#2: You don’t feel guilty after eating.
It’s no secret that there’s no secret to losing weight. It’s commonly known that exercise and nutrition are cornerstones of maintaining a healthy lifestyle. Still, less-than-wholesome weight loss strategies continue to exist, and many people fall prey to them thinking they’re the ticket to slim-down success.
For example, in one U.S. study of 32,440 adults, 24 percent of men and 38 percent of women said they’re trying to lose weight. The most common strategies of the bunch were pretty predictable: Exercising and being more mindful of calories. However, 11 percent of men and 9 percent of women in the study admitted to skipping meals to lose weight, and some also admitted to taking diet pills, water pills, or diuretics. Uh-oh.
Wait … is skipping meals always a bad thing? Unfortunately, it’s not so black-and-white—it depends on “why” and “how often” you’re passing on food. Sometimes you’re genuinely not hungry, and that’s fine (see #5). So how can you tell if your eating habits are normal, safe, and healthy?
“A healthy diet may look different to every individual,” says Philadelphia-based Jenny Friedman, RD, of Nutrition with Jenny. “There are a few signs that I think are pretty consistent when we’re talking healthy relationships with food.”
1. You can cope with stress without turning to food.
If you’re like most Americans, you probably enjoy cake on birthdays, pumpkin pie on Thanksgiving, mac and cheese on the 4th of July, and red velvet cupcakes on Valentine’s Day. Food and celebrations go together like hot chocolate and marshmallows.
This food-equals-celebration link is what makes “emotional eating” so alluring. When you’re feeling down, you might crave the comfort of a Snickers bar or your grandma’s apple pie. These treats are fine occasionally, but using food to deal with stress day after day might be a problem.
Having a healthy relationship with food means you know other coping strategies for stress besides eating, according to Sarah Thacker, LPC, registered and board-certified art therapist. For example, here are five meditation techniques that might help soothe stress—instead of reaching for that box of Oreos.
2. You feel satisfied after eating—not guilty or regretful.
“Eating and eating occasions are such a huge source of pleasure,” says Friedman. “Being able to enjoy these without anxiety or hangups is a sign of a healthy relationship with food.”
Check the way you talk about food after a meal. Do you say things like, “That was so good”? Or are your comments more like, “Ugh, I’m stuffed. I shouldn’t have had that. I’m going to need to run tomorrow.” These comments are (unfortunately) common at the dinner table, and they trick us into linking food with punishment.
If your post-meal emotions are a concern for you, consider keeping a food journal to log your feelings after meals. Look for patterns, such as if the negative emotions are stronger after eating specific foods.
3. You feel present during meals and snacks.
While sitting at the table with friends or family, you should have two things on your mind: How tasty the food is and how great the company is.
“A strained relationship with food means that there is constant stress around eating and/or food fears,” says Gisela Bouvier, MBA, RDN, LDN, owner of Mindfully Intuitive Nutrition. “Many times, food, portions, calories, and restrictions are the primary thoughts that occur to someone who has an unhealthy food relationship.”
4. You feel comfortable eating in front of others.
For starters, there’s nothing inherently wrong with eating alone. “This can be special, meditative, and even therapeutic,” says Friedman. It might even help you eat more mindfully.
But if you *insist* on eating alone, that might say something about your anxiety surrounding food, or it might be “a cover to an issue with food or eating,” says Friedman.
For example, you might fear that others will judge how much or how fast you’re eating, or how “healthy” (or not) your meal is. People with food anxieties tend to worry that everyone is watching them eat—or worse, call them out on it and force them to get help.
5. You listen to hunger cues.
Your hunger cues play a role in two main ways: Eating when you’re hungry, and stopping once you’re full. Some people may let their tummies rumble an hour or three too long to trim their calorie budget—which is a risky game to play with your body.
“People who have a healthy relationship with food trust their bodies to know what’s right for them,” says Stacey Rosenfeld, PhD, psychologist, and certified eating disorders specialist. “They don’t try to outsmart their preferences or cravings.”
On the other end of the hunger scale is, of course, recognizing when you’re full. Stopping before you’re full to save calories, or continuing to eat uncontrollably, are both disordered food behaviors.
Fair warning: An eating disorder can compromise your body’s hunger cues, and your digestive system may malfunction. For example, you may stop feeling hungry, or you might feel full with just a little amount of food. In this case, “not ever feeling hungry” might not be a good defense for eating less.
6. You don’t punish yourself for occasionally “going overboard.”
Okay, so you ignored your fullness cues and had an extra serving of mashed potatoes. This doesn’t automatically signal a negative relationship with food.
If your primary reason for hitting the gym is compensating for your last meal, that might be a problem. There are endless benefits of exercising, but it should never feel like a punishment for eating. Another clue is if you skip social events or even work in order to work out, according to Lauren Muhlheim, PsyD, eating disorder specialist in Los Angeles.
7. You don’t fear foods or food groups.
This one’s tricky. It’s totally fine to not like certain foods, or to choose not to eat something because you feel it has no value to you or upsets your stomach (like if you have an allergy or irritable bowel syndrome). However, if you cut a food out that you actually like because you’re afraid of how “unhealthy” you think it is, that might be concerning.
“Just about everyone has their ‘thing,’ and that’s okay!” says Friedman. Hating olives is one thing, but fearing them because of their fat content signals a problem. “Being open to all types of food is a sign of comfort and peace,” she says.
Speaking of which…
8. You’re comfortable eating out or having others cook for you.
The key is flexibility, says Dr. Rosenfeld. “You can eat various foods in various settings, and when it comes to eating, you’re able to ‘go with the flow.’”
On the other hand, a strained relationship with food might cause anxiety when you’re eating at a different time, at a new restaurant, or in someone else’s home. You might *only* feel comfortable cooking in your own home, knowing you’re in control of what goes on your plate. This signals a rigid need for control and perfection with your diet.
If you find yourself nervously checking the menu before heading to a new restaurant, or even canceling food events because you’re worried about what food will be served, your relationship with food might need some help.
9. You understand that food is just one of many pleasures in your life.
Just like you need ways to cope with stress besides eating, you also need ways to enjoy life besides food. It might seem like thinking about food all the time and wanting to eat signal a *good* food relationship, but the opposite is true.
“One of the biggest signs of having a healthy relationship with food that I see is not thinking about food all the time,” says Dr. Rosenfeld. “For those who engage in disordered eating, food is ‘on the brain’ more frequently and sometimes constantly.” (That’s usually the result of undereating and malnutrition, says Dr. Rosenfeld.)
A sure sign your relationship with food is strained is if you are “so preoccupied with food that you can’t concentrate on school or work or on relationships,” says Dr. Muhlheim. When you’re not eating or feeling hungry, food should be a distant thought while you enjoy other parts of your life.