This week is National Eating Disorders Awareness Week. According to the National Association of Anorexia Nervosa and Related Disorders, at least 30 million people in the United States are dealing with some kind of eating disorder, and rates are particularly high for women.
What’s more, even people whose symptoms don’t fully meet the criteria for a specific eating disorder (such as anorexia nervosa and bulimia nervosa) may struggle with disordered eating, in which your eating habits have a negative impact on your health or other aspects of your life.
Whether or not you’ve dealt with an eating disorder yourself, now can be a positive time to reflect on your relationship with food and consider whether you might want to change up your approach to eating.
If you’re currently struggling with disordered eating or think you may have an eating disorder, it’s important to get help as soon as possible. Contact your doctor for support, and if you’re in a situation where therapy would be helpful, you can find eating disorder specialists in your area on Zencare.
Otherwise, read on for some fresh ideas for how to make food a more positive part of your day-to-day life.
Practice intuitive eating
Intuitive eating might sound like a trend or a fad, but it’s actually all about developing flexible, sustainable, and enjoyable (!) eating habits.
"It can sound very intimidating at first, especially when diet culture constantly tells us our bodies cannot be trusted," says Jessica Foley, a therapist in Boston who works with clients for eating and body image concerns. Unlike a diet mentality, intuitive eating helps us connect back to our body.
The basic idea is that by letting go of specific restrictions on your diet (for example, “no desserts except on holidays”), you’ll learn to tap into your internal sense of what your body actually needs and wants. It's not meant to provide weight loss, but rather, a focus on body acceptance or body neutrality.
Check out our full guide to intuitive eating, or start with these simple steps that you can try on your own:
- Practice positive self-talk: If you’re used to judging your eating habits harshly, experiment with thinking of them in a more positive light. You might try repeating a phrase like, “My body knows what it needs, and I can eat whatever I choose.”
- Eat mindfully: Even if it’s just for one meal (or one snack!) a day, take time when you can to focus fully on the experience of eating. Put away your phone, computer, or any other distractions, and instead pay attention to all the tastes and textures of your food.
- Rethink emotional eating: You might have internalized the idea that emotional eating is bad, but in fact, emotions are closely linked to eating. Acknowledging that can relieve a lot of shame and guilt around food. You don’t want your emotions to rule your relationship with food, but if eating a brownie after a bad day once in a while makes you feel better, that’s okay!
"When we begin to love and care for our body as it is now, and respond to our body’s needs in an intentional way, our body starts to respond more naturally to cues for hunger and fullness," says Foley.
This empowers us to rekindle a relationship with food that allows for sometimes overeating and sometimes underrating, but that's ultimately about respecting our body’s limits and needs.
Consider letting go of counting
These days, counting calories (or Weight Watchers points, or carbs, or...the list goes on!) is easier than ever. Free apps help you set goals and track your progress, and it can be exciting to feel like you’re in control of your eating.
However, a growing body of research suggests that the use of calorie counters and fitness trackers may be associated with developing symptoms of eating disorders. There is potential for an addictive nature to the preoccupations and obsessions with apps like these, says Gina Macdonald, a therapist in Connecticut who specializes in eating disorders. Repeated use can lead to reacting without awareness or mindfulness in an automatic, robotic manner.
She adds that it's dangerous to develop a reliance on these external methods, as they can serve as an avoidance behavior of feelings and inner reality. If used habitually, it's possible to develop a disconnection from inner feelings and sensations – such as hunger and fullness.
Since these apps are relatively new, the research on them is limited, but it’s worth considering whether your app is playing a positive or negative role in your life.
If you’re not sure, ask yourself the following questions:
- Does opening or thinking about your tracking app make you feel any symptoms of anxiety, like a faster pulse or sweaty palms?
- Do you find that you avoid activities that you once enjoyed (like going out with friends) because of concerns over your dietary goals?
- Does the time and energy you spend counting or tracking take away from other activities or relationships that are important to you?
If you answered “yes” to any of these questions, your tracking app may not be serving your needs.
If you’re unsure about how your health might be affected by using your app, try not using the app for a week or two and see what changes; how do you feel physically, emotionally, and socially?
If you’re still not sure at that point, you might try talking to your doctor or a dietician for personalized advice.
Nourish your creativity with cooking
It might sound simple, but cooking for yourself can be a great way to view food more positively. And chances are that you’ll eat more wholesome food in the process.
"Cooking may help some people experience their food more fully, using all five senses to engage with it," says Foley. "This can lead to a more pleasurable experience of meals and sometimes a higher rate of satiety." It can also provide a better sense of connection with the ingredients – like if you’re using locally grown vegetables that you picked from the nearby market, or basil from your garden.
Whether you’re a new cook, an experienced cook who’s stuck in a rut, or just an enthusiastic cook looking for some new challenges, consider the following ideas to refresh your time in the kitchen:
- Hit the books: Your local public library is an amazing source of free cooking inspiration. Most have lots of cookbooks you can check out for weeks at a time, which makes them a perfect way to explore new recipes without spending the money (and storage space!) on buying your own cookbooks.
- Feed your wanderlust: Is there a part of the world you’re itching to travel to? Let your kitchen take you there now! Look up recipes that come from the region you want to visit, and try out the seasonings, techniques, and flavor combinations that make it unique.
- Get ambitious: Whether or not you’re an experienced cook already, tackling a big project can help you get excited about cooking more generally. Want to try making croissants? Ice cream? An entire classic French dinner menu? Go for it! Getting out of your comfort zone can be empowering and give you a way to focus on your food—rather than the calories in it.
Remain patient and compassionate with yourself as you improve your relaitonship with food. After all, says Foley, changing your mindset to reject diet culture and not measure your self-worth and health by size can seem like a monumental task. "But the peace around food and its consumption – as well as the loving relationship with your body – is completely worth it." Bon appetite!