How to Have a Healthy Relationship With Food


People with diabetes have a notoriously complex relationship with food. Food and nutrition are a cornerstone of a healthy life with diabetes, and balancing it with insulin intake, exercise, sleep, and stress management can be a lot to handle. This article will outline strategies that you can implement to cultivate a healthier relationship with food. Warning: this article may contain triggers for people who struggle with disordered eating and/or body dysmorphia.

Having a healthy relationship with food takes time and is sometimes difficult to achieve for some people, especially if you live with diabetes. Studies show that people with diabetes are more than twice as likely to have an eating disorder.

The most common eating disorders are anorexia nervosa, bulimia, and binge-eating disorder, but people with diabetes may also suffer a unique disorder to their condition: diabulimia, where one withholds insulin (and eats as per usual), letting blood sugar levels skyrocket in order to lose weight rapidly.

Combine diabetes with any of these eating disorders is a recipe for disaster, and can quickly lead to serious complications and even death. So, how can you develop a healthy relationship with food, when so much of diabetes involves counting, tracking, measuring, and constantly thinking about everything we put into our mouths?

Learn to Follow Hunger Cues

Diabetes can warp one’s thinking about food. Often, people with diabetes respond more to their blood sugar levels than their hunger pangs. One will always eat when they’re low, for example, but if their blood sugar is high but they’re hungry, they will often wait until glucose reaches more normal levels before eating. This can be healthy from a blood sugar and HbA1c point of view but does not help establish a healthy relationship with food.

If your blood sugars are well-managed, learn to follow hunger cues in addition to blood sugar needs. Eat when you’re hungry and stop when you’re nearly full. It can be helpful to eat lower carbohydrate foods if you’re hungry but your blood sugar is high, but don’t punish yourself by skipping meals altogether.

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Practice Mindful Eating

People tend to multitask and do a million things at once, and in our fast-paced world, that can come to be expected. One thing that you should never multitask, however, is eating. Take the time to put your phone down, close your laptop, step away from the television, and really enjoy a meal without distraction. Take the time to smell your food, feel the texture, chew thoroughly, and really taste the flavors.

Practicing mindful eating helps prevent overeating, and the experience will leave you more sated. Slow down and really enjoy your meal. Practicing being in the moment and savoring your food, being thankful, and appreciating all of the work that went into growing, cultivating, and cooking a meal can help form a healthier relationship with food.

There Are No “Good” or “Bad” Foods

Understand that there are no “good” or “bad” foods. No food should be forbidden (unless, of course, you have a serious allergy or celiac disease). Labeling foods as “off-limits” puts them on a pedestal and makes people more likely to binge eat them later on.

At least one study confirmed this; a group of dieters and non-dieters were given a milkshake to drink and then were ushered into private rooms where they could eat an unlimited amount of cookies. Shockingly, non-dieters were much better at regulating their cookie intake and stopped eating when they felt satisfied, while the dieters ate significantly more cookies. Labeling the milkshake “bad”, the dieters felt that since the milkshake already “broke” the rules of their diet, they might as well overeat the cookies.

This is counterproductive, as having a treat every now and again will do nothing to “ruin” a diet, HbA1c, or your diabetes control. Treats and incorporating foods that you enjoy just for the sake of enjoying them are crucial to sound mental health and is a key to a healthy relationship with food.

Make space in your diet to incorporate treats, so you never feel deprived, and never label foods as “good” and “bad”. If you’re recovering from disordered eating, do not forbid entire food groups. For example saying, “I’ll never eat grains again” will make you much more likely to binge eat it and can cause your mental health to go into a tailspin.

Think in Terms of How You Can Nourish Your Body

People caught up in disordered eating often fixate on calories (and sometimes if you live with diabetes, severely restricting carbohydrates). Shift your thinking. Instead, ask yourself, “how can I best nourish my body today?” Make sure to include healthy fats, protein, and carbohydrates into your diet to fuel your activity and life.

Instead of exercising to “burn off” whatever it was that you ate that day, flip the narrative and ask yourself how can you best nourish yourself for the activity and day ahead? It can be helpful to look at specific vitamins and minerals as well.

This can also help incorporate new foods into your diet that you may have traditionally been hesitant to try. For example, if you have some ice cream after dinner, note the fact that it has both calcium and vitamin D in it. Bread, too, often has lots of fiber and thiamine (vitamin B1). See the good in all foods, and focus on the nutrients they provide. This will help heal your relationship with foods and incorporate new foods into your diet.

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Seek Professional Help

Managing a chronic disease that requires constant vigilance in your diet and the foods you consume can be exhausting, but you don’t have to go it alone. Ask your doctor for a referral and enlist help from a registered dietitian or nutritionist, who can help you craft a meal plan that will work for both your diabetes and non-diabetes related goals, and will also be specific to your activity level and lifestyle.

If you’re struggling with disordered eating and think you are developing an eating disorder, get help right away. Seeing a psychologist or diabetes therapist can also be beneficial for those struggling to heal their relationship with food.

Relationships with food, especially while living with diabetes, are personal, complex, and require regular work to keep healthy. By following these strategies, it’s possible to get to a place in which food no longer controls your thoughts, and instead, fuels your overall physical and emotional well-being.

A healthy relationship with food means balancing nutrition with your diabetes needs, not labeling foods as either “good” or “bad”, seeing the value in nutrition beyond calories and carbohydrates, and remembering that food doesn’t have power over you.

Taking the first steps to fix a bad relationship with food can be complicated, but is well worth the effort.

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