5 signs you may have an unhealthy relationship with food - and what to do about it

·Lifestyle Reporter
·6-min read

An unhealthy relationship with food can appear in many different forms and can have a huge effect on your life.

Vital for our wellbeing, the nutrients in food enable the cells in our bodies to perform their functions.

Woman holding an apple and donut. Source: Getty Images
Nutrients in food enable the cells in our bodies to perform their functions. Source: Getty Images

According to NED, approximately one million Australians live with an eating disorder, which is four per cent of the population.

An unhealthy relationship with food can interfere with your day to day emotional, physical and social health, and that is why it’s important to know how to spot the signs.

Stef Jung, a holistic health coach and founder of Discover Food Freedom shares with Yahoo Lifestyle her journey battling an unhealthy relationship to food and how to help yourself, and others.

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"I grew up in a health-conscious and active household with beautiful role models in regard to nutrition, movement and body image," Stef said.

"But in my teens, I developed a very tumultuous relationship to food and my body. What started as an innocent diet turned into a five-plus year struggle with food restriction, obsessive over-exercising, binge eating and bulimia.

"After years of self-loathing and eventually hitting rock bottom, I realised that something needed to change.

"And so I started working with a health coach who herself had struggled with disordered eating, and it was with her help that I began to rebuild a loving relationship with food, body, and myself."

Doughnut inside an office drawer. Photo: Getty Images
There are many different ways in which an unhealthy relationship with food can manifest. Photo: Getty Images

What are the 5 signs you have an unhealthy relationship with food?

Stef notes there are many different ways in which an unhealthy relationship with food can manifest. Here are five red flags to look for:

1. Fixation on nutrition labels and food ingredients

Stef explains that looking at nutrition labels when grocery shopping, mentally counting and tracking calories and feeling unsettled if you don’t know what ingredients or calories are all tell-signs of an unhealthy relationship with food.

"In the Intuitive Eating world, we have a term for this inner food critic that fixates, judges and criticises – Inner Food Police. It’s the voice inside your head that feels the need to control every morsel of food that enters your body and makes you feel guilty when eating ‘too much’ according to things ‘off limit’".

A woman reading the label on a food item while out shopping for groceries in her local supermarket. Photo: Getty Images
Being fixated on food labels could suggest an unhealthy relationship with food. Photo: Getty Images

2. Feelings of frustration, guilt and shame when eating things considered 'off limits'

"Do you have a list of good and bad foods? Do you set self-imposed rules to avoid certain foods but then beat yourself up when you cave? Do you punish yourself for eating something that deviates from your rules? Does one meal that didn’t go according to plan derail you into days of overeating/binge eating?"

Stef explains that this is your Inner Food Police running the show again. 

"This voice makes you feel guilty for the smallest of indiscretions and will make you ruminate over every bite you had. On the flip-side, intuitive eaters will eat something and then promptly move on with their lives."

Girl sit at table with box of chocolates. Photo: Getty Images
'Off-limit' foods can cause feelings of guilt during an unhealthy relationship with food. Photo: Getty Images

3. Feelings of losing control around food, followed by commitment to restrict afterwards

Stef explains that when you deny yourself food you really crave, it increases your likelihood of experiencing a loss of control around that food, or even binge eat. 

"This is a natural response to physical restriction (actually not eating said food) or mental restriction (eating said food but not truly allowing yourself to have it). We often underestimate how powerful mental restriction is. For example, you may be eating chocolate but all the while you are thinking “I really shouldn’t have this.” or “tomorrow I’ll have to make up for it.”

"The simple truth is that your subconscious will remain in a perceived state of food deprivation until you truly give yourself the unconditional permission to eat everything and anything, no strings attached."

Woman standing on scales and holding apple and chocolate hearts. Photo: Getty Images
Feeling a loss of control could be a sign of an unhealthy relationship with food. Photo: Getty Images

4. Spending significant time reading, researching and planning what to eat 

Stef indicates that being invested in your health and caring for what you put in your body is not a bad thing.

However she notes "focusing on the quality of your food intake is only healthy if your relationship with food is healthy."

"If the thought of a spontaneous dinner where you didn’t get to look at the menu ahead of time or other people choosing food for you causes you panic, that’s a sign that your approach to food may be too rigid. Flexibility is key to having a relaxed relationship with food."

Over the shoulder view of a young woman looking at a food menu. Photo: Getty Images
Significant time spent researching the menu before a reservation may also be a red flag. Photo: Getty Images

5. Saying no to social gatherings, fearing you cannot control what foods are available

According to Stef, there can be many reasons why you may try to avoid social gatherings that involve food. 

"Perhaps it makes you self-conscious to eat in front of others, perhaps you feel judged about your food choices or your portion sizes, or perhaps you don’t trust yourself in a setting with lots of food readily available? Maybe it’s a combination of all three."

"Whatever it is, feeling immense stress and anxiety when eating in social settings and the increased isolation that comes with it is a sign of an unhealthy relationship with food. It is a vicious cycle that brings about more guilt, shame and embarrassment."

Woman sitting on dark home corridor floor. Photo: Getty Images
Isolation from social events may be a sign of an unhealthy relationship with food. Photo: Getty Images

Stef says "if you identify with one or multiple of these tell signs, you may want to do some further work on this."

"I always say that if your relationship with food affects any aspect of your life in even the tiniest of ways – be it work, social life, intimate relationships – then you deserve to work on this. It’s not something you can achieve overnight, but it is possible. You can discover food freedom."

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