Talk Yourself Into Healthy Eating Habits
For a better relationship with food, change the conversation in your head. Your new script awaits.
Self-talk. It’s a skill successful athletes and entrepreneurs rely on to overcome doubt and inject big-goal energy into their most challenging moments. Many use it to boost performance during day-to-day work or workouts. But few people rely on their inner dialogue to power a healthy relationship with food — and thus themselves.
You see, even if you practice positive self-talk in other areas of your life, it’s very possible that you’ve fallen into the trap of categorizing food as “good” or “bad” — and that you beat yourself up whenever you eat the latter. “Most of us are conditioned from childhood to look at food through a narrow, judgmental lens,” says Kelly Newsome Georges, a self-care coach and the founder of the wellness brand Ritual Care.
If you were told broccoli would make you big and strong, it’s no wonder vegetables make the nice list. But if your parents never let you have “junk food,” or worse, associated it with weight gain, you’ve probably developed quite the naughty list. The adage “You are what you eat” only adds fuel to the fire, says Newsome Georges, as you can start to internalize that you’re good if you eat good food and bad if you eat anything else.
“Most of us are conditioned from childhood to look at food through a narrow, judgmental lens.”
Kelly Newsome Georges
The problem here, aside from potentially becoming obsessive and/or restrictive with what you’ll eat and what you won’t (another story for another day), is that the language you use around food can have lasting impacts on your self-image and self-worth, says Alanna Gardner, a licensed marriage and family therapist in Philadelphia. If you tell yourself you’re weak for eating a second slice of birthday cake or that you need to hit the gym to “burn off” the burrito you had for lunch, you’re essentially attaching your value to your dietary choices and punishing yourself for making “bad” ones, adds Newsome Georges.
That mindset only breeds shame and makes you feel less empowered, which can make it harder for you to stick to your wellness goals, nutrition or otherwise. (Plus, the eat-then-exercise myth doesn’t work like that.) You might also feel less confident and more like a failure, which can have a negative effect on every facet of your life.
Sounds like something you’d rather avoid? We thought so. These tips can help you check that conversation in your head and steer it in the right direction, so you can eat well and treat yourself even better.
01. Rethink “good” versus “bad.”
Instead of labeling whole, nutrient-dense foods as good and sweets or salty snacks as bad, consider the benefits that every food offers. For example, a brownie tastes really good, while blueberries taste really good and provide vitamins, minerals and antioxidants. Now you’re thinking in positive terms (call it “good” versus “better,” if that helps), which allows you to enjoy the occasional indulgence rather than beat yourself up for it, says Gardner. It also naturally steers you toward the healthier option more frequently because its advantages are all laid out in your mind.
02. Don't compare.
When your partner starts eating more greens and you worry that you’re not eating enough veggies, or your friend posts a photo of something tasty on social media and you think, “Why can’t I be more like her and eat whatever I want?” remind yourself that you’re on a unique wellness journey, says Gardner. Otherwise, you risk a self-bashing spiral even when you’re making actual progress in your eating habits. And you’ll likely lose some of the joy you feel when you’re eating exactly what you want, be it a protein shake or bowl of ice cream, she says.
03. Find just one good thing.
When looking at your meal, instead of telling yourself, “This has so many calories” or “I shouldn’t be eating this,” try to find one upside, says Newsome Georges. Let’s say you’re in a hurry and eating cereal for breakfast instead of steel-cut oatmeal. Rather than thinking, “Nothing says ‘lazy’ like resorting to processed cereal,” retrain yourself to focus on the berries and bananas you threw on top and say, “I’m practicing balance in my food choices.” If you’re not adding fruit, focus on gratitude for having food to eat or for how food connects you with the people who helped make it possible, suggests Newsome Georges. This mentality can help you work toward a positive self-talk default, plus it encourages you to make more and more healthy choices, she says.
04. Create some space.
In a study published in “Clinical Psychological Science,” people made healthier food decisions when they spoke to themselves in the third-person, or what experts call “distanced self-talk.” The theory? The psychological distance can help you focus on how a particular food aligns (or misaligns) with your greater goals, making it easier to pass on a cupcake if that’s not part of your eating plan. So whenever you’re having trouble navigating your internal conversation around food, try simply stating your name (silently) along with your intention, like this: “___ eats meals that nourish and energize him/her/them.”
You can create even more needed space by being compassionately curious about your self-talk, says Gardner. When you think, “I ate like crap today,” question it. Take inventory of what you ate, and you’ll likely see that you actually managed to get all your veggies in or didn’t overdo it on bread at dinner. And if you did eat worse than you intended, simply use that knowledge as motivation to eat better tomorrow, she says.
The coolest part about self-talk is that you have total control over it. Start refining yours little by little, and you can break the negative script you learned as a kid…and hopefully, one day, change it for the next generation.
Words: Brooke Slade
Illustration: Jon Krause