How to have a healthy relationship with food
6 questions to ask yourself about food
Relationships with food can be tricky. But asking a few questions might help you better understand how you feel about this vital part of our lives. Food is complicated – we need it to keep us alive, yet it can cause problems if we consistently make the wrong choices.
1. When I’m feeling [insert emotion here], do I turn to food?
“So many of our associations with food are a learned habit,” explains Catherine Saxelby, Sydney-based dietitian at Foodwatch.com.au. We don’t reach for food because we’re stressed or sad, we reach for it because we’ve taught ourselves to be comforted by it. “People celebrate with food when they feel happy or they can turn to food when they’re angry – but it isn’t because it’s what our body needs, it’s because we’ve trained ourselves to crave it,” says Saxelby. “Some of these associations can go all the way back to childhood. If you were sad and your parent gave you a lolly, you quickly learnt to connect the two,” she says.
Think of your cravings – we reach for coffee in the morning because that’s when we’ve taught ourselves to drink it. We crave wine in the evening because that’s when we’re used to pouring a glass. “Although it’s nice to be able to recognise the emotion that comes with the craving, it’s not essential in order to be able to break the habit,” says Saxelby.
Having a plan is crucial. Choose three or four things you can turn to instead of food when you’re feeling stressed, sad, happy or angry. Stick them to the fridge or pantry as a reminder you’ll see when you reach for a snack. Try going for a walk, picking up a crossword puzzle, watering the garden, knitting, emailing a friend or doing some chores. It will take time, but soon enough you’ll break the association and the cravings won’t be as strong.
2. Is food always on my mind?
"I love food, but I don't let it distract me from life," says Saxelby. “There has to be other things to punctuate your day that bring you as much excitement,” she says. That might be reading a book, painting a picture, going for a walk, helping at your child’s school or working on a project. “It’s important to find something meaningful that you can plan your day around. Food is important, but for the most part it shouldn’t be the highlight of our day,” she says. Unless of course you’ve got a special occasion or a fancy dinner out, in which case, enjoy it!
3. Do I eat mostly fresh, wholesome foods?
If your diet is littered with snacks, you might want to think about how you can replace them with fresh, whole foods. “‘Discretionary foods’ – think chips and chocolate, lollies and packaged snacks – don’t have the quality nutrition your body needs to function,” explains Saxelby. “Instead, they’re full of kilojoules, they’re easy to eat more of, and they’re small – so you eat more. You’d have to eat a lot of carrots to get the same amount of energy (kilojoules) that’s in a pre-packaged snack,” she says. That’s why replacing these snacks with fresh foods – chopped up carrots, apple slices, mangoes, red capsicum – is a much better way to fuel your body. Not only will you consume less kilojoules, but you’ll also provide your body with the minerals, vitamins, fibre and protein it needs.
4. When I eat, am I really hungry?
Many of us reach for food when we’re not hungry. Often it’s because we’re bored or tired or we just eat it because it’s there. Remember that food is a source of fuel; if you don’t feel hungry your body probably doesn’t need it. A good way to determine your hunger is to keep a hunger/fullness log. “This helps you keep track of when you’re hungry and when you’re full,” says Saxelby. “Everyone is different and their hunger will be more intense at certain times of day,” she says.
5. Am I a late night snacker?
From a SmartPoints point of view, there’s no difference between eating at 6pm or 10pm. Yet, eating at night can set you up for a bad start to the next day. “One of the biggest problems is that you’re not as hungry the next morning,” says Saxelby. This means you might eat a small breakfast or skip it altogether causing you to eat an unplanned snack before lunchtime. This in turn can fill you up so you’re not hungry for lunch, but then you’re hungry before dinner – which throws your whole day out! This may all lead back to the fact you ate too late the night before. Try having a cup of tea or going to bed earlier so you can bypass the late-night hunger entirely.
6. Am I able to ignore my hunger, just for a bit?
“Food is everywhere – movies, petrol stations, vending machines, cafes and food courts – we can’t avoid it all the time and it’s often cheap and served in large portions,” says Saxelby. So it comes as no surprise that we’re obsessed with food and many of us are overweight. Instead of running to feed ourselves when we feel a pang of hunger, it’s okay to sit with that feeling for a while.
“The expression, ‘the best sauce in the world is hungry’ is so true! There’s nothing more delicious than a meal that is needed because of true hunger,” says Saxelby. Of course, you don’t want to push it so that you’re starving and overeat – it’s about finding the balance between being hungry and famished. “Sometimes it’s okay to ignore those first signs of hunger for an hour until you’re close to meal time,” says Saxelby. “Distract yourself with work or another non-food activity until you start to feel hungry enough to enjoy your next meal,” she says.