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The Teen’s Guide to Ending Your Bad Relationship with Food

By Tomi Akanbi, MS, RD

Does any of this sound familiar?

  •  You think about food all the time.
  • You try to only eat “healthy foods,” and when you cave in and eat a cookie, you feel sad or ashamed.
  • You lost 20 pounds following a strict diet, but gained all the weight back.
  • You’re always trying the latest fad diet.
  • You eat “junk food” in private to avoid judgment from others.
  • You’ve avoided eating with your family or friends because the meal wouldn’t be healthy enough.

If any of this sounds like you, you might have an unhealthy relationship with food. Just like in an unhealthy romantic relationship, a bad relationship with food can make you feel frustrated, isolated, hopeless, or trapped. Unhealthy relationships with food are so common that it might feel normal or even unescapable. But it’s actually deeply damaging to your physical and emotional health.

You don’t have to live your life feeling anxious about eating the right amount of the right food at the right time. It’s time to put aside diets and unrealistic expectations and instead focus on what can happen when you nourish your body with kindness and intention.

Here’s how to begin.

Shift Your Mindset

Think about your own emotions and experiences when it comes to food. How do you feel when you eat?

Many people associate food with stress, shame and guilt. This means that eating around other people may feel like too much. You may decide to not eat out with friends, or to eat dinner separate from your family. Food becomes isolating, and isolation is one of the unhealthiest states we can be in.

But food doesn’t have to be a constant source of stress. At its best, food brings people together, connecting you to your family, culture, community and even the environment.

Shifting how you think about food will probably take time and practice. Take small steps. If your friends are going to McDonalds, maybe you can go with them and eat a small fries instead of a burger. This way you’re being social, but can eat a healthy meal later if that’s what you want. If your family doesn’t cook healthy meals, try making a vegetable dish to share at dinner.

Ditch the Rules and Expectations

It’s time to get rid of strict rules and quick fixes. Give yourself permission to eat. Try not to label foods as good or bad – this feeds into a diet mentality and can lead to anxiety or shame, over-exercising to burn off calories, or skipping meals.

Be realistic about your current situation. Prom is at the end of the month and you still need to lose 20 pounds. You start a juice cleanse. But you’re taking four classes, working a part-time job and trying to have a social life. Slow down. Why do you have to lose 20 pounds? Will your friends treat you differently if you don’t? Let go of the “have to”s and “should”s and figure out what feels best for your body and emotional well-being.

Tune In

Mindful eating is all about tuning into your body and learning to find pleasure and joy in eating. Here’s how to do it:

  1. When you’re eating, be present with your body. Instead of rushing to finish or mindlessly watching TV, concentrate on your food’s smells, tastes and textures.
  2. Pay attention to your fullness cues. Sometimes, I see people who have hit their “goal weight” plan out all their meals, but those meals really won’t be enough. Because they’re following a strict set of rules for eating rather than paying attention to their bodies, they may not even realize that they’re not satisfied until later. Practice paying attention to those feelings of fullness and satisfaction—it might be hard at first, and that’s ok.
  3. Pay attention to your hunger cues. Eat when you’re hungry, even if it’s just a small snack. If you often forget to eat or don’t feel hungry when you think you should, make a schedule. This helps your body get in a rhythm and feel hungry at meal times.

Be Compassionate

Change can be hard, especially if your mindset has been stuck in dietopia for years. Whenever you face a setback, be kind to yourself. Practice self-compassion. What would you say to a friend in the same situation? Hopefully, you’d never call them a slob for eating too much ice cream. Instead, you’d be caring and kind. Give yourself that same encouragement.

Ditching your old mindset about food will take time, energy, and support. If you’re having trouble creating a healthy relationship with food, check in with a therapist and registered dietitian for extra support. If you’re 10-22 years old, you can call (212) 423-3000 to make an appointment for free, comprehensive healthcare at the Mount Sinai Adolescent Health Center. No judgment, no charge.

Tomi Akanbi, MS, RD is the Clinical Nutrition Coordinator at the Mount Sinai Adolescent Health Center. She holds a Master’s degree in Nutrition and Public Health from Columbia University, as well as a BA in Comparative Human Development from the University of Chicago. Tomi is passionate about improving our relationship with food and breaking down the barriers that prevent all New Yorkers from having access to affordable, nutritious food. She understands the challenges of maintaining a healthy lifestyle, but believes that balanced eating, exercise, and overall wellness can be enjoyable and attainable for all.

The Mount Sinai Adolescent Health Center is located in New York City. It provides comprehensive, confidential, judgment free health care at no charge to over 10,000 young people every year. This column is not intended to provide medical advice, professional diagnosis, opinion, treatment or services to you or to any other individual, only general information for education purposes only.

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