Eating Disorders Awareness Week has made us think about the strong link between mental health and food, and the importance of addressing a potentially unhealthy view of food and eating as early as possible.
We referred to a book by three top experts in the eating disorder field, for advice on how to recognize an unhealthy approach to food and eating, how such an approach can have a negative impact on our mental wellbeing, and how to take the first steps toward nipping a poor relationship with food in the bud.
Is my Approach to Eating Healthy or Unhealthy?
It’s possible to have an unhealthy relationship with food without having an eating disorder. Eating problems often develop gradually. They may start with small, restrictive changes here and there in your attitudes and behaviours toward food, often in an attempt to improve how you feel. However, before you know it, these thoughts and eating behaviours can form habits, and can start to be the cause of problems in your life.
With so much dialogue surrounding fad diets, ‘clean eating’ and even ‘losing weight for lockdown lifting,’ who can honestly say they have a totally healthy relationship with food? What does normal even look like? And how can you tell whether or not your approach is an unhealthy one?
The authors of Heal Your Relationship with Food suggest the following common signs that show you might be developing problems with eating:
- Worrying about food and eating-related situations
- Guilt or fear about eating
- Episodes of being unable to stop eating (“binge eating”)
- Avoiding situations involving food, such as social outings or birthdays
- Having black-and-white rules about eating that mustn’t be broken
- Becoming consumed with thoughts about food
- Noticing or talking about body weight and shape a lot
- Weighing yourself repeatedly
- Obsessively counting calories or trying to restrict your calories to a certain number
- Feeling as though you need to earn the right to eat
- Attempting to “compensate” for eating by vomiting, using diet pills, laxatives, or exercising in a driven way
- Avoiding entire food groups
- Finding that your mood, life satisfaction and self-worth depend on eating and your weight
According to the authors, if you can identify with any of the above, it’s likely you have an unhealthy relationship with food. As with overcoming any problematic behaviour, early awareness and acknowledgement of the problem is important. Once you have made this first step, you can start to make the changes necessary to tackle your eating problems and in so doing, improve your general wellbeing.
Why is an Unhealthy Approach toward Eating so Problematic?
Apart from the potential for issues to escalate and the strain that disordered eating can place on us physically, the effect on our mental health can be immense. Before long, negative attitudes and thoughts towards food, eating and our body become more and more habitual and can drive problematic eating behaviour. That’s why it’s really important to do our best to break ingrained thinking patterns at the same time as addressing our behaviour. It’s all about equipping yourself with the mental tools that give you the best chance of kicking concerning habits to the curb.
That’s not to say that you should take this on all by yourself, though. While there is a lot that you can do by challenging your own mindset and and making changes independently, specialists can help. The authors recommend cognitive behavioural therapy (CBT), which tackles both the thoughts and behaviours that can keep the eating problems going, because there is good evidence it helps in making lasting changes. CBT can be really useful in challenging and resetting our perceptions surrounding our body image and eating, while also tackling problematic eating behaviours by starting to face fears about food and eating.
How Can I Start to Change my Relationship with Food before the Problems Escalate Further?
The first step in changing your behaviour toward food is to acknowledge the problem. Next, you will need to engage in some self-reflection – to address where you are mentally and what changes you think you need to make. Motivation is going to be key in adapting your behaviour and making lasting and sustainable changes. In order to do this, our experts suggest you try the following:
- Assess the pros and cons of changing your habits.
- Consider what your values and life goals are and let these guide your behaviour. How does your food and body scrutiny fit with – or move you closer to – your valued life? What could you achieve if you were to take scrutinizing food and your body, out of the equation?
- Imagine the potential for your future if food preoccupation didn’t play such a crucial part.
- Set realistic, achievable goals to help yourself make change in an achievable way.
- Get support – from those around you, and from professionals if necessary.
When you’ve engaged in this self-reflection and decided to improve your relationship with food, you’ll be ready to look at some practical ways forward, such as keeping a journal to become aware of your eating habits, focusing on regular eating, tackling feared foods and food rules, and challenging the diet mentality! Make sure to remind yourself that you’re making progress against disordered eating. Remember – change is rarely linear, but it is worth it!
To buy the book that this article was based on, click here.
For more information about disordered eating and eating disorders, contact BEAT, the eating disorders charity.