July 10, 2020

How I Healed my Relationship with Food—& You can Too.


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Closing the car door, I could finally breathe.

I was safe from judgment , but my head was still swimming, and my stomach in knots thinking about what just happened.

“Celeste, will you grab the leftovers?” my mom had pointed to the greasy bagged boxes on the restaurant table.

My heart pounded.

Everyone in town knows me as the “fit girl,” the competitor, and the trainer. It wasn’t enough to bring my own meal in Tupperware to family night out, so that no one would see me eating unprepped, unportioned, and unclean food. Now my family needs me to carry their leftovers. Freakin’ great!

“Sure,” I nodded, with a million thoughts bombarding my mind, holding the bag away from my body like a gym sock that’s been festering since 2009.

“What if someone sees me carrying this bag and thinks I would have eaten here?”

“Oh no, is that the guy from the gym? Dang it! Quick! He needs to know this isn’t my food.”

“Mom, I’m so glad you enjoyed your meal! What was your favorite part? Are you excited to eat those leftovers tomorrow?”

It felt as if I was presenting a case to the “cheesecake factory” jury so they would deem me innocent of “cheating.” Only then could I climb back on my horse, and ride off into my disorder-driven sunset.

It wasn’t until the door closed that I could catch my breath.

It was so clear — my relationship with food was spiraling.

It was impossible to just eat and go about my day. Every food decision was regimented, so faltering from that plan made me guilty of health treason. I had created an emotional prison around food, and what it meant to be healthy. I didn’t know how to escape.

One bite of food required 20 jumping jacks. One meal meant a 20-minute HIIT (high-intensity interval training) workout. Eating more than I allotted myself meant restricting food later to make up the difference. Every morsel I consumed had to be earned to make sure I burned more calories than I ate. That’s how I thought it had to be, which turned into a self-punishment cycle of restricting food only to binge later.

That seems like a lifetime ago now — one of those memories that only comes into focus when you put your attention to it.

Healing my relationship with food was the healthiest thing I’ve ever done, but sometimes, I still get hypersensitive to the dietary comments, judgments, behaviors, and promotions from others. Words like “shouldn’t,” “can’t,” “only on the weekends,” and “off-limits” pierce old wounds.

So many people are living in “food prisons” like I did, and something’s gotta’ give. I’ve walked the path, I bore the same scars, and I’ve committed my life to helping others heal their relationship with food.

That’s why I reached out to other women to see what they’ve been going through when it comes to eating. Here’s what I’ve learned on my journey:

Your worth is not dictated by your eating choices.

Raise your hand if you’ve ever been afraid to eat in public because you were nervous about what other people would think of you? If you raised your hand, you’re not alone.

Not only have I been there myself, but I can think of at least five other people off the top of my head who’ve admitted to feeling the same way. Because this experience has become common, it’s easy to assume that these feelings are normal, and you should be able to just brush them off. It’s not that simple.

When someone intertwines fear or nervousness around what other people think of their eating choices, or believes that they’re more valuable or desirable as a specific shape, they’ve crossed the line into confusing their worth with their body. This is what caused the anxiety to well up within me so fast at the restaurant, and made it hard to shake.

My worth had become wrapped up in my identity as the “fit chick,” so whenever something challenged the perception of who I was (like being seen holding bags of food that weren’t included in my diet ,  let alone allowing myself to eat something that wasn’t in my food plan), it created deep pain and pressure that rippled into other areas of my life.

This anxiety becomes even worse when other people comment on your body or eating habits. Those comments either reinforce or contradict the perception you have of yourself, which can be detrimental—even when those comments are well-meaning.

Emma, a research analyst in the environmental and agricultural space, has struggled with depression and body dysmorphic disorder. When Emma shares her diagnosis with others, they feel compelled to comment on her appearance, not realizing those comments are judgments that Emma has to combat or work through.

“I prioritize my structured training over other things, don’t drink often, and pack up all my meals (not the norm in college or even at my work). I am proud of the balance I have as an athlete. Yet, these lifestyle choices that make me happiest, and align me with my goals, have led to assumptions about my body dysmorphic disorder. 

Whenever I speak about this diagnosis, which came with my obsession with my face, hair, and skin, everyone would just assume I had an eating disorder or a problem with my body because of my ‘uptight’ routines. They comment on my ‘skinny’ and ‘cute’ body without realizing for me it has never actually been about my body.”

Emma uses her lifestyle as a way to focus on what makes her happy, but society is conditioned to believe that individuals pursue fitness solely to change their bodies. Others might speculate that even though she is living her best life and is at peace with her choices, she can’t possibly be living her healthiest life. Relatable?

There are many judgments that people make based on the way someone eats, exercises, and looks. For example, have you ever looked at someone’s body size, and assumed you know why they look that way? Do you assume the smaller framed person has more discipline than the plus-sized person? Have you seen someone eating a salad, and decided they must be trying to lose weight (why else would they willingly eat cut up veggies)? When you’ve seen someone following a dedicated meal plan, and exercise routine, did you automatically assume that they must be healthy?

These assumptions seem harmless, but they create barriers to the acceptance and respect of others. Many of these thoughts come from external conditioning through diet culture. Even associations perpetuated by “anti-diet” culture have led to dangerous, assumption-based judgments of people who struggle with complex mental health-related issues.

People assume that if you follow a diet, have a regular training regimen, or prioritize a fitness-driven lifestyle, you have a “problem.” It’s as though working out, and casting mindfulness over your food choices are synonymous with “anti-body positivity,” yet not having those things is synonymous with being “lazy” or “careless” with your health.

All of these pressures around how you take care of your body, and what you look like creates a lose-lose situation because no matter what road you choose to take, there will always be an external voice telling you that you’re doing it wrong.

That’s why you need to understand the first principle in making peace with your food: eating is simply the way you personally choose to nourish and restore your body.

It has nothing to do with your worth and the level of control you exert in your daily life. This was the first thing I had to shift to develop a healthy relationship with food and get back on the path to valuing myself as a human being without my sense of “enough-ness” being tied to my diet, exercise, or appearance.

Developing healthy conversations around diet and health.

Truthfully, this topic is where I still get the most heated. It’s also where I had to put in the most work: changing the way I spoke about my food, my body, and my health — you might as well have given me a grappling hook at the base of Mt. Everest, patted me on the back, and told me to climb all the way to the top without oxygen, a guide, or practice. That would’ve been easier for me. Changing the conversations I was having about my diet and health, both in my head and with others, felt impossible — until it didn’t.

Once I was able to shift the conversation I was having with myself, I had to learn how to redirect the unhealthy conversations other people wanted to have with me about health and diet. It was exhausting, and felt like starting all over again — like I had fallen off of the mountain on my butt, and now had to climb back to the top with a bruised tailbone.

Statements like these are common weapons you have to dodge on a near-daily basis:

“Aren’t you on a diet?”

“Should you be eating that?”

“Is that allowed?”

“You won’t get what you want eating like that.”

This is diet shaming, it’s pervasive, and it needs to end.

When people would say these things to me, all I could think was, “Seriously? It’s the 21st century, and we’re still having these conversations? I can’t be the only one who is over this.”

And I was right. I wasn’t the only one who was tired of the incessant judgment I faced when I would be vulnerable and open about my choices, beliefs, and thoughts around food.

Kim Hoeltje, a 34-year-old food photographer who is in eating disorder recovery opened up about the comments people would make when she shared the fears she used to have around food.

“I had a big fear of eating restaurant prepared salads, unknown calories, calorie dense dressing, added cheeses, croutons, and nuts. I challenged it. I made it known on social media. I was proud of myself, but I got criticized. “How could you be afraid of a salad?” “How can you be in recovery if you can’t even eat a salad?” “What message does this send to your followers? That salad is scary?”

The recovery world needs more support, less judgment, and less criticism. Eating disorders are complicated and don’t always make sense. Don’t make people feel ashamed for having fears and struggles.”

Kim chose to be brave and share her story, and yet ignorance, stigma, and beliefs around food led others to belittle her. This lack of empathy and compassion isn’t just disturbing — it’s an unhealthy way to communicate.

When you’re speaking with someone about food or their body, you’re often (unknowingly) talking about your perception of that person’s worth. So when you say something critical, you’re telling the other person that they aren’t worthy. You can see it in the subtext of the comments Kim got about her journey in recovery.

>> “What message does this send to your followers?” reads as, “If you have that fear, you don’t deserve your followers.”

>> “How can you be in recovery if you can’t even eat a salad?” reads as, “You’re delusional and clearly have a problem.”

Conversations about diet and health aren’t actually about diet and health — they’re about worthiness and character. That’s what makes these judgment-ridden conversations so destructive. Because no matter how you choose to feed yourself — the quantity you eat, your diet’s structure (or lack thereof) —people will question you. It happens to everyone.

Michelle, a 25-year-old elementary school teacher, talks about her struggles with the never-ending commentary on her eating habits:

“My college roommates always ‘joked’ about how I ate, but it never felt like ‘just a joke’ because they always had something to say about it.

Plus, my family is really bad at it. I focus on the nutrition in the food I eat, and when I measure it out, look at the labels, or even budget my grocery spending around the serving sizes or portions, I get judged for it with rude comments, and they insinuate I have a problem when really, I am just doing my best to be healthy, and care for my body.”

Even three-time Ms. Bikini Olympia and fitness cover model, Ashley Kaltwasser, who is literally idolized for her commitment to her health, has received criticism over the way she eats.

“I think a good indicator of whether you should criticize someone or not is if you wouldn’t walk up to this person in real life, you shouldn’t do it virtually either.”

In her experience,

“If you’re showing the foods you eat, you may get, ‘You eat meat? I thought you were better than that. I am unfollowing.’ If you show a physique update, you may get…She looks better when she was thicker,’ or ‘she needs to eat a cheeseburger.'” 

In one of Ashley’s YouTube videos, she shared her daily food prep and groceries. She was criticized for using canola oil spray to cook her nutrient-dense meal, designed to fuel her workouts, recovery, and mood. Labeling food as good, bad, too much, too little, or too anything can perpetuate the restrictive food beliefs that often worsen distorted eating behaviors, which fuel these negative conversations around food.

By shifting the way I thought about food, I was able to change the conversations going on in my head and in my daily life about diet. What I learned is when I changed the narrative, I changed my perception of myself. That shift created a whole new life to explore — one where I was free, worthy, and whole.

It’s my body, and I’ll eat how I want to.

The next test on my journey came after getting past the conversations I had with myself and others — reinforcing my new boundaries. It was easy to let other people comment on my food choices when I was in constant judgment of myself. But once I graduated, the toxic conversations I routinely had around the way I ate; it was going to take some work to get everyone else on board with my new normal.

This took some work. Family and friends had to wrap their heads around our relationship changing. For them, all of a sudden there were new rules to follow (for something that may not have felt like a big deal), which could make them feel like I was being dramatic. Ouch. When it came to strangers or acquaintances, social norms made it acceptable for them to comment on my health choices, so it often created urgent moments when I had to hold my boundaries.

So when I would make a food decision that someone else didn’t understand, it could go from zero to “back up buddy” really fast. Take 27-year-old waitress, Laura, for example. Her coworkers didn’t take her dietary preferences and sensitivities seriously, so they’d routinely push food on her. Here’s what she had to say about her experience:

“They’d always offer me other food they prepared, ask why I couldn’t have it, and when I politely declined and pulled out my Tupperware, they’d constantly ask me about what I was eating, how much longer I’d be on my ‘diet,’ tell me what I should be eating, ask why I bring my own food, or what I was ‘allowed’ to eat, and so on.

At first, I understood where the questions were coming from, but it started to become frustrating when they repeatedly asked the same questions. It was especially annoying to kindly decline foods they’d try to push on me, especially if it is something I know will not make me personally feel good, like dairy-based products.”

Laura isn’t alone in her experience. Hana Devore, a food and beverage marketing manager with a passion for bodybuilding and fitness, goes through the same thing:

“The type of diet shame that I experience the most seems to come mainly from people who just don’t understand how fitness and bodybuilding work, but want to make assumptions. A lot of it seems to be focused on carbs or sugar , ‘You don’t eat a lot of carbs, right?’

When I tell them I’m able to eat 200+ grams of carbs, they seem shocked and say, ‘It’s because you work out so much. I don’t have the time for that.’ In actuality, it’s because I’ve meticulously reverse dieted multiple times, focused on fixing my hormones for years, I hit my macros consistently, and yes ,  I also make the time to work out. But most people will never understand the whole journey.”

There are two main problems with what Laura and Hana have gone through. In Laura’s case, there’s pressure to eat in a way that disregards her autonomy and health. Food allergies and sensitivities are serious, and pressuring people to eat things that can harm them because it seems silly to someone else can endanger the health and well being of the other person, despite good intentions.

Not too long ago on social media, a movie theatre worker claimed to give women they thought were skinny regular sodas whenever they ordered diet sodas. It seems pretty harmless, right? Wrong. The employee had no way of knowing what the health and nutritional needs were of the women ordering sodas. A regular soda for a Type 1 diabetic (who will often present thin to normal weight) could send them into a diabetic coma, or kill them.

Disrespecting someone’s food choices, whether you agree with them or not, is simply unacceptable (and potentially life-threatening) behavior. That’s why when someone crosses your boundaries when it comes to the way you eat, it’s vital for you to reassert your boundaries as necessary.

Now Hana’s experience is a little different from Laura’s. It depicts how people have been conditioned to believe that certain foods (like carbs) are bad, and to be fit, you must restrict or avoid sugar altogether. In reality, it’s just food. That’s all.

Hana’s choice to build a healthy metabolism, and balance her hormones required her to consistently focus on her exact nutritional intake. There was no void to fill or any signs of disordered eating. She used nutrition science to improve her body’s function, performance, and health so she could achieve her goals in both her life and fitness career.

The big takeaway here is that everyone’s body is different and there needs to be less focus on “how” someone is eating, and more focus on their feelings throughout the process. The conversations over what someone should or should not be doing with their food needs to be relegated to the health professionals. Everyone else can respect your boundaries of only having supportive conversations around your eating choices.

The new food normal.

The final, and arguably most important, step on my journey to healing my relationship with food was realizing that I didn’t have to be part of a social movement for my eating choices to be right for me. It’s so easy to get caught up in the social media campaigns and hashtags other people will use to justify (and impose) their ideology.

When I realized that I could be #bodypositive and #fitspo, I was able to regain control over my relationship with food. Food stopped controlling me and started nourishing me in more ways than I ever allowed it to before.

Identifying yourself as paleo, vegan, keto, carnivore, pescatarian, clean, or anything else gives you a sense of belonging and community, which is awesome. The problem starts when your movement and beliefs for your life turn you against other people, making them wrong for their choices. This leads to asserting moral hierarchies and refusing inclusion. Or if the reasoning to subscribe to those ideologies is not based on your true needs but more off of ill intentions and beliefs toward your body.

Every person has individual needs, desires, and goals, and needs to have a healthy relationship with food. You need to be able to express your own choices without having your freedom to choose infringed upon by the opinions and beliefs of others.

You don’t have to belong to only one community or mindset around eating. Ignore the naysayers who can’t because a healthy relationship with food isn’t meant to be rigid. It’s flexible and can evolve with you. You are free to choose. If you don’t feel that making different food choices is safe or allowed, your relationship with food can suffer.

You can be healthy at any size, and you can pursue health at any size. You can be disciplined, and still know freedom. You can promote self-love and body acceptance while also hitting the gym every day, consciously considering what you eat, and monitoring all variables that factor into your body’s function, feeling, and form.

The path forward.

When I started healing my relationship with food, I thought there would be an end — like I’d get down this rocky treacherous terrain, and at the bottom would be this wide-open, lush valley with a party of people ready to celebrate and do this new life thing with me.

But that’s not how it works. The path forward is never-ending. While food and I are in a completely different place now, if I were to stop doing the work that got us on good terms, I could suffer the consequences of my old ways trying to creep back in (and that’s not what I want). So I have to continue fostering my relationship with food so it can grow and thrive.

Think about it like this: your relationship with food is a partnership. Imagine your food as your partner.

What do you expect from them? You would expect a person who supports you, honors you, and loves you, right? But how are you treating your partner—your food? Are you ashamed of it? Do you hide it when other people are around, and only show it affection when you’re alone? Do you speak poorly about it, or only turn to it when you are feeling emotional? Do you run from it in fear? Do you find yourself fantasizing about other foods or diets, or search out approval of your choices from others?

While you may not be married to your food, you do have a relationship with it, and it’s up to you to set the tone for how that relationship will work.

There are an incalculable amount of approaches to eating, and you have to find the balance that works for you. The one that nourishes your body and respects your individual needs. Food choices are never a reason to judge, disparage, or discredit someone — especially yourself. Listen to, honor, and love your body. You’ll discover the path for your body’s optimal health and function when you focus on your unique journey.

When I committed myself to working on my relationship with food, life has become dramatically different. I stopped confusing my value as a person with the caloric tally that passes my lips. Anxiety stopped taking over when I looked at a bowl of chips and salsa. And I certainly stopped allowing other people to push their food ideology on me. Now, I am free.



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