Healthy weight loss starts with eating well. But if you’re struggling with body image or desperate to get on a weight loss plateau, it can be easy to veer off into less healthy territory with your eating habits. The signs that you’ve got an unhealthy relationship with food aren’t always easy to spot, says Marjorie Nolan Cohn, RD, owner of MNC Nutrition in Philadelphia, Pennsylvania. But once you identify them, you’re closer to pursuing your weight-loss goals in a healthy and sustainable way.
Here, nine signs that your relationship with food may need a little TLC.
1 You can’t keep your eyes on your own plate.
In a way, it’s normal to notice what others are eating – as a social being you naturally turn to those around you to see how you measure up, says Dr. Katie Ricker, a clinical psychologist and CEO of Structure of the House, a residential weight management facility in Durham, North Carolina. But plate envy isn’t your best relationship with food and may mean you’re looking elsewhere for insight into what you should be eating.” Since everyone has different needs, circumstances and eating rhythms, looking at another person’s plate at one meal often provides unhelpful insight and can lead us to question our decisions unnecessarily,” she explains. By looking at just one meal, you have no idea what the rest of someone else’s day looks like in terms of nutrition or activity.
2 You Live for Your Cheat Day
If you find yourself limiting yourself throughout the week with your sights set on what you’ll eat on your epic ‘cheat day,’ you’re setting yourself up for an unbalanced and unfulfilling relationship with food, says Liz Wyosnick, a registered dietitian based in Seattle, Washington. Feeling deprived throughout the week can also lead to cheat days turning into ‘cheat weekends’ or entire ‘cheat weeks,’ she explains. This can cause you to overeat, slowing down your progress and, in turn, stifling your motivation.
3 You eat to cope with your emotions.
How often do you find yourself saying things like ‘I deserve this’, ‘I need this’ or ‘It’s been a long day’ before eating highly processed food or drinking alcohol? You might attach food to stress relief, says Wyosnick.When you’re stressed, high levels of the hormone cortisol boost your appetite for high-fat, high-sugar foods, and when you eat them, you begin to associate them with comfort, thus starting an endless cycle. If you’re constantly reaching for snacks to deal with (or stifle) overwhelming emotions, you’re likely dealing with a problem that food can never really help you with.
4 You label yourself as ‘good’ or ‘bad’ based on your eating habits.
It’s easy to see food as ‘good’ or ‘bad’ because we see it happening every day in our society. For example, traditional labels for ‘diet’ foods often include words like ‘smart’ and ‘guilt-free,’ while more calorie-dense options are seen as ‘a meal worth cheating on,’ notes Rickel.However, foods are not inherently ‘good’ or ‘bad’ (some just have more calories, more sugar or different ingredients than others). When you begin to measure your worth as a person based on the kinds of foods you ingest, it’s easy for self-worth to tank, says Riker.
5 You Punish Yourself for Not-So-Healthy Eating
When eating junk food or going over your calorie limit causes you to eat less at your next meal, over-exercise, or restrict yourself to only specific ‘clean’ foods for the next few days to ‘make up for it’, this can lead to a dangerous cycle of food guilt, followed by punishing yourself, says Joanna Foley, a registered dietitian in San Diego, California. You also wind up seeing healthy food or fitness as a punishment when those can and should be enjoyable activities (not to mention they’re the ticket to weight loss and a healthy lifestyle in general).
6 You’re taking restriction to the extreme.
It’s one thing to give up sweets because your doctor or nutritionist advised you to in order to prevent diabetes, says Cohen. It’s another to limit your calorie intake to such an extreme that you’re negatively impacting your life (such as the hunger bells ringing 24/7 signaling a nutritional deficiency, adds Richelle). This restriction (and having it negatively impact your life) can be the hallmark of a disordered diet, says the Academy of Nutrition and Dietetics.
7 Your obsession with numbers.
While calorie counting and weighing are common and useful weight loss tools when the check-in becomes constant – and makes you feel highly stressed and anxious around food – this can lead to anorexia, a type of disordered eating caused by an obsession with health.
8 It disrupts your life.
Missed your best friend’s birthday because you were afraid you knew there would be chocolate cake? Did forgetting to keep track of a snack send you into a complete spiral? When your eating habits (or avoiding food altogether) prevent you from enjoying your daily life, it’s a sign of disordered eating, says Cohen.
9 You’re always hungry.
“If you find yourself hungry all the time, you may need to rethink your daily intake,” says Amanda A. Kostro Miller, RD.” While sometimes hunger is due to boredom or habit, excessive hunger is your body’s way of telling you that you need more calories, even if you’re trying to lose weight.”