Do You Have an Unhealthy Relationship With Food? Here’s How to Tell

Are you a frequent dieter? Do you consistently monitor your weight? Do you generally stay away from junk food — unless you’re sad, stressed, or angry? You might exhibit exceptional health — but your relationship with food could be suffering.

It’s possible to take weight loss too far, but you can also maintain a healthy weight and still struggle with eating and self-esteem. Plenty of people exhibit disordered eating habits without meeting the criteria for an eating disorder — and their health can be at risk, too. Here are the signs your relationship with food could benefit from some much-needed TLC.

1. You eat differently in public than you do at home

Guilt around eating can signal an unhealthy relationship with food.

Do you ever feel guilty for eating what you “shouldn’t”? | iStock.com/monkeybusinessimages

You’re the person at the office who always brings a salad for lunch. Co-workers poke fun at your “rabbit food” as they enjoy their leftover pizza from last night’s greasy dinner, but you shrug off their comments. You know that as soon as you get home, you’re probably going to order a small pizza for yourself and eat the whole thing anyway — and there won’t be anyone around to judge you for it.

There’s a reason you do this — it’s name is guilt. Feeling like you have to hide what you eat isn’t healthy — but there’s something you can do about it. Anne Ricci suggests in her Huffington Post article to snuff out the “shoulds” in your eating life. “I should have eaten a salad instead of pizza” makes you feel guilty for eating pizza. Instead, she says, make it an active choice to change. “Next time I order pizza, I want to have a salad with it, and not eat the whole pizza in one sitting.” You’re allowing yourself to make a conscious choice, instead of feeling guilty about a past choice you can’t change.

2. You measure your exercise in calories

You don't have to burn off every calorie you consume.

Your workout is about more than calories. | iStock.com/Jacob Ammentorp Lund

Any exercise you engage in from day to day depends on what you’ve eaten — or what you plan on eating later. The activities that burn the most calories are at the top of your list. Instead of measuring your workouts by distance or time, you focus only on the amount of calories you burn. If you eat a brownie for dessert, you’re probably going to sweat until you burn off every calorie in that treat. That’s your active lifestyle in a nutshell — and you wouldn’t have it any other way.

Unfortunately, this “calories in, calories out” concept may be causing even more strain between you and your food. According to Authority Nutrition, you really can’t define how healthy or unhealthy a person is based on how many calories they eat. The quality of the calories you consume matters more, and so does the intensity and variety of your fitness routine. Burning off the 300 calories in that brownie doesn’t change the fact that the brownie isn’t nutritious. Working out for 2 hours to “make up for” your cheat meal doesn’t make you any healthier.

3. You’re always dieting

Constant dieting can signal an unhealthy relationship with food.

Dieting isn’t as healthy or effective as you think. | iStock.com/Rawpixel Ltd

You’re always on the lookout for the highest-praised diets on the market. Once one of your diets ends — or fails — it’s not long before a new one begins. You’re on a permanent diet — even though you never seem to end up satisfied with the results. In fact, you can’t even remember the last time you went an extended period of time without following some kind of diet plan.

Repeating a habit, despite evidence that it’s ineffective, could be considered an unhealthy obsession. The dieting mindset as we know it, Dr. Michelle May wrote in The Huffington Post, doesn’t work. Diets are expensive, time-consuming, and rarely produce the long-term results we’re after. Many people who lose weight while dieting gain it back — and then some. Instead of looking at your relationship with food from the outside in, May says, start by changing what’s on the inside first. If you want to love what you eat, you may first need to learn to love the body you’re feeding.

4. Your scale rules your life

Obsessively weighing yourself could mean trouble.

Do you weigh yourself every day? | iStock.com

Every day starts the same way. You wake up, stretch, get out of bed, and immediately check your weight. You could — and sometimes do — step on the scale with your eyes closed. That number is extremely important to you. It not only tells you whether or not you made “good” choices yesterday, but also contributes to your decisions today. Can you eat an extra piece of toast for breakfast this morning? Will you order a salad without chicken for lunch today?

While weighing yourself can be an effective way to lose weight for some, it’s possible to take it to an unhealthy extreme. Your food choices and fitness routines shouldn’t depend on the numbers you see when you step on the scale in the morning. Use it as a tool to track positive progress — but don’t let it influence every decision you make for the rest of the day. You don’t have to toss your scale out the window, but if you feel like you’re obsessing over it, maybe put it on the top shelf of your closet for awhile.

5. You think about food in terms of ‘good’ or ‘bad’

Black-and-white thinking can hurt your relationship with food.

Is butter a carb? That’s bad, right? | iStock.com/lolostock

In your mind, foods are either healthy or they aren’t; good, or bad; allowed, or banned — there’s no middle ground or “cheating” allowed. It’s a good day when you eat only good foods, but a bad one if you let yourself eat too many foods that are off-limits. Even your self-perception (“I was good today because I didn’t eat bad food!”) might depend on whether or not you eat the right food.

This way of thinking hurts much more than it helps. One study published in the Journal of Health Psychology found that black-and-white thinking related to food and eating behaviors likely makes it more challenging to maintain a healthy weight. When you restrict bad foods, punish yourself for eating them, and associate any food with negativity, it becomes almost impossible to enjoy the experience — even when you’re eating healthy. Thinking about food shouldn’t make you miserable — and neither should eating it.

6. You swap high-calorie foods with no/low-calorie substitutes

Restrictive eating could mean you have an unhealthy relationship with food.

Is low-cal always better? | iStock.com/nyul

You consider chewing gum a snack. And whenever you have a choice between a food you love and a lower-calorie not-so-lovable alternative, you always choose the latter. If it has negative calories, you’re down. And you’re always the one listing off endless substitutions to your waiter whenever you order a meal. While these all might seem like health-conscious practices on the surface, it shouldn’t be a consistent struggle.

Are gum and celery really the solution to all your problems? According to TIME, habits like chewing gum before meals — especially in an attempt to lose weight — aren’t always effective. While you might sidestep junk food cravings or avoid a second serving now, it’s likely you’ll end up eating more calories later on to compensate. Chewing on celery when you’d rather swallow potato chips isn’t necessarily going to stop you from eating potato chips. It just might delay the inevitable.

7. You eat your feelings — often

Emotional eating can be controlled.

Are you an emotional eater? | iStock.com

Reaching for ice cream after a stressful day at work is normal — sometimes. But you do this daily, if not multiple times in one day. You eat when you’re sad, when you’re bored, sometimes even when you’re happy. Often, indulging makes you feel better. Most of the time, though, that feeling doesn’t last. You might even wish you could stop handling every problem in your life with food by your side — but you can’t.

If you eat when you’re stressed, angry, bored, sad, or lonely, you’re probably an emotional eater. Mayo Clinic defines emotional eating as using food to soothe or suppress emotions. Too many nights filled with too much comfort food doesn’t improve things much, either — especially if you’re also preoccupied with the way you look. Mindful eating experts encourage emotional eaters to sit and savor every bite, and acknowledge the feelings that come with them. The greater your self-awareness, the better the relationship you can build with the food you eat.

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