How to Heal a Dysfunctional Relationship with Food

By 
Dr. Sera Lavelle

Dysfunctional Eating: Why Our Mindset Matters

It happens to us all, yet some more than others. We set out to eat healthy, only to go through a breakup or have a bad day, and then we find ourselves binging or doing something that feels destructive in terms of eating. We try and try, but we always feel like we are doing something wrong. We blame ourselves for choosing the wrong diet. At first we’re convinced we should have cut out all carbs instead of just white sugar; then we decide we should have combined Paleo with Intermittent Fasting; followed by thinking maybe we just didn’t have enough willpower to make it work. Soon after, we end up feeling guilty and anxious, and we get so focused on the rules of dieting that we lose sight of why we wanted to get healthy to begin with.


Here’s a hint: none of those things were the problem! Instead, focusing on changing our mindset and restoring balance around eating are the keys to lasting change. And the good news is that it’s not as hard as you think to shift your thinking with the right tools.

Eating Habits: The Impact of Our Parents

Research shows that in the years leading up to starting school, parents and caregivers have a major influence on kids’ behaviors and choices when it comes to food. And for better or worse, the eating habits we develop in childhood can become lifelong behaviors. For example, the worry about making sure picky eaters get all the nutrients they need to grow up can be challenging for everyone. However, pressuring kids to eat healthy foods and denying less nutritious options can actually backfire — kids, in turn, want the less healthy foods that their caregivers have restricted even more. 


As a result, food restrictions can end up encouraging children to eat when they’re not hungry — to scarf down that forbidden cake when they’re already stuffed — which causes problems with self-regulated eating later on.

Additionally, offering less healthy food as a reward also increases a desire for those less nutritious options and prevents kids from developing healthy eating habits. Children love to mimic others, and they learn from observing and modeling the behaviors of the adults around them - and this includes eating habits. Parents who eat more fruits and vegetables are more likely to have kids who eat more fruits and vegetables. Therefore, parents can set a good example by modeling healthy behaviors, like consuming a wide variety of nutrient-dense foods, introducing new foods on a regular basis, and practicing moderation.


It’s also important to highlight that how parents talk about food can also play a part in eating habits and how children view their bodies. However, commenting on a child’s weight can have negative consequences. In a study of more than 500 young women that assessed body image, researchers found that even an occasional remark about weight that was made at a sensitive and formative time, had as much lasting impact as daily parental disparagement. Furthermore, a 2014 study found that comments from family members have a larger impact on children than comments coming from strangers.

How Our Thoughts Around Food Impact Our Behaviors

When was the last time you thought that cheesy potatoes were “bad” or denied yourself a special dessert? Your thoughts about eating define your relationship with food, and a negative mindset can turn that relationship toxic. In the midst of thousands of thoughts every day, many of our ingrained assumptions about eating and food are automatic — so much so that we rarely stop to consider if we’re even telling ourselves the truth.


Food isn’t good or bad, nor should it be a reward or a punishment. A single indulgence — like a doughnut or a handful of salt-and-vinegar french fries — isn’t going to “make you fat” or ruin your health. Instead, enjoying a variety of foods, including your favorites in moderation, is key to building a healthy mindset, as well as long-term healthy habits.


Like kids who have tasty foods restricted, this labeling of food can lead to cravings and bingeing behaviors. 


Emotional eating, defined as eating when you’re upset or anxious or in response to external stimuli, can be another sign of a troubled relationship with food. Although it can be tricky to overcome emotional eating habits, strategies to help shift this behavior include paying attention to your specific triggers (e.g., stress at work, feeling emotionally upset due to a conflict in a close relationship) and noticing what behaviors tend to follow. By bringing more awareness to emotional eating, you can begin to break the cycle. 


How To Break Free From Dysfunctional Thinking About Food


Changing your Thoughts About Food

To break free from the dieting mindset, you’ll want to start thinking differently about food and your eating behaviors. More specifically, learning more and more about nutrition isn’t usually the necessary ingredient that suddenly changes everything. More often than not, it’s a shift in attitude that might be that missing link to lasting change. According to experts, mindset is a major factor in creating and sustaining healthy eating habits. 

It’s also helpful to let go of the hope that temporary quick-fixes and fantastical promises made by fad diets are the answer. Although they may deliver dramatic results in the short term, they are rarely, if ever, sustainable for the long haul. Instead, shifting your mindset involves thinking of lifestyle changes and behaviors as positive contributions to your long-term health. “Nothing is off limits,” says mindset coach Lindsey Bush. “It's okay to have . . . ‘fun’ foods from time to time, but more often I choose to honor my body by fueling it with whole foods that prime me for optimal performance from a physical perspective, mental perspective and hormonal perspective.” It’s also important to be realistic about your goals and to take things slowly. You don’t have to try to change everything at once. Instead, it’s helpful to think about these changes more as a marathon as opposed to a sprint. 


While an exhaustive purge of sugary, unhealthy snacks from your kitchen cupboards might feel good in the moment, it’s typically the small and gradual changes to shift your mindset and develop new behaviors that are more likely to lead to long-term success.

One helpful approach to combat negative thinking is to externalize problematic thoughts for a shift in perspective. For instance, instead of telling yourself that if you eat potato salad, you’ll gain ten pounds, take a moment to change the source of that thought; in other words, that’s your negative mindset talking to you, and it deserves to be challenged. 


So ask yourself: is there any factual basis to that thought? What are the consequences of allowing that thought to dictate behavior? What more constructive and supportive attitude can be adopted instead?

Combating Negative Thinking Around Food

If you find the same thoughts arising again and again, you can try a strategy from Judith Beck’s Cognitive Therapy: Basics and Beyond: write the thought down on an index card, and then use the flip side to record a rational counter-argument. You can even run your own experiments to disprove your negative thinking; for instance, go ahead and have that potato salad, and then see for yourself if you really gain ten pounds as a result. When you can identify negative thinking as it’s happening and counter those thoughts with factual information and alternative perspectives, you’re empowering yourself to combat dysfunctional thoughts and develop a healthier mindset.


Behavioral changes can also help to reinforce a more productive and positive mindset around healthy eating and a healthier body. These changes include finding your own optimal eating patterns based on your specific needs rather than following someone else’s proscriptive plan. You can learn to practice mindfulness while you’re eating, too, by turning off screens, paying attention to the many sensations involved in the experience of eating, and re-learning what it feels like to be satiated and satisfied.


And keep reminding yourself about your true goal: a commitment to a healthier body, to feeling good, and to a long-term healthy and balanced lifestyle - not to the numbers on the scale! What’s simple isn’t always easy, but adjusting your mindset about healthy eating can help you create lasting changes. And if you’re also struggling with an eating disorder, it is absolutely appropriate to reach out to professional therapists and support groups for help.


“I am a firm believer in progress not perfection,” says Bush. “A ‘slip up’ or an overindulgence from time to time is not going to wreck my hard work. I like to think of my daily food choices like deposits into my ‘health’ savings account. Small decisions to eat something healthy versus less healthy counts as a deposit. Those deposits add up over time and will pay dividends.”

Dr. Sera Lavelle is a Licensed Clinical Psychologist at NY Health Hypnosis & Integrative Therapy. To learn more about how mindfulness & hypnotherapy can help you or to make an appointment, please contact us here.

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