How to recognise our unhealthy relationship to food

If you have ever been on a diet, then you will know how difficult it can feel. What drives us to go on a diet or restrict food? Oftentimes it’s a dissatisfaction with how we look. Where does this dissatisfaction come from? Are we comparing ourselves to others? Is it a feeling of not being quite good enough?


Maybe we are chasing the dream that if only we could be thinner our lives would be complete, and everything would be ok. Yet, emotionally, and mentally it often goes a lot deeper than that; and this is why we need a more holistic approach to our relationship with food.

When we have a difficult relationship with food, we need to look at our belief system, our emotions, feelings, thoughts, and behaviours to change the relationship into a healthier one.

Stuffing down the emotions

Daily, we might look in the mirror with distaste and wish that we were smaller, thinner, or less than we are somehow; the ‘if only’ mentality. Think about what that does to the mind at the start of each day; looking at ourselves with thoughts like, “If only my belly was flatter” or “If only I had a thigh gap.” We sigh and think about the chocolate or wine we had the night before to ease the stresses of the day, then berate ourselves, telling ourselves that we should do better.  

All of this is filled with self-judgement and only serves to start each day feeling awful. If we have this mindset, then chances are that by the end of the day we repeat the whole cycle of emotional comfort eating or restricting again because we feel so bad about ourselves.


Thought – “I’m so fat.  I must try harder. That ice cream that I ate last night is sitting right on my thighs.”

Emotion – Anger or disgust at self. Frustration. Sadness. Guilt.

Behaviour – Deny yourself anything sweet until the frustration gets so bad that we return to the fridge and start again.

What are we doing when we comfort eat? Quite literally we are ‘numbing out’ or stuffing down any emotions that we feel in order to avoid feeling them.

Our relationship to food

If we did have flatter stomachs or firmer glutes, then what? Would we focus on other areas of our bodies or other external issues? To ‘fix’ ourselves we go on restrictive diets, starve ourselves, stop eating ‘bad’ foods in the belief that lettuce and exercise will fix everything. But ask yourself, “what am I trying to fix really?”

The negative connotations that we have around some food groups can lead us to feel anxiety and shame. When you think about eating chocolate for instance, how do you feel? Comforted or guilty? How about eating a plate of burger and chips? Maybe the emotions there are shame or disgust; do you see how we connect emotions to foods?

Maybe when you were a child and feeling upset your mum or dad gave you sweets to cheer you up. In this way we never learnt to feel our emotions but to comfort ourselves with sugar to push the bad feelings away. There’s no blame here but it can explain how we might learn to self soothe through food.

Feel the emotions

How might it feel instead to allow ourselves to really feel our emotions? When we are feeling upset and automatically reach for the sweets, maybe we could take a pause and ask ourselves, “what do I really need in this moment?” Is it a hug? Company? A friend to talk to, or maybe more sleep? Ask yourself, “what am I really feeling?” This is a way to catch the automaticity of our behaviours and thoughts and really become aware.

Deeper beliefs

Once we have started to become aware of our thoughts and emotions, we might find that many uncomfortable realisations arise. We might have a deep-seated fear that we are failing as parents or that we aren’t doing a ‘good enough’ job at work. It might feel like a massive leap to go from automatically binge eating ice cream each night to highlighting our deep-seated beliefs, but through counselling we take this step by step until we begin to recognise what we are really feeling and to slowly change our automaticity.


Self-awareness is crucial to changing any behaviour or thinking pattern. What we are believing about ourselves is often unconscious and our automatic thinking can demonstrate this. A counsellor can help you to raise your self-awareness and to make changes that last a lifetime. If you are struggling with food issues, please reach out today.

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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High Peak, Derbyshire, SK23
Written by Samantha Flanagan, Anxiety Therapist (PGDIP, Registered member of BACP)
High Peak, Derbyshire, SK23

I am a registered member of BACP with a level 7, PGdip in Integrative Counselling and Psychotherapy. I have been in private practice for five years. I am qualified to work with many issues which: habit changes, abuse, trauma, anxiety, relationships, substance mis-use, developmental trauma, and domestic violence.

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