Are You Trapped in a Bad Food Relationship?

Illustrations by Michele McCammon

If you’ve ever fretted over what to eat (or felt guilty about what you did eat), you’re not alone. Between ever-changing diet trends (Paleo! Keto! Whole 30! Fasting!), busy schedules, the seductive power of processed foods, and seemingly conflicting nutrition headlines, it can be challenging to eat healthfully. Maya Adam suggests a cure for your frustration: a perspective shift that reframes your relationship with food.

Adam is a clinical assistant professor of pediatrics at Stanford Medicine and the director of health education outreach at the Stanford Center for Health Education. Her mission is to help people become more clear-eyed about their food choices. She says food doesn’t have to bring you down and deplete you like a bad partner your family wishes you’d break up with. Food can support you and bring you joy.

“Just like our relationships with the people we love, if we’re in a healthy relationship where we feel validated, where the person we’re interacting with is good to us, that supports us in everything we do. We go out into the world feeling good about ourselves. When we’re in an abusive relationship with our food, where we find ourselves eating foods that are hurting us and then we come back for more, that has the potential to undermine everything we do and really harm us in the long run.”

If you find yourself struggling to make healthy food choices, try these tips for shifting your perspective and reframing your relationship with food.

Illustration of two phones with a donut and apple displayed.

Vet your food as you would a potential date (and swipe left on the day-old pastries from that meeting).

“If you think about it, the act of eating is a very intimate act. You’re putting food into your mouth and into your body,” Adam says. If you put food to the same test you would apply to a relationship with someone close to you, she says, you’d want to know, “Is this food going to be good for me in the long run? How much do I know about this food? What’s in it? Who made it, and did they have my best interests at heart?”

Essentially, she says, you’re asking if the food you’re about to eat is worthy of you. When you apply that test to the dregs in the office candy bowl or the drive-through burger and fries on the way to soccer practice, those foods may feel less tempting.

Get close to your food.

While sugary, salty processed foods may have their charms, the secret to loving food that’s good for you is getting to know fresh foods better. “The closer you get to your food, the more it will delight you,” Adam says. “If you’re lucky enough to be able to grow something, even herbs, you’re going to have a closer connection to how fresh, pungent, aromatic they are. If you can buy vegetables at a farmers’ market, you’re getting them recently harvested, maybe even from the person who grew them.” When you prepare food for yourself, or when someone prepares it for you, she says, you know what’s in it and that your best interests are being served.

Contrast that with processed food made by an anonymous company, months ago and miles away. “The foods that live on the supermarket shelf for six months without going bad—even the mold doesn’t want to eat those foods!” Adam says. “Are they really good enough for you and me?”

Illustration of a speech bubble with a red heart in the center.

Be kind to yourself.

Research shows, Adam says, that people who practice self-compassion have a healthier food intake. Negative self-talk is counterproductive. Treating yourself with patience and kindness, the way you would a friend, she says, means recognizing that you’re doing the best you can today, and that every meal is another opportunity to make a good choice. So if you ate something you regret, it doesn’t mean your food day is ruined. Don’t write off the rest of the day and go on a junk food jag, vowing to “be good” tomorrow. You’re good now.

Lavish your food with attention.

It’s no wonder, says Adam, if processed foods catch your eye. They’ve got marketing machines behind them. Give fresh foods a chance to wow you. “Stir-fry that broccoli in good quality olive oil with a clove of freshly pressed garlic, then add some sesame seeds and soy sauce or plum sauce. Dress your vegetables up, make them special,” Adam says.

And lest you feel intimidated, she says, there’s no big culinary secret to making fresh food taste good. “Buy the best quality food you can, and prepare it simply. A tomato with olive oil and a piece of fresh mozzarella is a beautiful meal and you haven’t even cooked.”

You do you.

What if you just can’t stay away from Paleo, even though your friends and family don’t approve? “Very restrictive diets are not a sustainable relationship,” Adam says. However, if there’s a way of eating that works for you, great! Whatever the specifics of the plan you choose, she suggests reframing it away from the idea of depriving yourself toward the idea of giving yourself something better.


Charity Ferreira is a contributing editor for Stanford.