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  • Writer's pictureMarie Clifton

Breaking Up with Diet Culture and Improving Your Relationship with Food

It may seem strange, but we all have a relationship with food. And no, our relationship status with food is not based on the calorie count or if it’s deemed “healthy”. Rather, it is based on how we view food and how we feel in our body when we eat food. 


This relationship with food begins to develop in our formative years and is often based on what we have heard and seen around us. These messages from society can have a huge impact on the type of relationship we have with food. The information below will identify how society impacts our relationship with food and ways we can strengthen that relationship that doesn’t negatively affect our well-being.


Movies, TV shows, social media, and commercials are just some of the most common sources that push downright false and unhelpful ideas about food and our body shape. Often suggesting there is a one-size-fits-all for how we “should” eat and how we “should” look. This diet phenomenon tells us that it is normal to control our body, using food to help us feel better about ourselves. Essentially, saying that it’s okay to eat less to look thinner and be happier. Not realizing that these messages can ultimately lead us to feel more stressed, anxious, guilty, and ashamed of ourselves. And for some of us, this can lead to distorted eating that can then lead to an eating disorder.


The diet culture in our society promotes appearance and body shape as more important than anything else (rather than our physical, emotional, and overall well-being). Diet culture thrives on labeling foods as “good” and “bad.” This can even lead people to believe that they are defined by what they eat, “I hate myself, I just ate so bad.” Well, I am here to spread the news that food and our body are not the enemy, diet culture is.


Before getting into ways we can improve our relationship with food, I will first share the common signs that lead to a toxic relationship with food. These signs can go easily unnoticed because so much of our society normalizes diet culture behaviors. It will take conscious day-to-day effort to become more aware of these signs and work to improve our relationship with food – this is doable, not perfect. Doable!


Signs to Look Out for:

  • You restrict food (amount and types of foods like “junk” or “high carb”)

  • You count calories

  • You use food to cope (numb, escape, or suppress emotional discomfort)

  • You use food to control your body's appearance

  • You ignore hunger and fullness cues

  • You feel guilty about eating

  • You feel anxious and fearful of what others may be thinking about your food choices

  • You engage in the trending diet fads

  • You use movement to compensate for what you ate to not feel guilty or “bad”

  • You don’t let yourself eat foods you crave

  • You obsess about eating “healthier” or “cleaner” foods


Ways to improve your relationship with food:

  • You work to not let society determine your opinion on food or your body

  • You listen and respond to your hunger and fullness cues with respect

  • You avoid all-or-nothing thinking (food is “good” or “bad”) and work on flexibility (“food is sustenance I need to survive”)

  • You permit yourself to eat foods that taste good

  • You learn to have a neutral view of your body (“The number on the scale does not define my worth”)

  • You learn to have a neutral view of food (“I am not what I eat” and “There are no bad foods”)

  • You don’t limit yourself to the types of foods you eat (unrelated to physical health)

  • You engage in the movement simply for the joy


Working to improve the relationship we have with food can be hard. Especially with the culture we live in. I am in 10 years of recovery from an eating disorder and still find myself being influenced by diet culture. In the beginning and throughout, I needed professional help to see and understand the toxic behaviors I had with food, my body, and movement.


For many of us, the relationship we have with food is very complicated and deep-rooted, which can’t always be changed on our own. Know there is professional help available. A great place to start would be working with a dietitian and/or therapist who specializes in eating disorders. If you relate to many of the signs listed above it doesn't necessarily mean that you have an eating disorder. As I said, our relationship with food can be complex and our relationship with food exists on a spectrum. Because there is no perfect relationship with food. But if you have concerns in your relationship with food, movement, and/or body it is worth looking into with a professional. Our relationship with food will be a lifelong journey. But know that you are worth the effort!


By Marie Clifton, LCSW, LSCSW, CAGCS


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