In an ideal world, we would all eat foods that provided just the right amounts of all the right nutrients, savoring the flavors but having the willpower to stop at the point of physical fullness. We would eat for equal parts fuel and enjoyment, viewing food as both pleasure and purpose.|
Here in the real world, our relationships with food can get a bit…messier. There are plenty of extra ingredients thrown in, like weight fluctuations, allergies and sensitivities, tight budgets and tighter schedules. Some focus a little too much on the pleasure part, making reckless choices that tantalize the taste buds but do little else for the rest of the body. Others keep food at a distance and regard it as an enemy, eating only the bare minimum and never allowing themselves to enjoy it.
Falling too close to either end of the spectrum could spell disaster for your healthy living goals, so finding balance is key. When starting a new diet plan, though, it’s not uncommon to find yourself obsessing over details or being too restrictive, leading to eating habits that are not only bad for your well-being, but can develop into dangerous disorders if not handled properly. With a few check-ins and general awareness of eight bad habits, you can determine if your relationship with food needs some fine-tuning.
Red Flag #1: You spend too much time on the scale.
If you weigh yourself multiple times throughout the day in hopes that the numbers will suddenly and miraculously change, it's time to scale back.
"Body weight naturally fluctuates, especially for women, due to fluid shifts throughout their monthly cycle," says nutrition expert Toby Amidor, author of "The Greek Yogurt Kitchen: More Than 130 Delicious, Healthy Recipes for Every Meal of the Day." "There's no need to hop on the scale more than once a day. Instead, choose one day per week to weigh yourself. Measure your weight at the same time each week (I like to do it first thing in the morning) with as few clothes as possible."
And remember: Just because the pounds aren't melting away doesn't mean you're not transforming your body. Explore other ways to measure your progress outside of the scale.
Red Flag #2: You eat for emotional reasons.
Next time you reach for that mid-afternoon bag of chips, ask yourself what's driving that choice. Are you truly hungry, or are you eating for another reason?
"Eating because of emotional feelings—like being upset, sad or depressed—is a sign that you’re not eating for the right reasons," says Amidor. "Instead of eating food for nourishment, you’re munching in order to help soothe your emotional state."
If your emotions tend to stoke up your appetite, look for other, non-food ways to process your feelings, such as talking with a friend, writing in a journal or meditating.
Red Flag #3: You eat out of boredom.
In our fast-paced, multimedia world, we've been conditioned to expect a constant stream of entertainment—and all too often, that comes in the form of food. We're programmed to eat popcorn during movies, to snack on the couch in front of the TV and to nibble on appetizers at social functions, regardless of our true hunger level. This type of mindless eating is a recipe for empty calories and overeating.
Instead of using food as a pastime, look for healthier activities, such as finally reading that novel you've been meaning to open, writing an old-fashioned letter, playing board games with the family or taking a walk around the block.
Red Flag #4: You're constantly thinking about what you'll be eating next.
There's nothing wrong with looking forward to Taco Tuesday, but if thoughts of your next meal become all-consuming, take heed. "If you're obsessing about what you'll be eating next to the point where you can't focus on work, family or other activities, there could be an issue," Lisa Andrews, registered dietitian with Sound Bites Nutrition, warns.
Perhaps you only react this way to certain "trigger foods," whether that's pizza or chocolate cake. "If you feel out of control after eating certain foods and can't stick to a 'normal' or typical serving without going overboard, this may be a sign of an unhealthy relationship," says Andrews. A hankering for an unhealthy food could be a sign that your body needs more of something it’s not getting.
Red Flag #5: You hide food at home or binge eat when you’re alone.
While we've all eaten to the point of discomfort during a big holiday dinner, and sure, there's something to be said for savoring a delicious treat in the comfort of an empty house, there's a fine line between the occasional indulgence and the beginnings of a bigger problem.
Binge eating is now the most common eating disorder in the U.S., affecting more people than anorexia and bulimia combined. If you've noticed a pattern of hiding or binge eating, or both, consult with your doctor for a professional recommendation on curbing the habit.
Red Flag #6: You see foods as "good" or "bad," and punish yourself accordingly.
Yes, an apple is a smarter snack than a cupcake—but if you choose the cupcake and then spend the entire day berating yourself for that indulgence, your outlook on food could be a bit skewed.
"You may have an unhealthy relationship with food if you feel guilty or ashamed when you eat something you're not 'supposed to' eat," says registered dietitian Alissa Rumsey, spokesperson for the Academy of Nutrition and Dietetics. "When you eat a food that you've deemed to be 'bad,' you beat yourself up about it."
Andrews additionally points out that overly restrictive eating can often trigger more binge eating, leading to a cycle of dieting, cheating, repenting and repeating.
If you do slip and eat too much of an unhealthy food, don't dwell on the setback. Instead, remind yourself of the progress you've made, revisit your goals and move forward with no regrets.
Red Flag #7: You don't eat enough.
It's one thing to follow a sensible, calorie-controlled diet, but it's another to deprive your body of the sustenance it needs. If you severely limit your eating and weigh at least 15 percent less than your ideal body weight, you could suffer from anorexia nervosa, a potentially life-threatening eating disorder.
"Food is meant to be enjoyed in moderation, not in excess or as punishment," says Andrews. "If you're restricting your food intake so much that your weight has dipped below a healthy level, it may be time to seek the help of a mental health professional."
Red Flag #8: You exercise obsessively.
We're all for embracing regular exercise and fitness, but if you feel compelled to work out solely as a means of working off what you've eaten, it may be time to reevaluate your motivations.
"After having a meal or a particularly heavy snack, it may seem like you won't feel 'okay' until you burn off every single calorie," says Rumsey. "And if you aren't able to work out, you feel really guilty."
If you compulsively exercise as a means of controlling calories or punishing poor food choices, or if your healthy eating habits have become extreme, you may want to speak with someone who can help.
If you think that you may have an eating disorder, contact the National Eating Disorders Association to learn more about eating and exercise disorders and receive a referral to a health practitioner in your area.