How to Build a Healthy Relationship With Food
In a culture that’s obsessed with thinness — and a sport that tends to idealise leanness — it can be hard to know what a healthy relationship with food even looks like. There’s no shortage of self-proclaimed “wellness experts” touting habits like intermittent fasting, clean eating, and macro counting, as the keys to health (read: weight loss). And while these methods may work for certain individuals under specific circumstances, for most of us, especially runners, they’re often unsustainable and unhealthy.
While these behaviours are generally considered normal and even admirable, it’s a “slippery slope” toward disordered eating at best, and an eating disorder at worst, says Jill Merkel, a registered dietitian specialising in sports nutrition and disordered eating. According to the National Eating Disorder Association, 35 percent of dieters will become pathological dieters, and of those, up to a quarter develop an eating disorder.
So what’s a runner to do? We talked to experts to find out what it means to have a healthy relationship with food, why it matters, and how to get there.
What does it mean to have a healthy relationship with food?
A healthy relationship with food is one where you base your food choices not on rules, restrictions, or how you want to look, but instead on how you want to feel. That means eating enough to satisfy your hunger cues and fuel your training, choosing the types of food that support your overall health and wellness, and feeling free to eat in social situations — even if you’re not necessarily hungry.
Honouring your hunger cues is key, says Stephanie Roth-Goldberg, a psychotherapist whose specialities include sports psychology and eating disorder recovery. At the same time, there are plenty of times where it makes sense to eat even when you’re not hungry.
Fueling for performance means eating before, after, and sometimes during long and/or intense workouts, regardless of hunger. And regardless of your training volume or intensity, there are times your schedule should take precedence over your appetite. If, for example, your job requires you to work through a meal, taking care of your health means eating before your shift begins, regardless of whether you’re hungry at that time, says Roth-Goldberg.
It’s also important to eat in a way that supports your overall health. What that looks like is different for each of us, but Roth-Goldberg suggests focusing not on the scale but on factors like your sleep quality and energy levels, and metrics such as blood pressure, blood sugar, and cholesterol levels.
At the same time, one of the keys to mending (or maintaining) your relationship with food is giving yourself permission to fully enjoy it. You don’t have to be hungry to enjoy your aunt’s Christmas cookies, your grandmother’s latkes, or a slice of birthday cake among friends — and you don’t have to work out to “make up for them,” either.
Meanwhile, “it’s been proven that socialising is really important for mental health,” Roth-Goldberg explains. “So having the freedom and flexibility to say yes to an invite to a dinner party or brunch with your friends supports health in a more global way.”
Why should runners care about developing a healthy relationship with food?
A healthy relationship with food makes life more enjoyable, full stop. “When food isn’t a stressor, we can be present with our friends and family,” says Roth-Goldberg. In addition to creating stress around social activities involving food (as in, practically every gathering), fixating on food often means underfueling — which can seriously interfere with your running and your mental and physical health.
Underfueling puts you at risk for performance issues, including difficulty completing workouts, going into workouts feeling sluggish, post-workout soreness that lingers longer than usual, and experiencing a plateau or even a backslide in performance, says Merkel.
But it’s not just your running that suffers, says Merkel. Underfueling can mess with your hormones, resulting in issues like sleep disturbances, injuries, and illness. For women, an irregular period or the loss of your period is often a sign that you’re not getting the calories you need to support your training.
Strategies for Making Food Less Stressful
If you love the idea of making peace with food but aren’t sure how to get there, here are some pro tips to get you started. Keep in mind, if you suspect you have a disordered relationship with food or an eating disorder, it’s important to seek treatment. A registered dietitian and/or psychologist can help you address any struggles you experience.
1. Evaluate Your Current Relationship With Food
Before you start changing things up, take stock of your current situation, suggests Merkel. That means taking an honest look at how often you think about food, how much time you spend thinking about or preparing food, and noticing whether food brings you joy or whether you associate it with stress, anxiety, guilt, or shame.
If you find your thoughts about food take over a lot of your headspace and interfere with work or your happiness, it may signal that it’s time to re-evaluate your relationship with food, and a professional can help.
It’s also worth looking at how often you weigh yourself and whether that number affects your mood or your eating habits, says Merkel.
If the time and energy you spend trying to manage your food and weight are interfering with your mental health or your quality of life, it may be time to take a new approach. And if you do decide to change things up, if you’re tempted to return to the status quo, this “status report” will serve as a helpful reminder of why your old habits weren’t working for you.
2. Be Your Own Guinea Pig
If you’ve been focusing on weight loss to optimize your fitness, try taking a scientific approach, suggests Roth-Goldberg. That means paying more attention to how you feel during your workouts and less attention to the number on the scale.
For example, if you typically run on an empty stomach, try having breakfast or a pre-workout snack, and see what it does for your performance.
Roth suggests looking at energy levels, heart rate, and/or speed, to see how those metrics compare to your fasted workouts. You might be surprised to see how much adding some pre-workout nutrition or adding more carbohydrates into your diet throughout the day improves your performance.
Regardless, it’s a good idea to base your fueling strategy on current data rather than assumptions.
3. Tune into Your Self- Talk
“A lot of times, we’re not conscious of how we’re talking to ourselves,” says Roth-Goldberg. To get more familiar with your inner dialogue, she suggests writing your thoughts down in a journal so you can look at them — and then challenge them if you need to.
“Ask yourself, ‘would I say that to a friend? Is that, in fact, a helpful, motivating thought?’” If the answer is no, find a way to reframe the thought so it’s still true, but also kind (or at the very least, not mean).
For example, you could substitute “I ate a sleeve of Oreos because I have no self-control” with a non-judgmental thought like “I ate a sleeve of Oreos because I was craving something sweet,” or “I ate a sleeve of Oreos and now I feel bloated and tired.”
4. Go into Social Situations With Intention
If restaurants, parties, and other situations where you’re not in control of the menu stress you out, try setting an intention before your next social gathering.
Especially as we enter the holiday season — and all the parties, gatherings, gift baskets, and treats that tend to come with it—try focusing on what you want to experience at your next gathering, rather than the calories you’re going to consume. “Check if any stories you’re telling yourself about food align with that,” Roth-Goldberg says.
If your intention is to enjoy the holiday, ask yourself what that means to you. “Food is so often a part of that,” says Roth-Goldberg. And often, enjoying the holiday means allowing yourself to enjoy food.
If your goal is to connect with and enjoy time your friends and family, but the noise in your head about calories is interfering with your ability to be fully present, coming back to your intention can help you redirect your attention on the present moment rather than your food anxiety.
5. Declutter Your Social Media Feed
If you’re following accounts that feature fitness or weight loss tips, take a hard look at how that content makes you feel, suggests Merkel. If it motivates you to get out and move your body in a way that feels good, or to try a new recipe that looks interesting, great. But if it’s not sparking joy — as in you feel anxious, “less than,” frustrated, jealous, or any other un-fun emotion — it’s time to do some tidying. Go ahead and hit the “unfollow” button.
You can also seek out accounts that inspire you without making you feel icky. Merkel suggests looking for profiles that include words like intuitive eating and health at every size. Other keywords to look for include body neutrality, non-diet, and joyful movement.
6. Ask for Help
If food were just fuel, this whole thing would be easy. But food represents comfort, connection, and so much more. And to make matters even more complicated, we’ve been exposed to conflicting (and often harmful) messages about food our whole lives. Which is all to say, if you’re struggling with your relationship with food, there’s no shame in asking for help.
Working with a trained therapist, dietitian, or intuitive eating counsellor means having someone in your corner who has the knowledge and skills to ask the right questions and offer accurate information and individualized support. If you’ve ever worked with a running coach, you probably already know what a difference professional guidance can make.
When you’re searching for the right professional, be on the lookout for certain credentials, says Merkel. “You want to make sure you’re not going to see somebody who is actually reinforcing diet culture behaviour,” she explains. Look for someone whose bio mentions experience with disordered eating, eating disorders, or exercise obsession and who is aligned with intuitive eating, health at every size (or HAES), or body neutrality and takes a weight-neutral approach to health and fitness.
And remember that you’re worthy of help — even if you don’t meet the criteria for a clinical eating disorder. “You don’t need a specific diagnosis in order to seek help,” says Merkel. Because at the end of the day, as Roth-Goldberg reminds us, “A healthy relationship with food enables us to have a healthy relationship with our bodies.”