How to Build a Healthy Relationship with Food & with your Body
By Staci Gulbin
Me and my body have had a love-hate relationship over the years. I don’t remember a time in the first two decades of my life when I appreciated my body for all that it does for me. It wasn’t until a health scare changed my body’s function and appearance that I started to realize what was truly important.
This journey taught me invaluable lessons in learning to love my body for what it does and not so much how it looks or weighs. It also taught me that food is something that should nourish your body, not reward or punish it. Read below to learn how you too can develop a healthy relationship with food and with your body today.
My Health Journey
As a shy, young girl in high school, I looked up to the “popular” girls on the dance team. Their flowing shiny hair, artificially tanned skin, and tiny waists were what I strived to have because it seemed to make others like them. And as an insecure teen, I wanted so badly for others to like me. After securing a spot on the team with the help of my sister, I felt on top of the world.
But it didn’t take long for me to realize that those group of girls were toxic for me. They talked often about how to restrict foods to lose weight and how to burn and purge calories. It was from them that I learned the foundation of what would become disordered eating behaviors in later years. Because of this, among other reasons, my mother convinced me and my sister to leave the squad.
However, I continued to have experiences that negatively impacted my relationship with my body. I had peers throughout my years of high school comment on my tiny wrists and ask me if I ever ate anything. They would ask me if I was anorexic and tell me I needed to eat more. I had to convince them time and time again that I did eat and had a good appetite, which was the truth. This further made me feel self-conscious about my body and planted the seeds for an unhealthy relationship with food.
Fast forward five years or so when I entered grad school, I went from attending a small, local college with about 15 people per class, to a stadium seating 150-seat classrooms at New York University. This overwhelm threw me into a state of depression and anxiety so deep that I began to punish myself by eating 1000 calories or less each day and exercising at least 3 hours a day. And whenever my roommate was out with her friends or at class, I spent that time purging whatever food I had ingested that day. I felt out of control with my life direction, but I most certainly could control what food went in and out of my body.
It took years to recover from these destructive feelings and behaviors. Ironically enough, I decided to pursue a career in nutrition. At first, this path taught me how vital it was to nourish my body. But after my first job as a dietitian, in a medical weight loss clinic, I soon fell into unhealthy thinking patterns that foods were either “good” or “bad.” I am ashamed to say that I passed this harmful thinking onto my clients at the time.
The Turning Point
In the fall of 2017, I started gaining weight and having trouble sleeping. At first, I just thought it was a result of stress in my job and personal life. But then, once I changed jobs and the stress subsided, the weight gain continued. On a trip home in May 2018, my mom noticed my neck was swollen. I went to the doctor the following week where I was soon diagnosed with a multi-nodular thyroid goiter. The next six months, I started having shortness of breath and in turn had a variety of breathing, heart, and lab tests and imaging done.
On February 22, 2019, I received a phone call that would change my life as I knew it. My primary doctor called me at home and told me they found a mass on the tail of my pancreas. The next seven months would bring multiple MRIs, endoscopies, and other imaging and lab tests. As a result of this testing, my pancreas clinic coordinator told me, “Don’t read the radiologist report. We are positive you just have a benign accessory spleen on your pancreas. You’re fine.”
Those two words would haunt me for a year and a half.
But I wasn’t fine. I was nauseous every morning, had trouble falling asleep, had trouble tolerating a variety of foods like dairy, beans, eggs and corn, for example. Eating was no longer enjoyable to me, but instead was a strenuous task that often ended in abdominal pain. And as I read each radiology report and saw that the radiologists thought this was more than a piece of spleen attached to my pancreas, every doctor I saw dismissed my concerns.
I would tell doctor after doctor about my symptoms and how they were decreasing my quality of life. One after the other would just tell me I:
Needed to cut out dairy
Should exercise more
Would benefit from a diet pill
Could feel better if I saw a “diet doctor”
They made me start to think that this wave of symptoms that was taking over my life was my fault and that I was just “at an age where women have trouble losing weight.” I had gained about 40 pounds over the course of 2 years and no matter how much I tracked my calories or how many steps I logged, I couldn’t lose the weight.
In October 2020, I was suddenly unable to digest any food. I was at the point where all I could tolerate without pain was plain chicken breast, bread, crackers, rice, and bananas. I lost 10 pounds over 8 weeks. And although I wanted to lose weight, this is not how I wanted to do it.
My primary doctor referred me to the Mayo Clinic where a test of my small intestinal aspirate found I had a bad case of small intestinal bacterial overgrowth (SIBO). Two rounds of antibiotics and one round of antimicrobials over two months helped me to be able to eat more foods again and reduced my digestive pain dramatically.
Around the same time as this diagnosis, in March of 2021, a radiologist at my one-year follow-up MRI suggested a test to determine whether the mass on my pancreas contained spleen tissue or not. Lo and behold this test revealed “no trace of splenic tissue in the pancreas mass.” It was decided upon by my doctors that I had a pancreatic neuroendocrine tumor. After two exhausting years of endless tests and being dismissed by doctors and loved ones alike, I am finally starting to receive answers on what has been happening in my body.
Through these trials, even though I have thought about giving up on myself, my body has never given up on me. And having a body that doesn’t digest the typically “healthy” foods like fiber-rich vegetables and fruit or healthy fats like nuts, I now see that there are no foods that are “healthy” for everyone. Those foods your body can tolerate and make you feel well inside and out are those foods that are healthy for you. Healthy eating is not the same for everyone.
How do you build a healthy relationship with your body?
Learning how to love and accept your body regardless of size is no easy task and is not something that happens overnight. It takes a daily commitment of talking nice to your body, taking care of it inside and out, and nourishing it every day. Some things you can do to learn to love your body include:
Speaking affirmations daily: Instead of avoiding the mirror or getting upset with your body when clothes don’t fit or feel right, focus on positive thoughts.
Focus on the parts of your body that you do love.
Thank your body each day for taking you through another day.
Buy clothes that make you feel beautiful no matter what the tag size says.
Tell yourself every day how beautiful and unique you are, because you are beautiful
Increasing your frequency of positive thinking, according to health experts, can actually help improve your health outcomes long-term.
Listening to hunger cues: Your body will tell you it’s hungry by making your stomach grumble, or causing low energy, shakiness, headaches, and trouble focusing. But oftentimes, due to busy schedules or a desire to lose weight, we ignore such cues. You can honor your body’s needs by listening to hunger cues and nourishing your body when it asks for it.
Moving gently each day: You don’t need a boot camp workout every week to keep your body healthy. In fact, research shows that those people who live the longest just move gently and naturally each day. Growing gardens, cooking, cleaning, and strolling through their neighborhoods to visit loved ones each day are ways they help keep their heart strong and stay healthy inside and out.
Dressing to accentuate: Just because a certain fashion is trending, if it doesn’t make you feel comfortable, then don’t wear it. Wear clothes that make you feel comfortable and accentuate the parts of you that you love. Embrace every curve. Wear colors that bring out your eye color or hair color. Start your own trend by dressing to honor your body and feeling your best.
Rest as needed: In a world where working yourself to the bone is often rewarded, you should remember that every body needs to rest. In fact, relaxation techniques such as relaxation breathing, can, according to health experts, help:
Lower blood pressure
Improve digestive health
Increase quality of sleep
Along with improving your relationship with your body is improving your relationship with food. These two concepts are linked because part of taking care of your body is nourishing it in a healthy way.
What can I do to develop a healthier relationship with food?
It’s hard to live in this world without being overwhelmed with messages about diets, cleanses, detoxes, and weight loss. Every day is a battle to fight against such messages so you can enjoy a life of loving your body and enjoying food.
The key to a healthier relationship with food is to start with forgetting everything you ever read on social media, online, and from friends and family.
Start with a clean slate and start educating yourself about food and nutrition. You don’t need to take classes or learn dietitian-level facts. However, you need to stop getting your information from unreliable sources such as:
Weight loss blogs and social media pages that label foods as "good" and "bad"
Too good to be true “cure-all” claims from television and internet sources
Fear-based nutrition messaging from people online that have absolutely no background in nutrition. Examples of this may include: “sugar can kill you.” This is over dramatic, and not supported by adequate science. It’s simply clickbait using fear to make you so afraid of certain foods that you will buy into their supplements, diet products, or programs.
One-sided documentaries that are usually made by “doctors” with no background in nutrition and that use misleading science claims to make their points or sell a product
People you know that have read or watched one or more of the media sources above
Reliable sources of health and nutrition information include:
Registered dietitians and nutritionists that provide evidence-based information. And evidence means research articles that have results confirmed in human studies with large sample sizes.
Doctors that have a background in nutrition that provide evidence-based information
People promoting claims that come from the above sources
The key here is “evidence-based.” If there is no evidence or weak evidence to support a claim, then it is merely an opinion. And you should never make important decisions regarding your health based on subjective opinions.
Once you have become better at figuring out what is reliable and not, then you can start navigating the food aisles in the grocery store and menus at restaurants with an open mind.
The keys to changing your thinking about food include:
Realizing that no food is “bad:” All food has a place in your eating plan. Not all foods are nutrient-dense, but some foods, like cherished family recipes, may provide nourishment to your soul and bring comforting memories. This doesn’t mean that eating your aunt’s famous macaroni and cheese every day is necessarily healthy, but eating it now and then is not going to ruin your health.
Listening to your body’s cues: When you’re hungry, eat. When you’re thirsty, drink. Having a growling stomach or intense cravings for food are not a sign of having willpower but are signs that your body requires nutrition. Diet culture has made the ability to restrict food a badge of honor, when in fact it’s doing nothing but dishonoring your body’s nutrient needs. And when you eat a large serving of food or snacks after restricting for a long time, this is not a sign that you are “bad,” but merely a sign that your body has been deprived and is making up for the time when you deprived it of the nutrients it needs.
Blocking out food shaming: As you are learning to have a healthy relationship with food, there are still going to be others around you stuck in diet culture ways. They may ask you “Why are you eating that?” or they may talk about how they are “being bad” by eating carbohydrate-containing foods. This can make you second-guess yourself about the new relationship you are trying to build with food, but don’t give in. Food freedom and a healthy relationship with food is not an easy thing to attain, but the hard work is worth it.
Stop yourself from engaging in unhealthy talk: This means stop calling foods “good” or “bad,” stop having “cheat” days, stop saying you “deserve” to eat something “unhealthy,” and stop saying you are “eating bad” today. Also, keep in mind that the word “diet” refers to a way of eating, and doesn’t have to relate to a way of losing weight.
If you listen to your body, eat when you’re hungry, and eat a balanced diet of protein, fat, and carbohydrates, you will find that “cravings” eventually go away. You will find that eating can be enjoyable and doesn’t have to induce guilt. Food is supposed to nourish our bodies, not punish our bodies and minds. Talking with an intuitive eating, non-diet dietitian can help you begin this journey to food freedom.
Separating “healthy” from “weight loss:” The messaging surrounding us from day to day tells us that we are not being healthy if we don’t focus on always losing weight. The truth is that all our bodies are different and even if we all consumed the same exact food daily, no one body will be identical in shape, size, or appearance due to genetics, medical status, etc. Therefore, when you make health goals, focus on goals outside of weight loss. Examples of such goals may be:
I want to improve my digestion by eating at least two cups of fiber-rich vegetables daily.
I would like to walk at least 6000 steps each day to improve my exercise endurance.
I hope to reduce my sodium intake to 2000 milligrams daily to help improve my blood pressure numbers.
Notice that these goals are S.M.A.R.T., or are specific, measurable, attainable, relevant, and time-based. This makes it easier to track your progress of accomplishing said goals.
How do I begin to change my relationship with food and my body?
As with any goal in life, it’s important to start just one step at a time. Take one piece of advice at a time and apply it to your daily life, then apply another once you feel ready. It may help to talk with healthcare professionals such as a psychologist or a registered dietitian who specialize in non-diet nutrition to guide you along the way of developing these new ways of thinking and feeling.
All the best to you on your health journey!
About the Author
Staci has been a registered dietitian since 2010 and is also a freelance writer and health editor. She has been a featured expert and writer on websites like Shape and Health, has graduate nutrition degrees from Columbia University, has written two cookbooks, and hopes to find representation to publish a memoir about her health journey one day.