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A woman indecisively looking in the fridge.

Every day our lives are influenced by our relationships, including those we have with family, significant others, friends, co-workers, and neighbors. While many relationships bring joy and connection, others may feel heavy and toxic.

Even though those groups of relationships may first come to mind, interactions of all types play a role in shaping us into who we are, how we think, and how we feel. One relationship that is important but is often overlooked is the one we have with our food.

Our association with food plays a critical role in our choices, daily habits, and overall well-being. Think about the words that come to mind if you try to describe your eating patterns and nutrition. Do you resonate more with “balance, commitment, and consistency,” or with “frustration, cheating, and embarrassment”?

Recognizing red flags in our eating patterns is the first step in taking action to fix them — and creating a healthier, more sustainable, and more enjoyable relationship with food. Here are seven possible signs that yours might need some realigning.

1. Obsession

At times, it may be hard to tell the difference between being food obsessed and food conscious. Improvements in any area of life take diligence, attention, and arguably some degree of forethought. However, obsession is more of a troubling preoccupation of the mind.

Fixation can easily get out of hand and tread into unhealthy emotional territory, including intense, frequent, and persistent food cravings and even addictive behaviors around food.

Here are some gut-checking questions: Do your friends and family hesitate to bring up the topic of nutrition with you? Have you hurt someone’s feelings by pointing out their unhealthy food choices without being asked? Are there instances in which you were discussing your eating approach that seemed to add tension to a conversation?

When mindful and careful eating habits morph into all-consuming thinking that takes the enjoyment out of life or negatively impacts relationships, it might be time to reevaluate.

2. Social Isolation

Our culture creates a nearly inseparable tie between socializing and food traditions: cake and ice cream at birthday parties, champagne at New Years, popcorn at the movies, and hot dogs at baseball games, to name a few.

Have you ever opted out of a social event due to food-based fears? If so, there are strategies you can use instead to help keep you consistent with healthy eating even in unhealthy food environments. Try having a small meal or enjoying a protein shake before a social event, bringing a dish to share aligned with your nutrition needs, or asking for menu modifications when out to eat.

You can also consider seeking the support and guidance of a nutrition coach to help you healthfully navigate tricky nutrition situations without missing out on the joys and celebrations of your social life.

3. Control

Do you control your food, or does your food control you?

It’s important to be able to differentiate between these dynamics. While self-discipline with your food choices is needed to stay on track with most health goals, you want it to always be a mindful decision you feel good about making instead of feeling like a restrictive food prison.

When it comes to control and food, tracking can be a fine line. While there’s value in tracking your food intermittently (such as when you’re making targeted changes to your nutrition plan), it’s concerning when food logging is done in a numbers-and-grams-obsessed perpetuity. In certain scenarios it can be a helpful tool in the toolbox, but it is not one to be one used for months or years on end.

Additionally, if rigid and unforgiving “food rules” constantly dictate how, when, and how much you eat, it might be time to take back the reins of your eating habits with the help of a professional to better channel your ability to eat intuitively.

4. Punishment

The topic of punishment undoubtedly brings up powerful feelings of fear and shame. And unfortunately, self-punishment and restriction are often associated with most unhealthy food relationships.

If you find yourself purposely skipping meals, limiting yourself from otherwise healthy food choices, or spending hours intensively exercising in an effort to balance out nutritional missteps, you likely are walking through the challenge of self-punishment.

While we all make choices here and there that are not completely consistent with our healthy eating plans, remember that flexibility and wiggle room are a critical part of long-term success. Generally speaking, an 80/20 approach is a balanced one: aim for 80 percent of your meals to be aligned with your nutrition goal, and allow for some stress-free leeway in the remaining 20 percent.

5. Low Self-Worth

As a dietitian, I have met many people who interweave their value as people into the quality of their eating habits. The “I’m a failure” mentality that can stem from a poor food choice (or choices) is a powerful one, but know this: it is a lie.

You are human, and no one is perfect. When it comes to nutrition, your dietitian is not perfect, nor is your doctor, or the super-fit sprinter with the six-pack abs two treadmills down from you. You are not defined by what you do or do not eat.

Realize, however, that your choices do have power to move you toward your goals or away from them. Aim to remind yourself that you deserve to achieve your optimal level of health and to feel like your best self.

Healthy eating is about progress, not perfection. It’s more about honoring your inherent value by providing yourself with nutritious, healthy food than whether or not you’re performing well against your food plan.

6. Secrecy

Do you find yourself making better food choices when you’re with others than when you’re alone? Or do you have certain food habits that you indulge in only in the safety of your solitude? If so, do you keep those not-so-perfect choices made on your own a fiercely guarded secret?

Food secrets can include bingeing at night, lying about what you ate to friends and family, finishing your drive-through fast food before getting home to prevent anyone from finding out, or even hiding used food wrappers in the trash.

Although it might seem intimidating or scary at first, sharing your struggle with a trusted friend or coach can be a game-changer into a more freeing approach. If you don’t have someone you can trust, be intentional about finding a solid, safe support system.

Note: Remember that constant cravings can be a sign of imbalanced internal physiology, such as high cortisol or imbalanced blood sugar. Health and performance lab testing coupled with professional nutrition coaching can help you get to the bottom of metabolic imbalances and support you on the journey to better health — secret-free.

7. Extremism

Extreme shifts in eating patterns are one of the most common signs of an unhealthy relationship with food. And this particular sign can be tricky since it tends to not only have some notable benefits at times, but it also is often more socially accepted.

An immediate, all-in commitment to a balanced diet of unprocessed foods does have several upsides: skyrocketing energy levels, an uplifted mood, favorable body composition changes, and improved metabolic health, to name a few.

However, your mindset going into that type of commitment is the real determinant of how long a new eating pattern will last.

If, for example, your diet constantly pendulum swings from an approach of strained perfection to one of complete and periodic abandon, it’s likely that your mindset heading into these changes is not in the best place. When it comes to healthy eating, there truly is no “on the wagon” and “off the wagon” volley.

If we’re not careful, going into these approaches without a focus on what comes next (i.e., the long-term habit change) can put us on a roller coaster of yo-yo dieting, weight loss, and weight regain. In addition to unwanted weight swings, it can mess with our overall vitality and outlook as well.

Instead, aim to embark confidently, even boldly, on your health and fat-loss journey, and use the all-in approach as a healthy catalyst to better long-term habits. There needs to always be an end date and an after plan with any extreme approach.

Wrapping Up

Every relationship has its ups and downs, and our relationship with food is no different.

It can run us through a gamut of emotions at times in our health journeys. While some of the above attitudes and behaviors can suggest unhealthy associations, use them as an opportunity to seek support, reframe your mindset, and jumpstart deeper changes that will aid your health goals and personal well-being over the course of your lifetime.

Keep the conversation going.

Leave a comment, ask a question, or see what others are talking about in the Life Time Training Facebook group.

samantha-mckinney-life-time-training-registered-dietician
Samantha McKinney, RD, CPT

Samantha McKinney has been a dietitian, trainer and coach for over 10 years. At first, her interests and experience were in a highly clinical setting in the medical field, which ended up laying a strong foundation for understanding metabolism as her true passion evolved: wellness and prevention. She hasn’t looked back since and has had the honor of supporting Life Time’s members and nutrition programs in various roles since 2011.

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