet every, single Monday morning on repeat. Monday begins with wonderful promise and endeavour, with a plate piled high with vegetables and lean protein and any ‘sinful foods’ disposed away in the rubbish bin. By Thursday though, motivation is understandably waning and the allure of perceived forbidden foods preoccupies your mind from dawn till dusk. 

The weekend arrives, you’re out for dinner and all the noble intentions are thrown out with glorious abandon as the weekend binge commences. As an elastic band is pulled back and released with full momentum, the same is true of your eating. From restriction to out-of-control you go, with a heady mix of euphoria and despair, vowing to yourself that next Monday, things will be very different. The cycle repeats.

2. You are preoccupied with food 24/7

You cannot stop thinking about food. It wakes you from your dreams and continues to infiltrate your thought processes with drip-drip intensity all day long. You are always planning, preparing and contemplating, what to eat or not eat and the precise quantity permitted. Much anxiety surrounds these thoughts and interferes with work and relationships. 

We know from the Minnesota Starvation Study that starvation for human beings brings a fascinating but overwhelming obsession with food. Binge eating is often an inevitable consequence, and the study participants became obsessed with cookery books and even wanted to train as chefs, once the experiment ended. Starvation is debilitating and life-altering to body and mind.

3. Social eating is a challenge

When your relationship with food is unhealthy, eating out is not a straightforward or spontaneous decision. Menus must be scrutinised; gym routines factored in, and the thought of buffet-spreads brings you out in hives. Conversations with good friends can blur into the background as your mind races with thoughts about food, calories and macro calculations. It’s incredibly hard to be present and live in the moment, as there is a layer of distraction whirring through your head that no-one around can see or appreciate. Food induces fear and panic.

If you’re struggling with your relationship with food, be kind and compassionate towards yourself. We live in a culture where fostering a healthy food relationship can be tricky and confusing. Losing weight is often equated with health, never mind the route taken to achieve goals. There is little awareness and understanding in mainstream culture of someone’s psychological relationship with food and their body.

We are encouraged to simply eat less and move more, as though this is a simplistic endeavour, beautifully achieved with enough willpower and determination. In fact, this is a fallacy and things are much more complex. Trauma, early life and your individual experiences all factor into your relationship with food. 

If you’re struggling, you are not alone. Get the support you deserve and reach out.

The views expressed in this article are those of the author. All articles published on Counselling Directory are reviewed by our editorial team.

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Cambridge, CB1
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Written by Harriet Frew, MSc; MBACP Accred
Cambridge, CB1

Harriet Frew is a counsellor specialising in eating disorders and body image. She has worked in the NHS and private practice since 2003, and is passionate about supporting and educating others through therapy, writing and social media.
Instagram: @theeatingdisordertherapist_; Podcast - The Eating Disorder Therapist Podcast

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