As someone who once struggled with body dysmorphia and disordered eating, I know firsthand just how invasive a food obsession can be. To everyone who eats a meal and moves on, food is just food. It's necessary for survival and that's all. But for people who have an eating disorder or disordered eating habits (not quite the same thing), food is all-consuming.
With unhealthy eating habits, food dictates your day-to-day actions; it becomes more important than school, work and other obligations. Food, when it's more than food, can hurt your relationship with yourself and others.
As with any health problem, the first step to recovering is identifying the signs. These seven eating, exercise and social habits -- as explained by registered dietitians, a functional nutrition therapist and a licensed psychologist -- can indicate underlying problems with your relationship to food.
Read more: Why you should ditch your diet, and what to do instead
1. Exercising to 'work off' calories
This mindset "sets up a war between your mind and your body," says Lindsay Brancato, a licensed psychologist and psychoanalyst with certifications in eating psychology. "It's a very black-and-white way of thinking about food, exercise and our bodies, and it reflects some toxic nutritional beliefs."
If you think about your workouts in terms of calories burned or foods made up for, ask yourself why says Brancato. "Are you not deserving of food if you haven't exercised? Are you punishing yourself for fat on your body?" she says.
Exercise should feel good, put simply. It's not a punishment. When you exercise as punishment, it can become counterproductive by triggering stress responses in the body, Brancato says, not to mention the emotional implications. The key to overcoming this is checking in with your mind and body every day.
Your energy level and mindset should inform your exercise choices for the day and your choices should come from a place of nourishment, not punishment, explains Brancato.
2. Banning certain foods from the house
I'd venture to guess most people have a certain food they don't keep in the house because they'll devour it all in one sitting. While this doesn't always indicate an unhealthy relationship with food, it certainly can -- especially if you can't ever stop thinking about said food.
This sends the message to your brain that the food is off-limits because you can't be trusted with those foods around, says Brooke Glazer, nutrition consultant for RSP Nutrition.
"This message is disempowering and often motivates people to find external food rules -- often from a diet -- to follow, rather than listen to their body's internal wisdom that knows what and how much to eat," she explains.
The solution is, in fact, keeping the "off-limits" foods inside your home, but Glazer suggests working on this at a slow pace. Rather than stocking up on multiple foods at once, start with just one or two new foods.
Many people feel safer with single serving packages, Glazer notes. If this soothes some anxiety about keeping the foods in your home, buy individually portioned snacks or make pre-portioned servings of food by using baggies or food storage containers.
"All food is allowed and it's important to honor your cravings or they might not go away," Glazer says. "Practice eating one portioned fear food each day. Knowing you're going to have it again tomorrow could prevent you from overeating today."
3. Avoiding social activities because of anxiety around food
This habit lives in the same vein as the one above. Avoiding social activities, such as dinners, birthday parties, family gatherings or even work get-togethers, because of a fear of food definitely indicates a problem, Glazer says.
"You're choosing to stay safe in your food choices rather than spend time with family and friends," she says. "Food is such a big part of relationships and your social lives, so you could end up missing out on so many joys of life."
You can beat the cycle, though.
"Break your food rules and choose to participate in your life by saying yes to [social] plans and eating what's offered," Glazer says. "Your body knows what to do with the food you put into it and you can trust your body."
Consciously choosing to eat a variety of foods can also help, Glazer says. For example, if you want birthday cake, eat it. But perhaps also eat something from the fruit or veggie tray, knowing you nourished both your body and your mind by choosing both.
"It's not worth it to say no to plans and miss out on life, even if it means having a smaller body," she says.
4. Feeling a strong sense of guilt while or after eating, especially after eating 'bad' food
Feeling guilt while eating or shortly after is an example of food having control over you, instead of you being in control of your food choices, says Maureen St. Germain, a functional nutrition therapy practitioner at Educated Wellness.
"This isn't necessarily our fault, though. Many nutrient poor foods are manufactured to be hyper-palatable," she says. "They are loaded with salt, sugar and processed fats and oils which make these foods delicious and addictive."
It's more than okay to enjoy hyper-palatable foods, like desserts, chips and packaged snacks -- telling yourself you can't have them could result in a restrict-binge cycle.
"It's important to acknowledge the extra stress you put on your body by torturing yourself with these guilty feelings," St. Germain says. You're "much better off consciously making the decision to eat these foods, enjoying them and then moving on with our day. Once the stigma of those foods being naughty or bad is removed and you move on, it doesn't quite have the same hold over you," she says.
It's not an easy process to flip that script, but it can be done and you'll eventually be able to enjoy your favorite foods fully.
5. Cutting out entire food groups without a medical reason
People go on diets for many reasons. Sometimes, health issues require people to follow a particular diet, and other times, moral values guide a person's decision to eat a certain way. For instance, people who eat a gluten-free diet may have Celiac disease or gluten intolerance. People who eat a vegan diet may have values related to environmental health and animal welfare. Some people cut out foods simply because they don't feel good after eating them.
But other people cut out foods for no real reason. If you cut out a food group because a magazine or Instagram post told you to do it, or because you've assigned a "bad" label to the food, it could indicate a problem. I can speak from experience on this: I once swore off bread because I grew up thinking that bread would make me gain weight. I don't have any physical aversion to bread (or wheat in general), so my choice was based purely in fear -- and it only made me want bread more.
Instead of choosing foods based on fear of weight gain, choose foods based on how they make you feel. "As a society, we are no longer in touch with how food makes us feel," St. Germain says. "In fact, so many people out there don't feel good but they have felt this way for so long that they believe fatigue, diarrhea, cramps, heartburn or constipation is their 'normal.'"
"If they do go to a doctor, they are given a prescription to 'fix it' when really all they may need is some awareness with regard to how certain foods affect them," she says, adding that food-and-mood journaling is a great way to get in touch with how foods make you feel physically and mentally.
6. Feeling out of control when eating certain foods
People who feel like they can't control themselves around certain foods are often suffering from the moral assignments society has given to food, says Alex Turnbull, registered dietitian with Jetson.
"In today's world, food tends to be labeled as either 'good' or 'bad,'" Turnbull says, which leaves people feeling guilty and shameful when they eat (or even think about eating) some of their favorite foods.
Things get worse when you don't allow yourself to enjoy those foods, Turnbull says. The feeling of restriction builds and builds until you can't take it anymore, and you may wind up overeating the food you've been denying yourself. For people with disordered eating habits, this can turn into a vicious cycle of binge-eating behavior.
There's really only one solution to this bad habit and it's unthinkable for people stuck in the cycle. "Incorporate the foods … on a regular basis," Turnbull says. "When you feel out of control, this may signify that you're restricting yourself a bit too much. By giving yourself permission to enjoy all foods in appropriate amounts, you can decrease or eliminate that dreadful feeling of overwhelm."
When you first decide to fully allow yourself to enjoy these foods, you might overeat. Eventually, though, you'll realize that you don't want the foods as often as you did before. Because you're allowed to have them whenever you want, you won't feel the irresistible urge to eat them all the time.
7. Constantly trying new diets
Hopping from diet to diet may indicate you have a strained relationship with food or your body image.
"You don't have to look far to find the research proving diets simply don't work," Turnbull says. "Often, fad diets are filled with empty promises, are too restrictive and leave you unfulfilled and, most concerning, undernourished."
Many diets eliminate complete food groups or minimize calories to an unrealistic extent that cannot be maintained long term, she says, which eventually leads to eating foods outside of your diet. "Once again, you're left with guilt, a lack in essential nutrients and zero energy to get anything done."
Instead of dieting in the traditional sense of the term, try adopting sustainable healthy eating habits that work for you. This will likely require you to experiment with different foods so you can determine what combination of foods makes you feel good on a regular basis.
"Approach eating with an 'all foods can fit' mindset and make small changes," Turnbull suggests. "Allow yourself to enjoy the foods you love, while making an effort to include the foods that fuel you optimally."
Lastly, she says, "Keep food and nutrition simple. Don't over complicate it, and if you need additional support, ask for help."
The information contained in this article is for educational and informational purposes only and is not intended as health or medical advice. Always consult a physician or other qualified health provider regarding any questions you may have about a medical condition or health objectives.