Do you avoid junk food as much as humanly possible, remembering how horrible you felt the last time you gave in, then go on an all-night bender with your chocolate ice cream or potato chips that leaves you hating yourself in the morning? Do you make eyes at the kale in the produce aisle without ever actually taking it home with you for the night?
If your relationship with food sounds like the relationship at the heart of a trashy soap opera, you’re not alone. It’s hard to have a healthy relationship with food rather than going on a cycle of self-denial, bingeing, and self-loathing on the one hand or having vague fantasies about dieting that never materialize on the other.
However, there are steps you can take to make your relationship with food healthy and fulfilling. If you take small steps instead of trying to go cold turkey on “bad” foods, and if you listen to the signals that your body is sending you while you eat, you’ll be well on your way to a healthier lifestyle.
1. Visualize Your Ideal Relationship With Food
Imagine what you’d like your relationship with food to look like. If you genuinely hate the idea of processed foods and want to cut them out of your life, envision the beautiful, all-natural meals you’d like to eat instead of the stuff you’re eating now. If you want to take a more moderate approach, generally incorporating more fruits and vegetables into your diet without cutting the occasional treat, think about healthier versions of the meals you eat now.
The important thing when visualizing your ideal relationship with food is to make sure that it includes a positive element, not just a negative one. Saying “I’m not going to eat any sugar at all” sounds great, but what are you going to eat to fill that void? You will want the occasional sweet treat, and knowing what you’d like to snack on instead of sugar will give you an answer when your sweet tooth kicks in.
Visualizing your ideal relationship with food is also a crucial step if you want to adopt a formal diet like low-fat, low-carb, Mediterranean, or Paleo. If you can’t picture yourself enjoying a lunch that doesn’t involve a sandwich, low-carb probably isn’t the best fit for you.
2. Take Baby Steps
Don’t try to throw out all of your eating habits and replace them, cold turkey, with your new diet. If you go from eating chocolate every night to never touching the stuff, you’re going to break down and binge. Instead, take small steps. Add a serving of vegetables to one meal a day, or cut your dessert size in half.
Once you’re able to consistently manage this habit, try a new one, for instance, by adding another serving of vegetables while cutting out some carbs to make room for them or going without any sugary dessert at all every other day. Taking baby steps will boost your confidence and make you feel like you can get your relationship with food on track.
3. Make Positive Change
Just like you need to have a positive vision for your ideal relationship with food, you need your baby step changes to include a positive element. In other words, don’t just cut the bad stuff; replace it with something good.
If you just swear not to eat candy, you’ll crave candy more. If, instead, you replace candy with a yummy healthy treat like yogurt with fresh berries, you’ll have something to look forward to instead of just something to miss.
4. Indulge Mindfully
It’s okay not to give up your favorite treats entirely even when you’ve reached your goal for your healthy relationship with food. Your ideal relationship with food might involve having pizza, French fries, or chocolate cake as an occasional indulgence, and that’s fine. The trick is to indulge in those treats mindfully rather than scarfing them down quickly without really tasting them.
Put a French fry in your mouth and chew it slowly, savoring the way it tastes on the front and back of your tongue, the way it’s crispy on the outside and soft on the inside between your teeth. Then swallow it and eat another one, just as mindfully.
You can even close your eyes to tune out everything except how good the French fry or bite of pizza tastes. By truly enjoying every bite of the food, you’ll feel more satisfied and be less likely to crave it later, and you’ll have made your indulgence really count instead of blowing your diet for an experience you didn’t even enjoy.
5. Keep Cravings Out Of Sight
If one of your goals for your healthy relationship with food is to cut down on potato chips, you’re sabotaging yourself if you have a pantry full of Lay’s. Once you’ve reached a point where you’ve cut chips down to an occasional indulgence rather than a daily snack, get them out of your house and replace them with a healthier savory snack like pretzels or popcorn.
The same goes for sugary foods, heavily processed foods, or whatever else you’re trying to cut back. If you want to keep some around for the occasional mindful indulgence, put them in a hard-to-reach corner of your kitchen, and use single-serving bags to make sure you don’t overdo it.
When you have to reach for the healthy treats you’ve stocked your pantry with rather than the unhealthy ones that are still at the grocery store, you’ll find yourself getting used to them as your snacks of choice.
6. Know When You’re Hungry And When You’re Full
One of the hallmarks of an unhealthy relationship with food is eating when you’re not hungry. To have a healthy relationship with food, listen to what your body is telling you. Do you want to eat because you’re really hungry, or are you just bored, stressed, or having a craving?
One way to tell the difference between real hunger and a craving is to fantasize about a different kind of food. If you can’t stop thinking about a big, creamy bowl of macaroni and cheese, imagine eating something totally different like a ham sandwich. If that still sounds appetizing, you’re probably hungry and can eat something healthy. If your appetite vanishes, you’re just craving mac and cheese. Wait 20 minutes and it should pass.
On the other end of the spectrum, you should also know when you’re full. Mindful eating helps here as well. It takes 20 minutes for your stomach to signal to your brain that it’s full; a complex interplay of hormones has to go off before you can fully realize that you’ve had enough. Eat slowly and pay attention to how you feel.
Once you’re comfortably full – not stuffed – stop eating. It’s as simple as that. If you aren’t sure whether or not you’re done, wait a few minutes to see how you feel. You can always take a few more bites if you decide you’re still hungry.