But, when it comes to our diets, we need not only account for the food we need to function and perform everyday, but also our dietary restrictions, our emotional wellbeing, the food we like to eat and our historic relationship with it.
An unhealthy relationship with food is one where food has power over you, and can have health consequences ranging from stress and tiredness in the short term, to a limited capacity to perform and contribute to the risk of developing chronic health issues in the long term.
These are common signs of an unhealthy relationship with food. If you recognise any, we recommend you find someone who can help, whether that’s in the form of a nutrition coach or friend.
The binge-guilt-restrict cycle
Many people undereat, then compensate by binging and go back to undereating after feeling guilty
The binge-guilt-restrict cycle is relatively common in the CrossFit space, says Dr Mike Molloy, founder of M2 Performance Nutrition and nutrition coach to over 40 CrossFit Games athletes, such as Zack George, Tasia Percevecz and Sara Sigmundsdottir.
It involves people eating a lot over a short period of time and feeling guilty about it afterwards, so much so that they restrict their diet hugely in the following days. They start to under-eat because of the guilt they felt, but a handful of days into this they are mentally and physically exhausted because they have lived in a relatively large calorie deficit. So, they start binge-eating again.
“People wake up and they have this guilt and the shame of ‘I did it again, I’m a bad person for doing this, I can’t believe that I’m so weak that I can’t make this happen,’” says Dr Molloy. And so they restrict their diet again. “This is a really a big sign of a poor relationship with food, this guilt, restrict, ultimately leading to binge cycle.”
The first steps towards leaving this cycle is eating more during the week, so you don’t feel the necessity to binge eat on the weekend.
Labelling yourself the same way you label food
There’s no such thing as “bad foods”
An unhealthy relationship with food can come from taking the labels you apply to certain foods and applying them to yourself, says Dr Molloy. “So no longer is the ice cream bad, no longer is the donut bad but I’m a bad person for having eaten that thing,” he says.
Feeling good about what you eat is important. If you feel so bad about eating ice cream that you then either finish the tub to “get it out of your system” or excessively limit your food consumption afterwards will only lead to more stress (and probably more ice cream eating – which isn’t necessarily bad in itself, but can have bad consequences).
Ultimately, you have to understand that food is neither good nor bad, there’s just food and it has different purposes.
There’s food which is more micronutrient-dense, such as fruits and vegetables, and foods that are more macronutrient-dense, like ice cream and doughnuts. Micronutrient-dense food is good for our health and performance, while macronutrient-dense food can be good for our emotional and mental health, as well as help athletes who train a lot consume enough calories day in and day out.
Removing restrictive labels off food means they no longer have psychological power over you and, as such, you have the power to consume them whenever you want, but also know to stop so you stay in alignment with your goals. This is important because, at the end of the day, if you enjoy something, you’re going to want to have it.
Wanting to eat perfect 100% of the time
The food you eat won’t always be perfect
“A lot of times people think that they have to be perfect all of the time to see progress,” says Dr Molloy. “And that applies a lot of unintended pressure to them. They think: ‘I have to be perfect seven days a week and if I’m not, well, screw it, I’ll just go eat whatever I want.’”
Dr Molloy recognises this scenario especially within the CrossFit community, where people can be very demanding of themselves and have very high expectations.
He says that eating well six days a week is already amazing: “That’s about 85% compliance – if you can do that, you’re well on your way to making long term progress, and it’s a sustainable approach as well.”
Knowing you don’t have to eat perfect all of the time will also allow you to navigate situations easily where the food you eat is not 100% under your control, such as eating out or having a family meal.
For many people, saying ‘no’ to certain foods is a challenge but for some, saying ‘yes’ can be equally as hard. A healthier relationship with food can help you navigate this by making you aware you can always make a good decision, even if it’s not perfect.
Intuitive eating – the ultimate goal
Almost everybody should have an end goal of progressing to the intuitive eating stage
Extreme diets can have impressive, quick results, and you might make progress in the short term, but if you can’t follow a diet for more than 30 days, it’ll never work out long-term.
“You have to involve sustainability in your nutritional approach if it’s going to work for more than three months,” says Dr Molloy. “I always say: ‘I don’t really care what your three-month transformation looks like unless I actually get to see what you look like three years after that as well.’
“There’s so many stories out there where people look good, they lost all this weight, and then it all comes back. But nobody posts about that on Instagram. What you never see is the consequences of those relatively extreme nutritional approaches.”
Chose a nutrition approach that allows for more flexibility, so it gives you freedom towards what you eat, doesn’t trigger past or present negative emotions towards food and ensures sustainability.
This is where intuitive eating comes in. Intuitive eating involves eating intuitively (consuming what you want to eat while aligning with your goals) without the necessity of tracking. This is a goal almost every person should aim to progress to, says Dr Molloy.
“There are some people that really love tracking and they can do it for a long period of time,” says Dr Molloy. “But for most of us, the goal is to use a period of tracking to identify how many calories and what kind of macros are in different types of foods, and what works for us. Then to move away from tracking fully for large periods of time, and only come back to it when you have a very specific goal.”
“Moving to intuitive eating, I think, is what 95% of people should do,” says Dr Molloy. “But a lot of people need to go through a phase of education where they do track to identify how many calories are in the food they consume.”
One of the first steps towards intuitive eating and a better relationship with food can be finding help. Help can be a nutrition coach or it can be a friend; find someone that you trust, that understands your issues and can provide accountability.
All content within this article is provided for general information only and should not be treated as a substitute for the medical advice of your own doctor or any other health care professional.
Always consult a dietitian before making big changes to your diet.